THE CHAPEL AT RONCHAMP
“Forms under light. Inside and out, above and below… Outside you approach, you see, you are interested, you stop, you appreciate, you walk around, you discover…” These words are Le Corbusier’s. He was speaking of the chapel Notre Dame-du-Haut; more commonly known as Ronchamp, situated on Bourlémont hill between the Vosges and Jura mountains in Eastern France. In 1950 Le Corbusier accepted the commission and the chapel was inaugurated on June 25, 1955.
We know Le Corbusier as one of the most important architects of the twentieth century. One of the pioneers of the Modern movement, his architecture spanned five decades. We know he was interested in providing better living in cities all over the world and was influential in urban planning. We know him as an artist, teacher, philosopher, writer.. In our time Le Corbusier has become a household name. There is not a soul that has not heard of at least one of his architectural concepts. Some that were refined over time and some that remained constant throughout his work. The famous Five Points which helped shape Modernism in the 1920’s, his conception and use of architectural polychromy and the importance of light, architectural promenade, le modulor and it goes.. By now, his prolific body of work has been thoroughly examined, documented, theorized and studied by architects, students and lovers of architecture the world over.
There are many ways to approach telling you a story of Ronchamp. There is the history of the site, well before Corbusier’s building sat atop that hill. There is the story of how the Roman Catholic church chose a self-proclaimed agnostic to build their chapel. There is, of course, the very technical and precise detail that goes with every building this master of architecture put his hands to. They are all of great interest to me for different reasons. Every time I look back at these photos and try to plan the proper execution, the perfect way to explain it all, I can’t. Believe me, I’ve been on this one for a while. The two things that keep swirling around in my mind: true artist and what Le Corbusier called “l'espace indicible” or ineffable space.
Some months ago, we went to the hilltop of Bourlémont, above the village of Ronchamp. We spent two days, and countless hours watching the light shine and retreat inside and out of the small pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame-du-Haut. We had moments alone to contemplate, and I do not mean the building but everything. It is a place of extreme spirituality no matter what your beliefs are. It transcends all tenets of religion. Sure, if you weren’t completely taken over by what your eyes wanted you to see and heart and head wanted you to feel; if you could get past all of that with keen eyes, you would be able to see exactly where almost all of those clearly defined Corbusier concepts were applied to this building. I did not want to get past that. I wanted to understand this place, its spirituality, its sanctuary.
“All modern architecture has a mission to occupy itself with the sun. As you can imagine I use light freely; light for me is the fundamental basis of architecture. I compose with light. I have not experienced the miracle of faith, but I have often known the miracle of ineffable space.” - Le Corbusier
Ineffable by definition means incapable of being expressed in words. Indescribable. Le Corbusier defines ineffable space as "when we are riveted by our senses; we are ravished in our minds…"
We entered from the north side of the building and were immediately overwhelmed by the impact of the south wall. That light! It is all at once strong and weak, powerful and measured, sharp white and colored. It seems to come at you from every angle and at first we found it hard to exact any specific origin. Le Corbusier’s use of light and shadow in this space is powerful. Light is often described as an architectural material; it becomes a significant architectural element when it enters into a dialog with forms the architect creates. It is easy to understand this concept at Ronchamp - there are so many clear examples. To say Corbusier was a master of light is an understatement. This part of the south wall consists mainly of windows composed from fragments of hand-made glass inserted into gaps in the concrete. These openings with wide and varied recesses were placed to capture the most infinitesimal rays of sun at any time of day. Their positioning (at times polychromatic) and arrangement allow for consistent natural light, giving the space an unparalleled sense of energy. You will absolutely notice the razor-sharp line illuminating the space between roof and wall. It is striking. The double concrete layered roof is not supported by the walls. It is instead held up by concrete columns placed at regular intervals within the walls creating an unexpected airiness. The large square door is the processional door used for large pilgrimages or very special occasions. Giving the light space on either side, it seems to glow. The sun’s rays pouring in through the window at the main altar are extreme, while the holes in the masonry around it look like small bright spots.
Maybe even twinkling stars..
Though it would have made sense in a very traditional, even historic way, stained glass was not even considered for this chapel. How could it be? True artist.. Corbusier used colorless glass to allow a bright, almost white, natural light to penetrate the space. This also allowed a relationship with the nature surrounding. No surprise here, one of his noted incorporations. Trees, sky, clouds.. All in clear view through the places in the glass he left without color. A lovely opposite to the almost primary blue, green, yellow and red hand painted bits the sun’s rays are diffused through. Again and again this piece of architecture reminds you of Le Corbusier’s use of materials and application not as an architect, but as an artist, A painter, a sculptor. The glass he combed using mineral oxides, almost like enameling. 'He scratched, rubbed and played with paint runs.' He also wrote. A few scattered symbols, a few written words in praise of the Virgin Mother, using a black brush.
I think that it is fairly safe to say that walking around the exterior, we were in complete awe of the roof. Yes it is iconic and in every photo of Ronchamp that you see, but to actually stand underneath its volume you notice two things right off. This is raw concrete and it looks like it is billowing in the wind. There is a stark contrast between the skewed walls rendered in white and the dark béton brut roof. The roof and walls diverge. It is here that Corbusier refined his béton brut technique to perfection. These construction techniques; voluminous béton brut roof, skewed reinforced concrete walls rendered in the most extreme white, allowed him to introduce his language of plasticity.
I always admit when I am wrong. Especially when I’ve never been more sure of a thing as I was of this. I remember my exact thoughts on the matter and pretty much the words I said out loud on the topic of the roof. I said: “Definitely. It’s definitely either reminiscent of a ship or a plane. No, it’s a ship. Corbusier loves ships! Depending on how you look at it. See? That part looks like a ship’s prow and if you look this way, the hull.” I said that. Out loud. I was wrong. So, I have decided to let the architect’s own words (translated) tell you the story.
“The shell of a crab picked up on Long Island near New York in 1946 is lying on my drawing board. It will become the roof of the chapel: two membranes of concrete...” and later he would say: “The shell has been put on walls which are absurdly but practically thick. Inside them, however are reinforced concrete columns. The shell will rest on these columns, but it will not touch the wall…”
Yep. Lots of shell talk. Boy did I have that one wrong. But it did make me smile to think that the inspiration came from here. A good old New York crab.
The view of the south facade is spectacular and presents the only truly colorful external feature. The processional door is an impressive architectural element in both design and artistry. It is, in fact, a monumental piece of steel work at 3 meters square weighing approximately 2.3 tons. The large square door opens brilliantly by pivoting on a central axis. If I am being honest, while impressive, those facts are not what first or most importantly had our attention, but I thought they were important enough to pass on. And I like facts. Especially unexpected ones like the weight of this door.
It was the magnificent enameled panels that clad the massive steel door that drew us in. Eight panels on each side, Le Corbusier hand painted each one himself at his studio. What do you see when you look at these panels? Modern art. That’s what we saw. Here the painter is at work. Bold use of graphic shapes and color; the bright tones, primary and their derivatives he so much employed in the fifties defines the abstract composition. There are a few different interpretations of the subjects or symbols he painted. Some link to the message of the chapel, some to nature. The more obvious like the window or the hands we already know from his paintings. On the interior side, at the top you see two joined hands. On the exterior, the red hand is blessing while the blue hand is welcoming. If you look closely at the exterior panels, there are some personal moments. The little black cloud (top right) bears the signatures of both Le Corbusier and André Maisonnier, an architect that worked in his studio and on this project. Looking down from the cloud on the bottom panel there are two thumbprints, one imprinted with an “L” the other a “C”. This kind of painted enamel is used on smaller tiles found throughout the interior of the chapel as well. Here’s a fact that you may already know, but I thought was fantastic when I learned of it. Corbusier learned this process in Chaux-de-Fonds from watch face enamelers. It is said that he liked that it was a stable material with an opulent effect. Corbusier’s words on his use of it at Ronchamp:
“Enamel is a truly noble material, richly colored and fade resistant over time, that I seek to stimulate the splendor of the rough concrete even more.”
Overwhelming, quieting – it forces introspection. It is peaceful, tranquil and untroubled, a bit like a very good dream. The space has a divine quality about it. We have already forgotten that we came to see one of Le Corbusier’s greatest works of architecture. Though you could check all of his favourite boxes, you are suddenly not here for that.
The interior of the chapel is almost negative space. The play of light and shadow effectively defines your perception of this wide-open area. We went back several times – different times of day. The wandering light forever changing what it hides or reveals. This is not an accidental occurrence. Nor is it the architectural promenade that we associate so closely with this architect, we were not moving through the space. We were at a forced stop. For whatever feelings this solemn and sacred space evoked, it was all we could do to give it the attention it demanded. As I’ve said before it is hard to explain. Ineffable.
Though we are standing back in full view of the main altar, our eyes are drawn to the south east. The converging fissures; absolutely radiant light. Something we did not realize at the time, the beautiful wood and concrete pews are skewed that direction, giving your eyes an invisible string to follow. And.. right back up to that sharp white light breaking roof and wall. This is Corbusier at his finest, using light and line nudging look this way.. At this moment the double concrete roof seems almost fluid, floating away from the structure that should ground it. He was quoted as saying “[the] horizontal crack of light ten centimeters wide will amaze.” It does. Many elements of this space are in fact amazing. But we were at once moved. I cannot write you a concise or even cohesive explanation of what it was that made us both feel so present. I can tell you that we were acutely aware of what we were not doing. We were not dissecting this space. Not this time. As we made our way around the chapel, some things became clear right away and others did not. We chose to leave it that way rather than investigate further. Again, if you wanted to look close enough you would surely find it. It is, after all, an architectural masterpiece. There are countless books written about all of these things. For us, there was something ethereal about this place and we wanted to remember it that way. Here we want to share what we saw, and maybe the camera tells a bit of the story as well.
The name Notre Dame-du-Haut means Our Lady of the Heights. The multi colored wooden statue of the Virgin and Child is said to date back to the end of the seventeenth century, rescued from the former chapel. Le Corbusier took great care to enclose this sacred figure in a protective glass case where it can be seen from both inside and outside the chapel. As a matter of fact, she presides over both the interior and exterior altars.
In speaking of materials, there is nothing so unusual about the main elements of Ronchamp; the béton brut roof and reinforced concrete walls.. The walls here however are sprayed with gunite to give the entire building a continuous rough surface. They are then finished with a coat of whitewashed plaster. These treatments not only catch the light, but make it absolutely dance against them. What is a bit unusual, or maybe just interesting is this; Corbusier chose to leave the remnants of the old Vosges stone walls from the war-torn former chapel protected inside the thick walls of Ronchamp. I have no proof of this being a sentimental decision, but many of the choices he made here could have been, or maybe weren't at all. There are so many accounts of him that contradict. Somehow, I am always finding a bit of a sensitive side to this impossible man; this larger than life personality.. A bit of a side step there, I know. Lets get back to it.
The wood of the pews, doors and minimal furnishing warm the space inside and out. From this view I am looking at the curve of the roof, the projection of the wall, the hollowed-out space behind the wall..
OK, maybe a good time to quickly touch on the obvious departure from the architect’s principles of standardization and the machine aesthetic. This building is singular in Le Corbusier’s canon. The chapel’s sculpted roof and rolling walls are not at all what we are used to when we think of other defining work such as his Villa Savoye. There it all adheres to the rules, his rules that we have learned so well. This is a sculpted space, the building; sculptural architecture. A true work of art made by the artist/architect’s hands in response to what he found to be the most captivating of landscapes. Ronchamp, sat high up on a hill with commanding views on all four sides dictated the architect’s vision for the building. This is of course the simplest of explanations as every single stroke here was carefully planned. Every last detail through the modulation of opposites. It is beyond my comprehension. It is a beautiful and most unique sculpture.
“On the hill, I had meticulously drawn the four horizons…it was they which unlocked, architecturally, the echo – the visual echo in the realm of shape.” - Le Corbusier
Once again our eyes scan the depths of windows, the enamel clad door, and now just beyond the kick out of the south wall they rest. More light. It is illuminating a small altar that the slant of the wall seems to have protected the evening before. But where is it coming from, this sourceless light? And for that matter, what is this small space with privacy from the nave?
Here we have come to the first of three chapels that are enveloped inside the sculpted walls of Ronchamp. Commence head scratching. It is true that when one thinks of Roman Catholic churches or chapels, the first thing that comes to mind is mass and Mass. Though what do I know? No matter, Corbusier has already taken care of those spaces. Plenty of room for hundreds inside and thousands outside. Intriguingly enough he thought it important to be able to have additional spaces for masses to be held simultaneously or very privately. Of the three, this chapel on the south side is considered the “major” of the smaller interior chapels. The light streams in through a tower with apertures you can see only when standing behind the altar looking straight up. Le Corbusier referred to these towers (each interior chapel has one) as periscopes. This is the most prominent of the three and with apertures facing north, it gets the brightest and longest lasting daylight. Not only a brilliant catch of natural light, but a wonderfully hidden point of entry. Standing in front of the chapel there seems to be divine light, bright at first against the walls and gently cascading down to reveal the altar.
Looking from behind this chapel’s altar, past the benches lined up along the west wall, we spot the entrance to one of the minor chapels. The smaller “twin” chapels face each other on the north side. They are the same size. They are very intimate spaces, able to accommodate only a few at a time. You can see square or rectangular shapes carved out from the concrete walls. Shelving if you will, for candles or objects when a service is being held. Both have smaller periscopes, one east facing and one west. They do not get the same direct and steady sunlight throughout the day as the larger. Instead, the light varies with the movement of the sun. Both have fairly secretive entrances. They are very well tucked into the pockets of Ronchamp. While they have much in common, there is a significant difference between the two.
We’ve spoken at great length about Corbusier’s masterful use of light at Ronchamp. It conveys spirituality and an indefinable divinity. It is at this moment we witness another of the architect’s strong architectural elements. Color. Again, light and color are not new when it comes to Corbusier’s architecture. His comprehensive understanding and use of color architecturally are obvious and well documented. What struck me far more than that was his full-on grasp of what an impact it could have on an individual emotionally. Here he uses it not to guide you through a place in a particular way, as we saw in Maison La Roche, but to evoke feelings of a particular place. The second of the “minor” chapels Corbusier dedicated to peace. The chapel for peace is covered in a deep crimson red. Red. The most arresting of colors. This may seem in photos to give a dramatic dimension comparatively. But it does not. Instead, it gives rise to an atmosphere of meditation and tranquility; complete calm. Corbusier’s organization of color together with the play of light and shadow from the carefully faced tower is key to this interior quietude. A masterful marriage of materials, color and light, inviting prayer or contemplation. Next level contemplation, like a wave rushing over you.
Now I’m not trying to make anything all about me here, but you had to see this coming. If you did not, allow me to explain. If ever there is an element of wood; and especially if it is beautifully sculpted wood, it will never be left out of the dialog. I have a crazy love for it. Our house has a nickname because of it. It is my favourite building element. This very website has wood in its name. Wood and concrete are better than peanut butter and chocolate when it comes to two great things coming together for balance perfection. And even after all of the reasons I just gave you, there is something more.. something most amazing about the wooden elements at Ronchamp.
I rarely spend much time on backgrounds of the people involved in the buildings I write about. I’m not sure why that is, maybe I feel like they need a story all their own. That is also true here, but I’m going to dive just a little this time. Le Corbusier named many “concerning men” when he wrote of the building of the chapel. But the man he asked to master the woodwork at Ronchamp was, by this time, already a fixture in Corbusier’s life. You may already know his name in relation to the architect, and in that case it might be of little surprise to you that Corbusier would commission artist and sculptor Joseph Savina for the gorgeous sculptured pews and wood details of the chapel. Joseph Savina was not only a sculptor but a cabinetmaker of the very first class. He won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in 1927. He opened his own design studio in 1929 with an ambition to revitalize Breton furniture design. He joined the Breton nationalist art movement Siez Breur, which was heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement we know so well, and quickly became their Master woodworker. For the love of all that is good in this world..
Wood – Furniture – Sculpture.
Le Corbusier met the woodworker/cabinetmaker/artist in 1935. They became fast friends with a mutual admiration for each other’s work. Corbusier had great respect for the “sense of plasticity” in Savina’s work. Le Corbusier and Joseph Savina were not only to become close friends, but collaborators. Corbusier would draw and Savina would execute carvings from those drawings. Savina also made a number of abstract sculptures heavily influenced by Le Corbusier’s paintings during their years together.
Now back to those sculpted Iroko wood pews that look like beautiful pieces of art all in a row..
“Savina, a joiner from Tréguier (and my collaborator in sculpture) made the benches with his own hands.” Corbusier would later write this description of his friend in the book he penned on the chapel titled Ronchamp.
Walking around the chapel we stop at the west wall. We figure out that the bulge protruding from the exterior wall is the housing for the confessional inside, only here it is not straight and rectangular, it is curved and looks molded by hand. The next bit I am about to explain is mind blowing to me. See that beautiful piece of art or minimal decoration catching the light so perfectly up there? It is actually a cantilevered rainspout. Come again, please? I have what is called a "cantilevered rainspout" and I can assure you, it looks nothing like this. When it rains, all of the rainwater from Ronchamp's spectacular roof flows through two large sculpted pipes to this cantilevered rainspout where it falls to form a modernist waterfall into the concrete fountain below. The rainspout has been nicknamed Corbusier’s post-modern "gargoyle” and it is called that by just about everyone. It’s “rifle barrel” shape was masterfully executed. Its purpose, to clearly evacuate rainwater rushing down from the roof. Taking his inspiration from the overflows of modern dams, he modeled the curves so that the water flowed fairly fast through the pipes and cantilevered spout falling into the concrete basin set away from the wall. This thoughtful construction keeps the white façade free of any water and avoids the use of a gutter which would have disrupted the bare aesthetics of the building. To some extent, one can always pick out something that hadn’t been thought of or maybe not thoroughly thought through. While I am in no position, and some that are may see it differently, this building is perfection. There is no small detail here. Nothing that had not been engineered to perfection. Just one more thing. To the left of the gargoyle in the picture on the right, if you look really closely, there is a tiny bird taking a bit of sun..
“Note, no bells, instead, electronic music. Bach or modern pieces!” - Le Corbusier
The story of the bells goes something like this. The Chaplain wanted needed bells to herald Mass. I’m pretty sure that if you are close enough to just about any Roman Catholic church you will see or hear that they do indeed have bells. Le Corbusier, being both agnostic and a modernist did not believe in all of the “drama of Christianity." It is not lost on me that both the architect and the Catholic church use the drama of symbols, shadow, light, color and yes even music, but let’s get back to the story where the difference becomes immediately clear. And so, while he would create a place of silence, prayer, peace and spirituality, he would do it without all of the usual "archaic trappings" of the Catholic church.
To move forward here I think I need to go back a bit. I didn’t say I would leave out history altogether did I? If I alluded to that, what I meant was there is literally so much history of this sacred place and its chapels on Bourlémont hill. The first written record dates back to the end of the 11th century. History has recorded the largest pilgrimage took place following the annexation of Alsace in 1873; over 30,000 distressed devotees seeking solace on these hallowed grounds. There is the historical devotion to the Virgin Mary, to whom Notre-Dame du Haut is dedicated. There is history before this history that I can’t even begin to know. Then there is the history of the architect and the Catholic church and how this union ever came to be. The difficulty of making Ronchamp possible was felt on both sides. It was actually noted as being “an astounding challenge.” The Archbishop of Besançon and his committee would be responsible for reconstructing the existing chapel that had been severely damaged in the war. (I promise you this is the shortest version probably to date on this matter.) At this time, influenced by some parishes in Switzerland and Germany, it was decided that the new chapel should embrace more modern sensibilities. Enter the idea of Le Corbusier. For the Commission’s side; was it even conceivable that a self-proclaimed agnostic should construct a sanctuary for the Catholic faith? This fear was stamped out by his pure architectural style, which they called “future-oriented” and for his unique understanding of human beings and sacred spaces. Corbusier would call those things "le modulor and "l'espace indicible". I am certain you are seeing the parallels here, no? The architect was approached and immediately turned down the commission. It was noted that he did not like priests and had categorically refused to work for a “dead institution.” There are more than a few versions of this story. There is, I have found, much more to his part - maybe not so simple. But in the interest of time, we will stick to a short version of the story as most know it. He was approached a second time, this time by a few old friends that just happened to sit on the committee. They asked him simply to visit Bourlémont hill. In the spring of 1950 he did just that and was completely overtaken with the beauty of the landscape. He took photos and made some quick sketches in pencil. He accepted the commission on one condition.. That he could create in absolute freedom...
Which brings us right back to the bells. The southwest high tower is seen as the chapel’s beacon to the valley below. It can be seen from afar. It is the place that any other architect might put a bell tower. But this is not any architect. This modern masterpiece would not have a bell tower. Instead, Le Corbusier wanted an electronic public address system for the building. This idea never came to fruition. The inauguration of the chapel was in June of 1955. Le Corbusier handed Notre Dame-du-Haut over to the Archbishop of Besançon and would not return to the site until 1959.
All of this time, on the site, simple pre-war bells; three of them, stood silently out in the field. One tuned to “E”, another to “F sharp” and the third tuned to “A” which was virtually destroyed by grenades. Having no bells to ring, the Chaplain had a public address system set up on the open space outside the chapel for the end of Sunday Mass. He would prolong the last song so that when the doors were open and parishioners were leaving, they would be accompanied by music as they walked down the hill. I found this part of the story quite touching as Corbusier had given over the building years before. All of the ritual objects used by the Catholic church were brought in after he left. There are many accounts to his feelings about that, but there are a lot of accounts about everything. What I found most endearing about this story is the Chaplain who wanted needed bells to herald Mass decided instead to keep the architect’s wishes.
When Le Corbusier returned years later, the Chaplain asked again. This time, Corbusier agreed to give him the bells he needed to herald Mass. He would mount the original bells on a simple metal frame. Sadly, he would only have time to design the bell tower. He died that summer in Roquebrune.
“You can’t put something stupid next to the work of Corbu, you can’t strike the wrong tone...” - Jean Prouvé
It wasn’t until 1975, on the occasion of the chapel’s 20th anniversary, that the bell tower would finally be built. Another important figure; engineer and architect Jean Prouvé, would realize Corbusier’s design. He would also cast a third smaller bell, christened in memory of Le Corbusier’s elderly mother and wife which was hung next to its two sister bells. Its bronze cladding is decorated with a relief of the open hand; peace and reconciliation. “It is open to give and open to receive.”
For me, both men such visionaries, and with such history between them, there couldn’t be a better moment. After all of those years, Jean Prouvé would not only realize Corbusier’s design for the bell tower, but would add so much more. A most sentimental christening and dedication to a man he once knew. And of course, in the end, the chapel gets its bell tower.
The site atop Bourlémont hill has held its place in history as an important destination for pilgrims dating back to the eleventh century. It has provided a stronghold for the preservation of pilgrimages and remains so to this day. Le Corbusier was well aware of the importance of keeping Ronchamp at the center of this tradition. Designed to receive crowds of gatherers, here he has opened up the East wall to create the open-air chapel or exterior sanctuary. It is flooded by intense natural light. The “shell” roof juts out to form a large canopy. The overhang protects the liturgical elements; altar, bench for officiating priests, the pulpit and even the choir gallery.
Gatherings here in front of the altar of the open-air cathedral have and can still see over ten thousand people.
How lucky we were on our second day to witness such a scene. This endearing gentleman setting up for an outdoor Mass just about stole our hearts..
“Observe the play of shadows, learn the game… Precise shadows, clear cut or dissolving. Projected shadows, sharp. Projected shadows, precisely delineated, but what enchanting arabesques and frets. Counterpoint and fugue. Great music. Try to look at the picture upside-down or sideways. You will discover the game.”
Translated from Le Corbusier’s original writings on Ronchamp by Jacqueline Cullen