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Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp

Le Corbusier’s famous chapel at Ronchamp provides an image whose overall experience is not specifically like anything in past experience and yet possesses a diversity of visual cues associated with experiences valued throughout history. Some of the cues speak mainly of European civilization; others arise out of common human experience. The cues of massive, thick walls pierced by slits and small openings bring to mind Mediterranean buildings and European fortresses. Two of the vertical openings that reach from ground to roof are “blocked” by heavy, closely spaced concrete slabs. Some of the form characteristics of these slabs and some of the feelings they produce are much like those of grouped monoliths of Carnac and Stonehenge.


The white towers (shown below at right) of Ronchamp are particularly rich in symbolic reference. They are like nuns’ hats and at the same time like the wind catchers of Tunisian architecture. The great roof, on the one hand seemingly without direct reference to past experience, on the other is vaguely like the heavy forms of such peasant artifacts as wooden shoes or the thatched roofs of farm buildings. Uplifting curves in the roof are like aspiring gestures. Colored glass fills many small openings in the thick wall of the sanctuary, and the resulting colored light is a cue that often takes on religious meaning for those of many cultural backgrounds.

An important aspect of the roof of Ronchamp is that its non- Euclidean shape seems to escape from familiar usages and associations into a realm that is mathematical, or free of any close ties with particular instances and objects. The importance of this “mathematical” characteristic of the roof of Ronchamp is that through it feelings of the particularities of roof, thatch, and the like are avoided. The powerful effect of the image is partly a result of the tensive contrasts between the recognition of established references, such as that of thatch, and recognition of the “mathematical” shapes, which do not seem particular. It is also suggested that the freedom from specific references within the perceptual form of the roof, as obtained by these mathematical elements provide an opportunity for abstraction which we use to reconstitute meaning.

In the roof of Ronchamp, in addition to the cues of shape we find cues of great thickness and of the pastoral. A cue of controlled but rough texture suggests the inelegant and homely. Together, these cues create an amorphous, but real, associative context linked to “things of farms and peasants.” For some beholders the reference to peasants and the pastoral can touch harmonized layers of experience of great value, because man’s closeness to the land is deeply integrated human memory, no matter how little most of us care for tilling the soil today.  The cue of uplifting curvature graduating to a point introduces the metaphor of an upward, aspiring gesture, so that aspiration becomes a context in the image. Acting as contexts, all these references and more are bisociated with the unique form of Ronchamp so that the meanings that we attach to then are gathered into one conception.

Perhaps the most significant recent architectural expression of time, history, and bodily experience is Ronchamp. Collage is usually designed to include found objects; the towers, walls, and roof of Roncahmp can be considered as created objects that are composed in the spirit of collage. The four sides of the building are surprisingly different from one another. Each side expresses a unique set of functional and symbolic intentions. Figure 1 show the tower, great roof, and thick wall of the entrance side. A backdrop for outdoor services is seen in the adjoining side. Figure 93 shows the grouping of the towers, which abound in anthropomorphic, religious and regional architectural references. The remaining side displays relatively anonymous windows and is expressive of subordinate spaces within the chapel.

At about the time of the design of Ronchamp, Le Corbusier’s aphorism that architecture is a series of plastic events became well known. Le Corbusier’s phrase would seem to allow for the architectural expression of the diversity of character of different kinds of activities. For instance, outdoor services are provided for by the vivid expression of a chancel by the overhanging roof, two pulpits, the curved freestanding element at the right, and the vertical end of the great wall on the left. But Le Corbusier’s choice of words also implies that he learned much from his career-long pursuit of painting and sculpture. The assemblage of diverse cues noted in our discussion of the Picasso paintings is also apparent in Ronchamp. The juxtapositions of cubism were well known to be Le Corbusier, as they were to other architects of his period. But unlike most of his contemporaries, whose responses were usually limited to repeating the formal geometric structures of cubism, Le Corbusier used cubist modes of organization to assemble contrasting references to culture, history, and the bodily life in what he so aptly described as a series of plastic events. The relationship of this method to collage should be evident.

While any object that we “take up” by perception is subject to a continual merging an emerging of perspectives, the great wall of Ronchamp (shown at top right) affords us an example in which unusually rich resources have been provided for a directed interplay. Among the details of the wall are handmade rough textures, colored glass, and clear glass. Very important are the contrasts between narrowing slits and splayed, widening openings (fig.94). As well as providing references to a variety of contrasting European archetypes of windows and walls, these forms involve the body in several contrasting tensions. Large openings, the height of a man, at floor level allow the body to “enter” physically into the wall and thus into history as well. With these accessible windows, Le Corbusier gives us a surprising vantage point and a fresh metaphor.

Monastery of La Tourrette

In this building the architect dramatizes the individual cells of the monks as places for solitude and silence. From the exterior the cells are defined by very heavy, thick, concrete sidewalls and railings. It is almost impossible for the imagination not to conceive of experiences of caves and fortresses, experiences touched off by their association with those of monks. The caves are in the sky, adding ambiguity and mystery as the mind mingles layers and categories of experience. The cells are contrasted with library and dining spaces directly below, where the fenestration is of another kind, rhythmically varied and indicating a communal activity behind.

Contributing to the poetic contrasts of this building is the completely open space from grass to parapet between the introverted form of the chapel and the cloister of cells. This open space, linking the interior court with the open landscape beyond, speaks of freedom and connection with the outside world, perhaps in a reference to the monk’s retreat as an act of free will. At any rate the feelings of the protected, cave like cloister are juxtaposed with feelings of freedom in an image of great dramatic impact.

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