Ronchamp – the spirit of place


Le Corbusier's glorious chapel at Ronchamp

Le Corbusier’s glorious chapel at Ronchamp

You need to stand in a building to really understand it. In this age of visual saturation, when you can easily access photographs of any building on the net, and sometimes even walk cybernetically through them, it’s easy to forget that architecture is fundamentally a simple sensory experience. This was made clear to me during a recent visit to Le Corbusier’s church at Ronchamp in north east France, a building that I have seen so many times in books that I had almost forgotten it existed off the page. Now here I was, driving towards the unremarkable little town of Ronchamp, and my heartbeat was quickening with every kilometre.

Years ago I studied the history of modern architecture and this small church, built in 1954 to commemorate the murder by Nazis of French fighters a decade before, had always popped up. It has to be one of the most photographed buildings of the twentieth century, alongside the Sydney Opera House. Like the Opera House, it has an odd shape that demands your attention – a raw concrete roof sitting atop curving white walls punctured by apparently random sets of windows. A rounded tower looms up. That fluidity gives it character and critics, notably the architectural theorist Charles Jencks, have remarked on the building’s resemblance to everything from an ocean liner, the flying winged headdress of a French nun and even a big fat duck. As undergraduates we laughed at that, enjoying the idea that buildings by the Gods of Modernism could actually be laughed at. No one imagined a man like Le Corbusier had a sense of humour. After all, in the 1920s, he had proposed demolishing the elegant boulevards of central Paris and replacing them with an endless repetition of high-rise concrete buildings set amongst parkland, something the British took up with gusto in their post-war public housing estates and which were quickly blamed for every social failure. The chapel at Ronchamp is different from this numbing repetition. It shows concrete at its most emotional.

Nearing Ronchamp, I noticed for the first time the chapel’s smooth white tower peeping over the green trees on a hillside and I thought of Mother Teresa’s shrouded head. Large white statues of the Virgin Mary watch over many French towns and this recalled those. Ronchamp is a mining town. I had expected something ugly and industrial but this landscape was wooded and rolling. I turned off the main road at the sudden appearance of a small sign and thought I was mistaken. This was nothing much more than a laneway. In my mind I had expected a super-highway directing the hoards to pay homage to this building. As the lane wound its way up the hill, I was at least gratified to pass the old, blackened remains of coalpit workings, like something out of a Victor Hugo novel. And then, suddenly, I was among the chaos of a building site, with cars and vans parked amongst gravel and dirt, and metal fences keeping us off grass that was yet to be rolled out. This was the visitor centre designed by Renzo Piano nearing completion, and tucked further from sight was the new convent he has built for the 12 nuns who live on the site. Hidden behind a stand of trees was Le Corbusier’s masterpiece.

It’s easy to say masterpiece when it has been said so many times. It’s a word as misused as iconic and every bit as anodyne. And having flicked past it so often in books, I felt the possibility of boredom at seeing the real thing. How wrong I was. The building is a masterpiece. Every angle of it is arresting. It sits in a clearing of lawn, with long green views over the treetops. In one place the trees crowd close so that the contrast of white-rendered concrete is stark through the delicate leaves of the woodland. I stood for a moment to take in the whole structure and a familiar feeling stirred within me. Here you are at last, I thought to myself, as though I had finally found a lost friend. When I was young I used to feel awkward visiting famous buildings, wanting to hug them as though to claim some kind of ownership. Now I always touch their walls, as though making sure I am not dreaming.

There weren’t choirs of angels singing as I walked around the outside of the building, glancing up at that sweeping concrete roof propped up by a huge concrete strut with the apparent ease of a Bedouin tent. There was simply the tumbling rush of memory, an end-of-life sort of thing, as every image I had ever seen of the building was recalled. But new sensations closed in – the silence of the woods around me, the springy grass beneath my feet heightening the sight of those hard concrete walls. I noticed the sign marking the spot where those French fighters died and found myself able to conjure up the horror of their final moments, imagining the gunshots ringing out through the forest and sending the birds up in alarm.

The interior of the building is dark after all the brightness of the exterior. I remember the shock of walking into Chartres cathedral, the darkest cathedral interior I can recall whose intricately coloured medieval glass windows suddenly blossom before you out of the gloom. Here, too, the brightly coloured glass in the deep piercings in the wall bloomed – Mary, brilliant as the sun, said one in French. The floor sloped like Chartres’ which housed pilgrims at night and needed to be sluiced out during the day. Was Le Corbusier referencing this, I wondered? I noticed the band of light around the top of the walls before the roof capped it, something that makes the huge swooping concrete seem as light as canvas. That took my breath away. How often had it been pointed out in books, how often had I read about it? Nothing prepared me for the sight of it. Suddenly I saw how astonishing was the structure of this building and why it peppers every book on 20th century architecture. Being able to see and feel and smell and hear this building made me understand it better.

It enriches my understanding of the architect, too. I admit to being a fan of Le Corbusier’s. A few years ago I visited his holiday house on the French Riviera. At the same time that he worked on Ronchamp, he designed a wooden hut for himself that was as uncomplicated as a railway carriage. Built next to a restaurant, it was hard not to be amused by the wooden flap in the wall next to the lavatory that lifted so that the great architect could order up his next meal as he voided the last. As the architect most famous for saying the house is a machine for living in, then this certainly displayed a machine-like efficiency. It’s that sort of detail that goes unnoticed when you flick  through a book.

I think every great building gives us something unexpected when we stand in it. Just as this chapel in France surprised me, so too did the Sydney Opera House when I first visited it. No photograph truly demonstrates how the Opera House becomes a cave inside and then reveals, like Chartres’ medieval windows, the colour of the harbour through its staircase windows. Being within a building is like seeing the way a painter spreads paint on a canvas: we only really understand it when we observe these details at the same time as seeing the whole work. And every building, whether it’s a masterpiece by a famous architect or something we walk past and ignore every day, rewards contemplation. We need only walk around them or step inside and look up. And nothing could be simpler than that, surely.


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