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Ronchamp undermined by Renzo Piano's convent, France

The construction of a new visitor centre and convent at Ronchamp illustrates the folly of trying to transform a serene pilgrimage site into a venue for mass tourism

When Le Corbusier designed the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut to stand on the hill at Ronchamp in the early 1950s it was always his intention that the building should be a remote pilgrimage site linked to the surrounding horizons and approached by a processional route up a diagonal pathway. The building itself was conceived as a dynamic sculpture-in-the-round interacting with the landscape and creating an interior, sacred space intensified by light and shadow.

While responsive to Catholic liturgy and symbolism, the building reinvented the very idea of a church by fusing modernity and ancient archetypes. Nature itself was a source of inspiration and the Chapel combined an interior nave with an exterior one with the hills of the Vosges as the backdrop. It was always understood that the Chapel should serve the needs of the occasional visitor of whatever belief while also being available for Masses throughout the year and catering to the vast influx of pilgrims on the two key dates of the Marian calendar: the Birthday and Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

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Original site plan sketch by Le Corbusier, defining the pilgrims’ path up to the Chapel (in yellow)

The literature on Ronchamp is vast and reveals the extent to which the building drew upon diverse sources from crab shells and boats to ancient Roman ruins and North African mosques. Le Corbusier was brought up as a Protestant and in later life adhered to no particular faith but he did have a sense of ‘higher things’ and alluded to the spiritual in art through phrases such as ‘l’espace indicible’, loosely translated as ‘ineffable space’. With both the Chapel at Ronchamp and the Monastery of La Tourette he dug down to private memories of sacred spaces experienced in his travels and to primal definitions in the history of religious architecture, transforming them into the stuff of his modern architectural vision.

In all these respects he was in harmony with the cultural programme of his main supporter in the clergy, the Dominican monk Marie-Alain Couturier, who in the pages of the review L’Art Sacré championed a reinvigoration of church art and a rejection of Catholic kitsch, by integrating the best of modern art with a search for essentials in tradition. Both architect and member of the clergy were inspired by a certain universalism beyond the intellectual parochialism and artistic provincialism of much of the ‘Official Roman Catholic Church’.

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The notion of the Chapel as a serene object in the landscape is evocatively captured in this generative sketch by Le Corbusier

The Chapel at Ronchamp replaced a church destroyed in artillery exchanges in the Liberation of France in 1944 and always had an aura of renewal. But it was combined with a sense of return and Le Corbusier was fascinated by the history of a supposedly miraculous statue of Our Lady on the site (incorporated in a window in the east facade) and by the notion that in pre-Roman times there had been a sun temple on the hilltop. As in the other late works in India, he was in search of a cosmic dimension in touch with the visible and invisible forces of nature, especially through the medium of light. There was even something vaguely pagan in his reading of the sacred, the monumental and the passage of the sun.

The subtle placement of the Chapel, the ascending route, and the angling of attendant structures such as the Priest’s House and the Pilgrims’ Lodge with its turf roof, no doubt recalled his admiration for the dynamic space of the Acropolis in Athens, praised so eloquently in Vers une architecture. For Le Corbusier, the Parthenon was the very embodiment of a higher idea and it haunted him all his life. At Ronchamp he reinvented the procession as a promenade architecturale. The active profiles of Classical columns and curved stylobates found an echo in post-Cubist concave and convex forms resonating with the landscape: his ‘architecture acoustique’.

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A shot of the approach to the Chapel taken in 1984 shows the sense of the rising pathway, now compromised by the new interventions

There was always pressure on the site at Ronchamp to construct some sort of centre to receive more people but Le Corbusier resisted this fiercely, writing to the resident priest Father Bolle-Reddat in the early 1960s that he wanted nothing like the site of Lourdes with its commercialised religion and insisting that the site should preserve its sense of remoteness. An ugly pink house constructed by the entrance to the site was clearly in contravention of these intentions, and the parking lot was a messy affair.

And so one moves to the commission given to Renzo Piano in 2006 by l’Association de l’Oeuvre de Notre-Dame du Haut and l’Association des Amis de Sainte Colette to demolish the house and design a new, more ample gatehouse with ticket office, bookshop and restaurant, and to improve the parking – none of this a bad idea on first inspection, although implying a considerable surface area to accommodate groups.

The more controversial part of the commission concerned the introduction of a convent for the Community of ‘Pauvres Clarisses’, formerly resident in a convent in Besançon. In addition to small cell-like residences for 12 nuns, this was to include another chapel, work and reception areas, an interior garden, even several extra rooms for visitors to stay seeking spiritual retreat. There were also meeting rooms and offices suggesting a conference centre of sorts. In short this was to be a change of use for the site and a major incision into the side of the hill of which Le Corbusier’s Chapel was always part.

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A roadway cut into the hillside leads to the Convent. The banked up soil used to embed the new buildings alters the curve of the hill, and thus the relationship of the Chapel to its surroundings

 

Piano’s first project proposed a necklace of buildings cut into the west flank of the hill accessed by a curved route for cars. The project was placed far too close to the Chapel and included a variety of clashing angles and inconsequential gestures. The nuns’ cells were like ski-lodges with tilted roofs and exaggerated light tubes poking out of them. The plans and sections looked as if they were drawn by different hands and minds. The site plan was a sprawl of incoherent splayed geometry which fought terribly with the subtle displacements and voids of Le Corbusier’s overall site plan. The Gatehouse was an exaggerated effort with two large flanges forming an angled roof, clearly in conflict with the Chapel in the background.

It was hard to imagine that this was the same architect as the one who designed the Beyeler Foundation outside Basel, so well attuned to its urban and landscape context. The first project by Piano was alas closer to Piano’s muddle-headed Pilgrimage Church for Padre Pio at San Giovanni Rotondo, a hormone-fed mollusc with neo-rustic pizzeria arches and an indecisive entrance platform making little of the views to the sea and the horizon.

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Section through nuns’ cells in context

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Initial site plan sketch by Renzo Piano

When the critical reactions did at last emerge, first of all in a petition, they said little about the mediocrity of Piano’s scheme in itself, concentrating instead upon the clash with Le Corbusier’s Chapel and its surroundings. A counter petition soon emerged and the battle of caricatures was engaged. Either you were for Le Corbusier and against Piano or you were for Piano and against Le Corbusier: there was little reasonable discussion of pros and cons, even in a debate organised at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine in Paris in summer 2007 with representatives of l’Association de l’Oeuvre de Notre-Dame du Haut, Piano, Corajoud the landscapist, and a sister of the Clarisses Community on the one side, and several representatives of the Fondation Le Corbusier (which had given off mixed signals up to then) on the other. The architectural critic ofLe Monde, Frédéric Edelmann, who can always be relied upon to miss the point, presented this as a confrontation between Corbusian zealots and those committed to contemporary invention.

The one clear critical voice at this event was that of the architect Michel Kagan (alas since deceased) who stated that the Convent had no place on the hilltop, that Le Corbusier’s intentions for a place of silent meditation approached on foot should be respected, and that it was disturbing to spend millions on ‘les Pauvres Clarisses’ when the region of Ronchamp was suffering from real poverty and economic depression. Why not move the entrance paraphernalia and parking further down the hill where they could help the local economy, then have people stroll up in peace as always intended?

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Besieged by tourist groups, who are herded around the site, Ronchamp now has the feel of Lourdes and its mass religious tourism

Also avoiding the clash of caricatures, I wrote about Ronchamp in AR October 2007 reminding all concerned that Le Corbusier’s project was essentially a landscape idea, that Piano’s entrance structure was out of scale and that the Convent was at odds with the notion of a pilgrimage chapel. I even addressed these criticisms to the Piano office directly in a letter. Under pressure from all sides, Piano tempered his scheme, withdrew down the slope (nothing like enough) while Corajoud claimed to respect the original Corbusian idea of a response to the four horizons.

In its general lines it is this modified project which has been constructed on the hillside at Ronchamp. But the impact of the two tiers of accommodation along the west flank of the hill and of the Gatehouse and parking upon the Chapel and its landscape is still highly problematic and undermines Le Corbusier’s building and landscape ideas. Of course it is a relief to have got rid of the pink house and its attached outhouses but the new approach is disturbing in any number of ways.

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Site plan showing the upper level of the Convent with its chapel and communal areas. Nuns’ cells are strung along the lower ridge, with the ‘Gatehouse’ containing a visitor centre embedded in the hillside below. This drawing does not show the new sliding gate that now cuts off the original pilgrims’ path

The parking surfaces are light coloured concrete and create a foreground which fights with the white curved walls of Le Corbusier’s Chapel in the background. Not content with a modest stroll from car or bus to entrance, Piano and Corajoud have invented a zigzag of imposing angular concrete walls which slice up the slope and bully the visitor towards the ticket office and bookshop well to the left of the previous entrance to the site, before channelling them up a ramp which has nothing to do with Le Corbusier’s established circulation pattern.

The previous and correct entrance to the promenade architecturale is now reserved exclusively for cars and is defended by an intercom system linked to the Convent interior a hundred metres away, and by a crude sliding metal gate detailed as a zinc grate. The large concrete walls to each side clash brutally with the stone wall and steps of the tiny cemetery which used to be an understated event to the right of the pilgrims’ path. Piano has cut the umbilical cord of Le Corbusier’s scheme and killed off some of his key intentions.

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A new sliding electric gate now controls car access to Chapel and Convent, turning it into a gated community, as opposed to a sacred site

The so-called Gatehouse containing the ticket office is hugely out of scale with the hillside and with the Chapel itself which seems to sit uncomfortably upon it like a disembodied object. The closely placed vertical mullions run counter to the horizontality required in this landscape situation. Inside, there is all the tourist bustle which Le Corbusier hoped to avoid: fast food, books, trinkets, the din of tourist groups. The much advertised ‘re-sacralisation’ of the site of Ronchamp translates in reality into a ‘machine à prosélytiser’ − a preaching machine − processing busloads of Catechism groups and re-colonising the site for the use of official clergy and mass religious tourism − precisely the Lourdes effect which Le Corbusier hoped to avoid.

Visitors can hire audio-guides at the entrance and be seen wandering around like zombies between numbered plaques dotting the grass platform and interrupting the crucial ground plane. The phones mutter packaged explanations. ‘Voici la façade sud, inspirée par les fenêtres des fortifications’. ‘The roof was influenced by the shape of a crabshell’ etc etc. When I was there recently there were open air Confessions taking place and priests were all over the site.

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Restaurant and bookshop in the visitor centre cater for the now inevitable mass tourism, which Corb had hoped Ronchamp might avoid. Placing the trappings of tourism in such close proximity to the Chapel has fundamentally altered the landscape and ambience of the site, originally conceived as a remote pilgrimage chapel. Now it is ‘une machine à prosélytiser’

When one poor, guilt-ridden 10-year old broke down in tears during Confession I was chased away by a guardian of the Faith in case I overheard anything! So much for Le Corbusier’s notion of establishing a place of ‘intimate concentration and meditation’. When channelled through the ticket office and bookshop I could not help recalling the scene in the Bible where Christ expelled the moneylenders from the Temple.

The new structures at Ronchamp were not cheap and despite the adjective ‘Pauvre’ the nuns of the Clarisses Order have been given spacious and relatively luxurious accommodation. The budget ran to over €10 million for these interventions and there were even gifts from such sources such as the Foundation created by the shipping magnate Niarchos. Is this really just a nunnery or is it also a future centre for seminars? The clash between the new functions and the existing pilgrimage site is everywhere evident.

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cross section and plan of the cells

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Typical nun’s cell. The Convent is home to a community of ‘Pauvres Clarisses’, a contemplative order founded by St Clare of Assisi

The collision between the car access to the upper level of the Convent cut into the hillside and the pilgrims’ route established by Le Corbusier is a case in point. Just above the sliding gate, cars and pedestrians have to share the same slope for several metres. The cars, driven by the nuns or their visitors, then veer to the left along a curving driveway with two tracks for the wheels, another collision with Le Corbusier’s subtle landscaping geometry which effectively cuts off the Priest’s House from the slope. Presumably hoping to ‘mediate’ between all these geometries, the landscapist introduces yet another accent, this time in the form of a parallel alley of trees. Like a bad cook, he goes on adding more and more ingredients and in the process kills off the original fresh taste.

The collective parts of the Convent are much higher than they need to be and in effect dwarf the nuns, but the impact on the landscape is disastrous as the earth has been humped up in a way which destroys the even curved profile of the hill to the west (an effect which is not portrayed correctly in published section drawings). The landscape has been irremediably scarred by the high rim of the upper level collective buildings, the approach platform and the curved driveway.

As for the spaces of the Convent they are Piano in a correct mode, but the exteriors are unnecessarily monumental and set up further axes in conflict with the terrain and with Le Corbusier’s topographical accents above. One recognises some of Piano’s customary architectural language including slender steel supports and horizontal overhangs. The effects of daylight within are agreeable enough especially in the Oratory, although all this west-facing glazing poses problems of glare and heat gain in the summer months.

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The communal parts of the Convent are generally too high

Critics in the daily press have gone on and on about the ‘restraint’ of Piano’s concrete but what does it mean really to pour so much of the stuff on parking surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings when you are creating a foreground to one of the most sophisticated buildings in the history of architecture where the meaningful use of different textures of concrete, stone and other materials is concerned? Wading through Piano’s pointless concrete planes is like listening to enforced muzak before rising to the sublimity of Bach or Mozart. Silence would have been better.

The Piano and Corajoud project opens up views to the landscape to the west of the Chapel but the upper tier of the Convent has modified and raised the rim of the site and this in turn changes the perception of the horizon. The architects and the Clarisses have not been able to resist including their own little metallic bell tower and cross which poke up from below. Even since I was there a few weeks ago a kitsch statue has suddenly popped up on the approach platform down below.

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The Convent chapel shows a more sensitive hand. A tapering, cavern-like space cultivates a sense of intimacy and concrete walls are washed by natural light

The interiors are airy and well lit, the private Chapel even has its moments, but what are all these new functions including seminar rooms doing here, crammed onto a site which was conceived as a place apart? There was a hilarious moment when I was visiting the interior when one of the delightful and welcoming nuns suddenly had to run to a television screen monitoring the sliding gate a hundred metres away. A car had arrived and someone was insistently buzzing and buzzing the intercom phone. A face appeared on the screen like an enormous muzzle and at last the nun managed to find the right button and the gate clanked open and the jolly little Twingo passed through and up the slope bearing tidings and provisions from the outside world. Then the electronic gate slid shut. It was a tableau of gadgetry worthy of a film by Jacques Tati.

Le Corbusier adhered to no official religion but succeeded in producing a sacred place in tune with the landscape and its memories. Now official religion has had its revenge and with its architects has undermined the aura of a world masterpiece while destroying the genius loci of a hill that had been sacred for centuries. Poor Le Corbusier and Père Marie-Alain Couturier must be turning in their graves.

Neither the French Ministère de la Culture nor Les Monuments Historiques did anything to protect Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp against this problematic intervention. See William JR Curtis, ‘Vandalism in the Land of Patrimony’.

Architect: Renzo Piano Building Workshop
Landscape architect: Michel Corajoud
Photographs: Paul Raftery, Iwan Baan, Michel Denancé, William JR Curtis

Readers' comments (1)

  • I visited the place a few monthes ago. The Chappel of Ronchamp is as magnificent as I had imagined - and more. Piano's building, however, is clearly the wrong intervention to the site. Without any criticysm to the design itself, I clearly felt , on the spot, that something had been misunderstood. The idea of having a second chappelle on site, reminds me of certain house wives, that design a super luxusious kitchen for their new home- never use it- and do all the cooking on a small stove in some corner of the pantry. Were the people of the convent afraid to "overuse" the main chappel? It is sometimes our duty, as Architects, to prevent such nonsense from happening ,even against the clients' wish, which Le Corbusier's Chapel of Ronchamp is very much an example for.

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