Wednesday, July 18, 2012


One of the most difficult tasks for an architect is to project a building next to a masterpiece. Such is the case of Renzo Piano, who has been more than once in the eye of the storm due to his controversial proposals (such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the Shard in London ), but on the other hand he also has adapted masterfully to existing works (such as the Museum High in Atlanta ). On this occasion, has taken up the challenge of designing a monastery for the Poor Clares and a visitor center on the Bourlemont Hill in Ronchamp, near the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, a masterpiece by Le Corbusier.

As expected, the intervention in this emblematic place led to the protest of the Le Corbusier Foundation and many architects and intellectuals such as Richard Meier, Cesar Pelli and Rafael Moneo. Meanwhile, Tadao Ando, ​​and Fuksas among others signed a letter supporting the project.

Renzo Piano's humble proposal, however, has used a sober and minimalist vocabulary, by burying the building on the hill, so it is not perceived from the chapel and the pilgrim does not alter his/her perception and experience during the visit.

Views of the complex from the path to the chapel

The starting point for Piano has been the integration of its proposal to the Bourlemont hill, where the chapel is located. It is a respectful gesture to Le Corbusier's chapel, who wanted to emphasize rather his work in the landscape.

The transparency that characterizes the glass facade allows a smooth visual communication between the building and the surrounding environment.

Sketches by Renzo Piano 

It should be noted the emphasis given to on afforestation, preservation of vegetation and landscaping of the areas of expansion, designed by Michel Corajoud .


Since the cells of the monastery are located underground, following the excavation on the hill, as reinforced concrete structure was built, in order to contain the earth loads (it reminds me of the process used by IM Pei in the Miho Museum in Shiga, Japan ).

After climbing up the winding path that ascends up the hill in front of Ronchamp , visitors will be greeted by a plaza with offices, gardens and parking. It is located perpendicular to the path leading to the chapel. At first  a concrete structure, with a large glass facade and zinc carpentry, built into the hillside appears before your eyes: the visitor center.

This building replaced an old ticket office (which obviously was not designed by Le Corbusier) built in the 60s, which spoiled the view of the place and at the same time was not very functional.

The visitor center contains a ticket office, a shop, a meeting area, administrative and research offices and a small exhibition area (I have taken some pictures from here to illustrate these three posts on the chapel at Ronchamp). There is also a fireplace cast in concrete, an unusual detail in a store, but I personally appreciated it on that cold morning of the visit.


Located about 100 meters west of the chapel by Le Corbusier, Piano proposes a monastery for the Poor Clare sisters. The rooms are 2.7 x 2.7 m and form linearly concatenated groups located to the east of the hill Bourlemont, enjoying a view of the valley without disturbing, the sight from the chapel.

The program includes twelve "cells" or minimum dwelling units for the nuns, each with a winter garden, plus communal areas, chapel and accommodation for visitors.

The monastery has its own chapel.

The monastery has its own chapel.

The orientation towards the West and the generous glass façade allows generous lighting and integration with the surrounding vegetation.

The vocabulary, simple and minimalist employed on this occasion by  Piano, echoes the austere and spiritual function of the monastery. The lightness of the proposal does not detract from the robustness of Le Corbusier's sculptural  chapel.

The simple wood furniture contributes to provide warmth and serenity to these ambients, occupied by nuns, mostly elderly.

Photos courtesy of Michel Denancé


In my opinion, the claim of some about this the intervention in Ronchamp is because they tend to see the chapel as a modern monument rather than a religious building. Piano's work achieves the difficult challenge of creating contemporary architecture without detracting from the landscape nor eclipsing Le Corbusier's masterpiece, and also fulfills a requirement: the chapel is  not a lonely monument at the top of a hill but mainly a place of worship, and therefore the monastery supports and complements that function.



Renzo Piano on the jobsite