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1956 March: Le Corbusier's Chapel and the Crisis of Rationalism (Ronchamp, France)

[ARCHIVE] The emphasis on space and volume has probably reached its most extreme point in Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, writes James Stirling

With the simultaneous appearance of Lever House in New York and the Unité in Marseilles, it had become obvious that the stylistic schism between Europe and the New World had entered on a decisive phase. The issue of art or technology had divided the ideological basis of the modern movement, and the diverging styles apparent since Constructivism probably have their origin in the attempt to fuse Art Nouveau and late 19th century engineering. In the U.S.A., functionalism now means the adaptation to building of industrial processes and products, but in Europe it remains the essentially humanist method of designing to a specific use.

The post-war architecture of America may appear brittle to Europeans and, by obviating the hierarchical disposition of elements, anonymous; however, this academic method of criticism may no longer be adequate in considering technological products of the 20th century. Yet this method would still appear valid in criticizing recent European architecture where the elaboration of space and form has continued without abatement; and the chapel by Le Corbusier may possibly be the most plastic building ever erected in the name of modern architecture.

The south tower of the chapel, emerging as a white thumb above the landscape, can be seen for many miles as one approaches the Swiss border. The rolling hills and green woodlands of the Haute-Saône are reminiscent of many parts of England and Wales, and the village of Ronchamp spreads along either side of the Dijon-Basle road. After climbing a steep and winding dirt-track, leading from the village through dense woodland, one reaches the bald crown of the hill on which the chapel is situated. The sweep of the roof, inverting the curve of the ground, and a single dynamic gesture give the composition an expression of dramatic inevitability. The immediate impression is of a sudden encounter with an unnatural configuration of natural elements such as the granite rings at Stonehenge or the dolmens in Brittany.

Far from being monumental, the building has a considerable ethereal quality, principally as a result of the equivocal nature of the walls. The rendering, which is whitewashed over, has been hand thrown and has a impasto of about 2 inches. This veneer suggests a quality of weightlessness and gives the walls something of the appearance of papier-mâché.

Not withstanding that both roof and walls curve and splay in several directions, the material difference of rendered walls and natural concrete roof maintains the conventional distinction between them. They are further distinguished on the south and east sides by a continuous 9-inch glazed strip, and though the roof is not visible on the north and west sides its contours are suggested by the outline of the parapet. There is a similarity between the chapel and the Einstein tower which is even less conventional, but only inasmuch as the walls and roof are fused into one expression.

The whitewashed rendering is applied to the interior as well as to the exterior and the openings scattered apparently at random over the south and north walls splay either inwards or outwards, similar to the reveals of gun-openings in coastal fortifications. On the inside of the west wall these openings splay inwards to such a degree that from the interior the surface takes on the appearance of a grille. It is through this grille that most of the daylight percolates to the interior, yet the overall effect is one of diffuse light so that, from a place in the congregation, no particular feature is spotlighted as in the manner of a Baroque church.

Where the roof dips to its lowest point, a double-barrelled gargoyle projects outwards to shoot rain-water into a shutter-patterned concrete tub. This. element is surprisingly reminiscent of South Bank festivalia and something of the same spirit is conveyed by Le Corbusier in his stove-enameled murals covering both sides of the processional entrance door. The same applies to the inscriptions on the coloured glass insets to the window openings. These linear applications suggest a final flourish and appear superfluous and even amateur in comparison with the overpowering virtuosity in moulding the contours of the solid masses.

The usual procedure in examining buildings - an inspection of the exterior followed by a tour of the interior - is reversed, and sightseers emerging on to the crown of the hill proceed to walk around the building clockwise, completing 1½ circles before entering the chapel where they tend to become static, turning on their own axis to examine the interior.

Echoing the sag of the roof, the concrete floor dips down to the altar-rail which appears to be a length of folded lead. The various altars are built up of blocks of polished pre-cast concrete (probably with a marble aggregate) which are cast to a marvellous precision. The roof, together with the concrete alms-boxes and swivel-door, represents an incredible French ingenuity in using this material.

The wall adjacent to the choir gallery stairs is painted a liturgical purple and the whitewash on the splayed reveals of the openings returns on to the purple wall to a width of 3 inches, thus resembling the painted window surrounds on houses around the Mediterranean coast. Small areas of green and yellow are painted over the rendering on either side of the main entrance and also on the reveals to the opening which contains the pivoting statue of the Madonna. The only large area of colour is confined to the northeast chapel and tower; this has been painted red for its entire height so that light pouring down from the top gives this surface the luminosity of ‘Dayglow.’ The three towers which catch the sun at different times of the day and pour light down on to the altars are in fact vertical extensions of each of the side chapels.

Even with a small congregation, the superb acoustics give a resonance suggesting a cathedral space and the people using the chapel do so naturally and without any sign of embarrassment. As a religious building, it functions extremely well and appears to be completely accepted. It is a fact that Le Corbusier’s post-war architecture has considerable popular appeal. The local population, both at Marseilles and at Ronchamp, appear to be intensely proud of their buildings. Remembering the pre-war conflicts, it is difficult to ascertain whether the change is a social one, or whether it lies in the public or Le Corbusier. Garches is still regarded with suspicion by the public, either on account of its style or the manner of living of its inhabitants.

It may be considered that the Ronchamp chapel being a ‘pure expression of poetry ’ and the symbol of an ancient ritual, should not therefore be criticised by the rationale of the modern movement. Remembering, however, that this is a product of Europe’s greatest architect, it is important to consider whether this building should influence the course of modern architecture. The sensational impact of the chapel on the visitor is significantly not sustained for any great length of time and when the emotions subside there is little to appeal to the intellect, and nothing to analyse or stimulate curiosity. This entirely visual appeal and the lack of intellectual participation demanded from the public may partly account for its easy acceptance by the local population.

Basically it is not a concrete building, although it has all the appearance of a solidifying object; the walls, however, are constructed in weight-bearing masonry. The initial structural idea of outlining the form by a tubular metal frame wrapped over with wire-meshing on to which concrete was to be sprayed for some reason was not carried out. With no change in the conception, this outline was filled in with masonry, rendered over and whitewashed to the appearance of the initial idea.

The interior of the west wall became so interrupted with openings that it was found necessary to imbed in the masonry a concrete frame to form around the window openings. This freedom from the precept of the correct use and expression of materials, apparent in other post-war European architecture, has little parallel in the New World where the exploitation of materials and the development of new techniques continues to expand the architectural vocabulary.

With the loss of direction in modern painting, European architects have been looking to popular art and folk architecture, mainly of an indigenous character, from which to extend their vocabulary. An appreciation of regional building, particularly of the Mediterranean, has frequently appeared in Le Corbusier’s books, principally as examples of integrated social units expressing themselves through form, but only recently has regional building become a primary source of plastic incident.

There seems to be no doubt that Le Corbusier’s incredible powers of observation are lessening the necessity for invention, and his travels round the world have stockpiled his vocabulary with plastic elements and objets trouves of considerable picturesqueness. If folk architecture is to re-vitalise the movement, it will first be necessary to determine what it is that is modern in modern architecture. The scattered openings on the chapel walls may recall de Stijl but a similar expression is also commonplace in the farm buildings of Provence.

The influence of popular art is also apparent in the priest’s house and the hostel buildings. The external woodwork is painted sky blue and areas of smooth rendering painted over in patterns are decoratively applied to the outside walls; their situation and appearance do not express any formal, structural or aesthetic principle. All the walls of these outbuildings are in concrete, and large stones have been placed in the mix close against the shuttering, so that when the boarding is removed the surface of these stones is exposed.

Since the Bauhaus, the fusion of art and technology has been the lifelong mission of Gropius, and yet it is this aspect which denotes his least achievement. The Dessau building itself presents a series of elevations each of which is biased towards either art or technology. The suggestion that architecture has become so complex that it needs be conceived by a team representing the composite mind may partly account for the ambiguity which is felt with buildings generated in this manner. On the other hand, Maillart, who evolved his aesthetic as the result of inventing theories of reinforcing to exploit the concrete ribbon, achieved in his bridges an integration of technique and expression which has rarely been surpassed.

The exaggerated supremacy of ‘Art’ in European Architecture probably denotes a hesitant attitude towards technology, which itself has possibly been retarded by our derisive attitude towards the myth of progress, the recent belief that true progress lies in charity, welfare, and personal happiness, having replaced the Victorian idea of progress as the invention and perfection of man’s tools and equipment.

If the application of technology is of little consequence, nevertheless the appearance of industrial products still has some importance for Le Corbusier, as shown by the handrails to the stairs on the chapel. These handrails, which appear to be cut-offs from an extruded section of rolled steel joist, are in fact specially cast and the top flange is set at an acute angle to the web. The movable louvre is a logical development in resisting intense sunlight and it is surprising to find them above two of the entrances to the chapel; however, a closer inspection reveals that they are 4-inch static concrete fins set at arbitrary angles, suggesting movability.

The desire to deride the schematic basis of modern architecture and the ability to turn a design upside down and make it architecture are symptomatic of a state when the vocabulary is not being extended, and a parallel can be drawn with the Mannerist period of the Renaissance. Certainly, the forms which have developed from therationale and the initial ideology of the modern movement are being mannerized and changed into a conscious imperfectionism.

Le Corbusier, proceeding from the general to the particular, has produced a masterpiece of a unique but most personal order.

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