Saturday, June 30, 2012



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.


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.

East facade

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.

North facade

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.

West Facade

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.

In the center of the wall is located a gargoyle, the only visible part of the roof, which collects rain water and drain it to a concrete fountain sculpture underneath.


"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."
Le Corbusier.

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

- "Beyond the mere theory, what didi you feel inside and outside this space?" a good friend asked me.
- "In a word: POETRY" 

Friday, June 22, 2012



The chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, located in the small village of Ronchamp, near the French border with Switzerland, is the best-known work of Le Corbusier's, and one of the most emblematic masterpieces in modern architecture.

Photo courtesy of stublog

Frank O. Gehry argues that the problem with the chapel at Ronchamp is that it is impossible to hold back tears while visiting it. I can not say I reached that point, but certainly the pilgrimage to this small chapel was an overwhelming experience for me, both by the building and its powerful presence in the landscape, the composition of the volumes and the sublime use of light, all of which Le Corbusier amalgamated brilliantly, as well as by the memories of numerous architectural conversations about the chapel held with teachers, colleagues and students through the years.

After spending several hours in the place and having a lot of material to share with you, it is impossible for me to summarize this experience in just one post, so the discussion about this work will be divided into three entries: the first deals with the chapel's historical background, location on the site and landscape as well as the  "urban" elements that constitute the complex in Ronchamp. The second post will be devoted to the chapel's architectural, formal and spatial features, as well as some of its remarkable details. These two entries will be accompanied by Geoffrey Baker's analysis from his brilliant book "Le Corbusier. Analysis of Form." (I apologize that the citations will not be literal, by my translation from a Spanish version of the book).
Finally, in a third post I will refer to the nearby expansion project undertaken by the Italian master Renzo Piano.


Ronchamp is a small village nestled in a gentle valley, connected by train to Belfort, near the French border with Switzerland and Germany. Its occupation dates back to millennia, in fact the name "Ronchamp" comes from "Roman Camp".

Then occupied by the Celts and a small population during the Middle Ages, the town prospered  due to a coal mine that operated from the mid eighteenth century (remains of this industry can be seen from the road leading to the chapel).

Opposite the village lies a wooded hill. From its summit, one enjoys an important visual domain of the surrounding landscape, flanked by the Jura Mountains and from which nearby towns can be glimpsed, such as Mouriere to the north and La Selle to northeast, as well as the cemetery and the village of Ronchamp to the southeast.

"The idea was born in the brain, then wandered and grew indefinitely. I carefully drew the four cardinal points from the hill. As there are only four: to the east, Ballons d'Alsace; to the south, the cliffs; to the west, the plain of the Saône and to the north, a small valley and a village ... Day 4 June 1950. "
Le Corbusier

"The hill is crowned with a plain, which is accessed by a road that rises from the southeast; a group of trees enclose the site to the west and partially delimits the plain on the east side. 

The open space extends in a southeasterly direction, downhill,  up to the eastern boundary coinciding with the trees. Within this context, in the middle of a wooded and hilly terrain, the small plain is significantly closer to the western margin of the field with a view of the surroundings, but especially towards the south. "
Geoffrey Baker

LOCATION. A. "The access road comes from the southeast flanking the open space; the topography determined a slope to the southeast.
B. The site has an manifested obliquity . "

ZONING. C. "There is a state of confrontation circulation-building in the context of the obliquity of the site."
D. "Le Corbusier uses this obliquity to separate the entrance area of the assembly area."
Text and graphics: G. Baker.


Because of its visual properties, the hill have enjoyed a symbolic role for centuries. After the Roman occupation, a Celtic shrine to worship the sun was built at the top of the mountain.

View of the chapel at the top of the hill and the cemetery on its side. This mountain has had a symbolic significance since ancient times.

Later, in the fifteenth century a chapel was erected, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Heights, or Notre Dame du Haut. In the mid nineteenth century a tower was added, anticipating a series of renovations to the chapel, which became an important regional center of pilgrimage.

Left: chapel before the mid-nineteenth century. Right: enlargement in 1857.

In 1913 a fire left only the walls standing. The chapel was rebuilt in 1923 and completely remodeled in 1930 in NeoGothic style. During World War II the church was bombed and completely destroyed.

Remodeling of 1930, before the bombing in the Second World War

Then the religious authorities opted to rebuild it in a contemporary architectural style, that would seek to convey an abstract sense of sacredness. It was so decided to give the commission to Le Corbusier in 1950 (not without opposition, as the Swiss architect was an agnostic). Le Corbusier himself was reluctant to accept the commission, but he was convinced after visiting the site.


The complex is composed of several elements, leaded by the chapel, the esplanade, the residence of the monks, a memorial pyramid and bell tower.

The chapel is located eccentrically on top of the hill and is oriented east-west, nearly perpendicular to the access path.

To the west is located a bell tower, a very simple composition, comprising a metal frame holding 3 bells. 

A view of the chapel from bell tower.

To the east is a large esplanade, facing an outdoor chapel, that allows celebrations in front of a large number of pilgrims.

Le Corbusier had originally proposed an artificial slope arc in order to contain the space, but this was never implemented.

At the northern end a stepped pyramid is located, built with the remnants of the original church, which serves as a monument to peace.

Towards the southern end, and a in a lower area of the topography, stands a rectangular volume made of concrete, that contrasts in both form and color with chapel. This volume, perpendicular and closer to the access path, contains the residence of the monks and was designed by Le Corbusier in 1953 and completed in 1959. The building, austere and sober, has classrooms, library, refectory, kitchen and cells for monks.


We discuss this issue in the next post. Until then.

Photo courtesy of tochungyip