The first part of the article on the famous Modernist masterpiece, Le Corbusier's the chapel of Notre-du-Haut, was devoted to discuss the building context, both about the importance of its location in the landscape of Ronchamp as well as the historical background before Le Corbusier to accept the commission of the chapel.
This entry is dedicated to the architectural features of the building itself as well as some notes on its construction process.
ARCHITECTURAL FEATURES OF THE CHAPEL
It may seem paradoxical that the best-known work of Le Corbusier appears away from its traditional rationalist discourse (in the same way as the best-known work of Frank L. Wright 's, the Fallingwater House, seems to move away from its organicist principles). However, the building reflects some principles of modern architecture, as its austerity, its openness to the community and its conception as a contrasting element in the landscape.
The chapel owes its shape to its relationship to the landscape. Each of the facades responds to different attitudes: welcome, celebration, service, symbolism. The roof sculptural character dramatizes the power and malleability of the concrete to compose organic volumes. All these elements come together to create a mystical and dramatic interior space in which light is the protagonist.
Schematic plants and cutaways. 3D Model courtesy of Villa
Le Corbusier's genius lies in providing the visitor of a different perception of the building from any angle he/she sees it, while maintaining harmony, dynamism and coherence. This feature forces the visitor to walk around chapel in order to fully understand it, adding a fourth dimension to the architectural composition: movement.
The south facade
The concave wall welcomes visitors ascending from the path. Its broad-based triangular section seems to be a continuation of the hill, rising to support the roof.
The southern wall is quite wide in the vicinity of the entrance (3.7 m) but it narrows and gets higher at the other end (1.7 m).
The wall thickness is evidenced by the random pattern of rectangular windows of different size and orientation, whose apparent disorder is used to create an interior lighting effect, as discussed below.
The entrance is flanked by a vertical an semi-cylindrical element, one of the three chapels under the three minor chapels included in the church. The access is also stressed by changing its color to concrete and separating it from the white wall and curve.
The door itself has an painting by Le Corbusier, in the manner of other of his works, such as the Assembly of Chandigarh , for example. However, for years this door has been closed, and the access to the chapel is through the back door.
Other elements in the access are two small concrete blocks that form a virtual frame.
Facing a large concourse of the pilgrims, this concave façade also houses a small external chapel.
This is where you can appreciate the power of the roof volume, protruding above the chapel.
Besides the roof, the chapel is framed by the south wall and a semicircular volume, which together form a "cave" that emphasizes the receptive character that was to give in this area, or as a "stage" that emphasizes its vocation as a focal point in the landscape.
The wall is perforated by tiny square fenestrations and there is a glass box which keeps a statue of the Virgin Mary.
Complement the composition some elements of exposed concrete elements, as the table and the pulpit, and a simple metal cross.
The northern facade combines the functions of service: a secondary entrance and stairs. This more private character is characterized by its convex shape. Facing it, there is a space which is bounded by trees, where it originally stood a bell tower that was never built.
The most striking features of the facade are the two chapels flanking the secondary access: both are symmetrically arranged around the axis of the door. However, their curved shape invite to access to the interior.
It is the only blind facade, which links the convex front with the rear facade. From here the nature of the chapels is more evident, semi-cylindrical towers with lateral incisions. Their verticality is a counterpoint to the horizontality of the building.
"Above the drawing board I have the shell of a crab collected in Long Island near New York. It will be the roof of the chapel: two layers of concrete 5 cm thick and separations of 2.26 m. The shell will be sustained on recovered stone walls. "
One detail that I had not realized until the visit was the fact that the roof is separated from the walls by a thin slot. This feature is most evident from the inside, and demonstrates the architect's interest in suggesting lightness of the cover, despite its massiveness. The roof is supported by hidden columns in the walls, which are not load bearing.
"The shell has been placed on the walls that are absurdly but practically thick. Inside them however are reinforced concrete columns. The shell will rest in these columns but it will not touch the wall. A horizontal crack of light 10 cm wide will amaze."
Photo courtesy of Pieter Morlion
The protagonist of the interior is, without doubt, the light. But, unlike what I had imagined, the interior is not fully lit, as it is, for example, the Jubilee Church by Richard Meier . By contrast, the church is rather dark, as some Gothic churches are, emphasizing the drama of light and accenting the sacredness of the space.
The most striking effect comes from the south wall, one that enjoys major solar incidence and where light penetrates through the small openings of colored glass. The shape of the windows in the thick wall, is cut obliquely and widen, allowing the light to gently fade inside.
In contrast, the east wall, where the altar is placed, has small windows which from the inside look like stars. The edge of the walls is demarcated by a line of light, separating them from the roof.
Another source of indirect light are the chapels. Light enters and diffuses laterally across the rough surface of the curved walls. The type of light coupled with verticality of the space produce an athmosphere of highness, elevation and sublimity, a resource that has since been used by many architects such as Kenzo Tange in his Tokyo Cathedral , for example.
Photo courtesy of ilgattodiviadeimacci
The exquisite conception of the light is emphasized by the simplicity and austerity of the interior furnishings. The floor is made of exposed and is inclined slightly towards the altar. The benches are arranged at an angle away from the altar, I think that is to strengthen it as a focal point in the space.
"The construction of the wall was made on the basis of angular columns. The lateral bracing shown in the section of the internal elements represented by the continuous line, while the external, by the discontinuous one".
"In the preliminary sketches Le Corbusier shows how the cover was designed as supporting trusses arranged in a north / south direction and supported by walls corresponding to these orientation, which were built of stone. The necessary stiffness was provided by the form of the chapels and the irregularity of the northern wall. The south wall is made reinforced concrete. " G. Baker.
"The chapel is a statement of contrasts, formal contrasts in reference to a richness of referrals over vital circumstances. Figures are vigorous and serene: the walls contain fragments of interior space, but also they allow other points to extend; coexist stability and stress, anxiety and peace: the direct and indirect lighting is mysterious and glowing, sometimes variable, sometimes not.
Photo courtesy of Ricardo avella
The forms are continuous elements that are disrupted in precise incisions, in response to the program of external and internal needs, the chapel is extroverted and introverted. Nothing makes explicit the complexity of an exposure referred to in the same range of lighting and figures that induce the contours of the holes spread over the south wall. This "penetrable" wall, inside, becomes countless sparkling luminous figures, set against the its pressure, apparently suspended in the air as a result of their separation and elevation relative to the wall. The inclined inner wall is also opposed to its outer face with a castle look and massive appearance.
The chapel features in many ways the maturity of the work Le Corbusier work... The meaning ... is not the explicit and literal transcription of the machine era, is a statement of allegorical interpretations of nature which, by reduction, interprets its own existence."
Geoffrey Baker.(not a literal citation, but a translation from Spanish)
Other Works by Le Corbusier
- Curutchet House, La Plata, Argentina. (1949-53)
- Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, Japan. (1959)
- Unité d'Habitation, Berlin, Germany. (1956-59)
- "Beyond the mere theory, what didi you feel inside and outside this space?" a good friend asked me.
- "In a word: POETRY"