From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Beauty is a complex notion. It must surely be pleasing to the eye or ear. Austrian architect Adolf Loos wrote in 1898 that it lay in the fulfilment of a purpose. So what are we to make of the convent of La Tourette, designed by Le Corbusier, and completed in 1959? It fulfils its purpose, certainly, but few who see for the first time the austere concrete building perched on a hillside outside Lyons in south-east France would call it beautiful. And yet, walk around it and it reveals itself to be a work of breathtaking humanity. And doesn’t that lies at the core of beauty?
Le Corbusier’s post-war projects revelled in their use of raw concrete which helped spark the Brutalist movement. The chapel at Ronchamp, with its swollen concrete roof inspired by a crab shell, provokes a truly emotional response. So when Corbusier was commissioned to build a much larger religious building the expectation was for something even more astonishing. How disappointing, therefore, to find something so seemingly plain and angular. And yet it’s one of the most exhilarating buildings I’ve visited.
It was the new home for a Dominican order based in the remote Alps that now wanted to be closer to the university and life of Lyons. Called a convent in France, because the brothers work in the community rather than being shut away, as monks in a monastery often are, the whole structure is built around a central courtyard. A church takes up one side, sitting firmly on the ground, while the three other sides are floors of living and work space, all held aloft on Corbusier’s signature columns, or piloti. The building is zoned into areas which represent common, spiritual and individual life. Everything is logically planned, with some severe touches that amplify its religious purpose – a corridor too narrow for two to walk along together; windows with views blocked by wedges, known as concrete flowers; cells not much wider than the single bed they hold. The idea was to remove distractions and if that all sounds somewhat cheerless then look closer and you see that the entire building is filled with such playfulness that you feel a strong sense of being nourished. Like colourful service pipes, an idea copied later by the architects of the Pompidou centre, and air vents set in the walls like narrow doors, so that fresh air flows freely throughout the interior. Each cell has a balcony, giving views into nature, and there’s a wonderful panorama from the refectory through a wall of glass set in rhythmically-spaced concrete frames. There’s something at every turn, a ramp here; a splash of sunshine from concealed light cannons; dramatic spouts that take the rain from the roof like modernist gargoyles. The church itself is as plain as a concrete slab and yet it’s an electrifying space with light coloured by the painted reveals of hidden windows and a crypt with astonishing coloured domes. It’s all a piece, nothing jarring, everything in harmony, a balance of volumes and light. And it makes you smile. As a young man, Le Corbusier visited a monastery outside Florence, and loved the way it combined all elements of community within one structure. It inspired his large apartment buildings, so badly copied throughout the world, and La Tourette. Without any religious belief himself, Le Corbusier had a knack of imbuing buildings with a real spirit of place, something he called the ineffable space. You may not expect beauty in these brutalist marvels but at La Tourette beauty is bountiful in every purposeful step.