Colin Rowe’s essay on Le Corbusier’s La Tourette Monastery
Originally published in AR June 1961, this piece was republished online in June 2010
In 1916, at La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Corbusier erected a house with a centrally disposed blank panel. Forty years later, in the monastery of La Tourette and at a heroic scale, he has repeated something very like this device. At La Chaux-deFonds the blank panel is the central figure of a façade. At La Tourette a largely blank wall comprises the north side of the church. But in both cases, in the villa and in the monastery, as the building is first experienced, the focus of the visual field is provided by an element without high intrinsic interest which, while it absorbs the eye, is unable to retain its attention.
In 1920-21, running through the articles in L’Esprit Nouveau which were later to be collected as Vers Une Architecture, there appeared the first public evidence of Le Corbusier’s intense preoccupation with the Athenian Acropolis: ‘The apparent disorder of the plan could only deceive the profane. The equilibrium is in no way a paltry one. It is determined by the famous landscape which stretches from the Piraeus to Mount Pentelicus. The plan was conceived to be seen from a distance: the axes follow the valley and the false right angles are constructed with the skill of a first rate stage manager… The spectacle is massive, elastic, nervous, crushingly acute, dominating… The Greeks on the Acropolis set up temples which are animated by a single thought, drawing around them the desolate landscape and gathering up into the composition.’
It is not necessary to continue. But at La Tourette, while Piraeus and Pentelicus are alike lacking; while we are presented rather with a species of Escorial than a type of Parthenon; and while the old chateau, partly a farmhouse and partly a piece of Second Empire wish-fulfilment, is certainly not the most likely candidate for the role of Propylea-though differences are so obvious that they need scarcely be stressed-there are still certain patterns of organization-e.g. a compounding of frontal and three-quarter views, an impacting of axial directions, a tension between longitudinal and transverse movements, above all the intersection of an architectonic by a topographical experience which may to the initiated suggest that the spatial mechanics of the monastery’s precinct are just possibly some very private commentary upon Acropolitan material.
But the casual visitor to La Tourette will have little conscious time for this precinct. He has climbed a hill, penetrated an archway and arrived in a gravelled courtyard to find himself in what certainly appears to be no more than the picturesque hiatus between two entirely discrete buildings; to be a merely incidental space. To his left there is a mansarded pavilion. It carries a clock with blue Sevres figures. To his right is a kitchen garden of uncertain extent. But these, of which he is dimly aware, are the very subsidiary components of the scene. For right ahead, obsessively prominent and unsupported by any shred of conventional artifice, there is the machine à émouvoir which he has come to inspect.
Secretly the casual visitor is a little dismayed. He is no longer to be shocked by the absence of a preface to a work of architecture. He feels that by now he can take any lack of introduction quite in his stride. He is hardened to a very good deal. But he still scarcely expects to be so entirely cold-shouldered as here seems to be the case. A vertical surface gashed by horizontal slots and relieved by a bastion supporting gesticulating entrails; an enigmatic plane which bears, like the injuries of time, the multiple scars which its maker has chosen to inflict upon it; by any standards an inference of his own complete irrelevance-the visitor had anticipated something either a little less or a little more than this. And thus, while the three entrails, the so-called canons-à-lumiere, might seem to quiver like the relics of a highly excruciating martyrdom, while the general blankness of the spectacle might seem to be representative of religious anonymity and while a variety of phantasies infiltrate his consciousness, thevisitor, since he feels himself to be presented with a random disclosure of the building, is at this stage disinclined to attribute any very great importance to his experience.
The north side of the church this wall is instinctively known to be. It is doubtful if any other element could be so opaque. So much is evident. But, therefore, while the visitor interprets it frontally, he also attributes to this inscrutable visual barrier the typical behaviour patterns of an end elevation. This wall may indeed be a great dam holding back a reservoir of spiritual energy. Such may be its symbolical reality. But the visitor also knows it to be the part of a building; and he believes himself to be approaching, not this building’s front, but its flank. The information which he is being offered, he therefore feels, must be less crucial than simply interesting. The architect is displaying a profile rather than a full face. And, accordingly, since he assumes that the expressive countenance of the building must be around the corner, rather as though the church were the subject of a portrait en profil perdu, the visitor now sets out to cross an imaginary picture plane in order to grasp the object in its true frontality.
A certain animation of contour-the oblique cut of the parapet and its intersection with the diagonal of the belfry will focus his eye and lead him on. But if, for these reasons, the building first insists on a rapid approach, as he climbs the hill or moves along the alley within the trees, the visitor is likely to discover that, somehow, this gesture of invitation has vanished and that the closer he approaches it the more unsympathetic the building seems to become towards his possible arrival.
This is one aspect of a disconcerting situation; but another should be noticed: that at a certain stage in the approach route the building suddenly comes to seem utterly drained of importance. For, as one leaves behind the courtyard of the old chateau, which is the socket of the enclosure in which one had believed oneself to be, one is obliged to exchange a reliable womb for an unpeopled arena. The whole deserted sweep of the upper valley of the Turbide has progressively come into view; the field of experience is transformed, and the nature of the stimuli to which one is subjected becomes systematically more concentrated and ruthless.
Thus, the eye which was previously directed towards the left of the church façade, towards the point of entrance, is now violently dragged away towards the right. The movement of the site has changed. The visual magnet is no longer a wall. Now it has become an horizon. And the wall which previously had acted as the backdrop to one field of vision, as a perspective transversal, now operates as a side screen to another, as a major orthogonal, which directs attention into the emptiness of the far distance but which, by foiling the foreground incident-the three entrails- also serves to instigate an insupportable tension between the local and the remote. In other words, as the church is approached, the site which had initially seemed so innocent in its behaviour becomes a space rifted and ploughed up into almost unbridgeable chasms.
This is conceivably to provide too lurid an analysis; but, though it may exaggerate the intensity, it does not too seriously distort the quality of an experience which is unexpected as it is painful. It would be possible, and maybe even justified, to interpret this preliminary promenade architecturale as the deliberate implication of a presumable tragic insufficiency in the visitor’s status. The wall is exclusive. The visitor may enter, but not on his own terms. The wall is the summation of an institutional programme. But the visitor is so placed that he is without the means of making coherent his own experience. He is made the subject of diametric excitations; his consciousness is divided; and, being both deprived of and also offered an architectural support, in order to resolve his predicament he is anxious, indeed obliged-and without choice-to enter the building.
It is possible, but it is not probable, that all this is uncontrived. However, if one happens to be sceptical of the degree of contrivance and if one is temperamentally predisposed to consider the game of hunt-the-symbol as an over-indulgence in literature, then it will be desirable to continue an inspection of the building’s exterior. It is not an easy decision to make. For the vertical surface of the church wall slices both the higher and lower approach roads like a knife and, when this psychological obstacle is penetrated, though something of the interior of the convent is at last presented, a further discovery is made. The visitor now finds that the anticipated frontal views never do, in fact, materialize. He becomes aware that the only surface of the building which actively encourages a frontal inspection is indeed exactly that north wall of the church which it had been supposed was never to be interpreted in this way.
Thus, while other exposures, east and west, at the price of uncomfortable clambering around, may certainly be seen in frontal alignment, they are usually presented, and apparently intended to be seen, only in a rapid foreshortening. Thus, the south elevation, although generally visible in far less abrupt perspective, is still something evidently to be seen from oblique points of view; and thus, though on three sides the monastery of La Tourette is entirely open to the landscape, the conditions of its visibility lead, not to the seeing of the real and tangible voids, but to a consciousness of solids, to an awareness of ranges of verticals implicated in quick succession; of the returns of balconies rather than the presence of the windows at their rear. While, in addition, since externally the building has an extremely high visual centre of gravity, it must also be noticed that the same solidity, the same optical closure which issues from the lateral foreshortenings, is further affirmed by the vertical movements of the eye. Here again, as the eye, moves up and down, there is a distinct tendency for it register the density of under-surfaces and to infer the closest interrelation of horizontal memberings.
Once more, this elaborate divorce of physical reality and optical impression may possibly be uncontrived; but, in the degrre to which it sustains images of concentration and inwardness, and in the manne by which it makes prominent the behaviour of the approach fac;ade, it is a phenomenon which now at least may begin to suggest that we are in the presence of the most self-conscious resolution. On the Acropolis, the Greeks, we are told, ‘employed the most delicate distortions, applying to their contours an impeccable adjustment to the laws optics’; and, though we are by no means on the Acropolis, if at this stage the patience can be summoned to re-examine the north wall of the church, there may now be detected admonitory signs which seem to rehearse the types of experience which one is later subjected.
First, just as La Chaux-de-Fonds, where the blank panel generates a fluctuation of meaning and value and is incessantly transposed from a positive to a negative role in the fac;ade, so at La Tourette: the wall of the church, which is constantly invested with high figurative content and then deprived of it, acts both to call attention to itself and simultaneously to shift attention outwards on to the visual field of which it is the principal component. But while at La Chaux-de-Fonds the fundamental structure of the ambiguity is simple, while this structure is confined to a plane and causes largely an oscillation in the evaluation of surface, at La Tourette we are presented with a far more evasive condition. It is a condition which involves above all readings of depth; and, while from it there issue a series of ‘disturbances scarcely amenable to any accurate generalization, there are still two approximate tendencies which might be noticed: that the building tends to revolve, to pivot around an imaginary central spike, and at the same time that the building also tends to a supremely static behaviour.
As has been inferred, Le Corbusier presents the north side of his church to the visitor in very much the same way that in Towards a New Architecture he chose to illustrate the Parthenon. He provides, that is, a type of foreshortened frontal perspective which gives importance to the receding orthogonals, but which firmly insists on the priority of the transversals. He offers, in other words, a modified three quarter view rather than a definitely oblique condition; and the visitor is thus made aware of the monastery’s western exposure as a significant, but as a nevertheless subordinate, component of the principal figure.
But not to labour this point: at the same time that he does this, it is remarkable that Le Corbusier has also built into this frontal plane of his wall the implication of a depth which by no means exists in reality. The oblique cut of his parapet should now be noticed. It is a line so slightly out of the horizontal that the eye has an instinctive tendency to ‘correct’ and translate it for what average experience suggests that ‘it should be. For, being eager to see it as the eye is consequently willing to read it, not as the diagonal which physically it happens to be, but as the element in a perspective recession which psychologically it seems. Le Corbusier has established a ‘false right angle’; and this fausse equerre, which in itself infers depth, may also be seen as sporadically collaborating with the slope of the ground further to sponsor an intermittent illusion that the building is revolving.
Something of the vital animation of surface, the small but sudden tremor of mobility, in the area between bastion and belfry certainly derives from the torsion to which the wall is thus subjected; but, if this phenomenal warping of surface may be distinctly assisted by the real flexions of the bastion wall itself, then at this point it should also be observed how the three canons-a-lumic1’e now introduce a counter-active stress.
For the spectacle of the building as seen on arrival is finally predicated on a basis, not of one spiral, but of two. On the one hand there are the pseudo-orthogonals which, by the complement they provide for the genuine recession of the monastery’s west façade, do stimulate an illusion of rotation and spinning. But, on the other, are those three, twisting, writhing, and even agonised, light sources- they illuminate the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament-which cause a quite independent and equally powerful moment of convolution. A pictorial opportunism lies behind the one tendency. A sculptural opportunism lies behind the other. There is a spiral in two dimensions. There is a contradictory spiral in three. A corkscrew is in competition with a restlessly deflective plane. Their equivocal interplay makes the building. And, since the coiled, columnar vortex, implied by the space rising above the chapel, is a volume which, like all vortices, has the cyclonic power to suck less energetic material in towards its axis of excitement, so the three canons-a-lumicre conspire with the elements guaranteeing hallucination to act as a kind of tether securing a tensile equilibrium.
Enough has now been said to suggest the intricacy of La Tourette as a perceptual structure, but it would be equally possible to approach its problems with entirely opposite and wholly conceptual criteria in mind; and, though the normal way of seeing a building is, as we have approached here, from the outside in, since the normal way of making one is properly supposed to be from the inside out, it may now be convenient to withdraw attention from the more sensational aspects of the monastery and to consider instead what may be presumed to be its rationale.
The programme for the building was explicit. There was to be a church to which the public could on occasion be admitted. There were to be a hundred cells for professors and students, an oratory, a dining room, a library, classrooms, and spaces for conference and recreation. Finances were meagre. There was a certain problem of institutional decorum. But though the architect was therefore subjected to certain very definite limitations, and though he was involved with a religious order whose regime was established rather more than seven centuries ago, it cannot truthfully be claimed that the operational requirements with which he was confronted were so very rigid and inflexible as to predicate any inevitable solution.
It is possible to imagine the Wrightian version of this programme: a major hexagonoid volume, proliferating by an inward impulse a variety of minor hexagonoids, terraces and covered ways. A Miesian solution can be conceived. Embryos of the Aalto-esque, the Kahnian and a whole forest of other variants swarm in the imagination. But the number of choices available to anyone man, like those available to anyone epoch, are never so great as those which, in fact, exist. Like the epoch, the man has his style-the sum total of the emotional dispositions, the mental bias and the characteristic acts which, taken together, comprise his existence; and in its essential distributions (though with one great exception), Le Corbusier’s building is co-ordinated very much along the lines that previous evidence of his style might lead one to predict.
The solution which he has presented - a quadrilateral pierced by a courtyard; with the church on its north side; with the cells deployed to east, south and west in two tiers immediately below the roof; with the library, classrooms, oratory and principal entrance on the floor below this; with the refectory, chapter house and major circulations at the still lower level adjacent to the floor of the church; and with, below this again, the kitchens-is entirely evident from the published plans of the building; and, like all Le Corbusier’s solutions, it is both a highly generalized as well as a highly particularized statement.
It could be said that La Tourette, like any other building by any other architect, is primarily determined by a formal preference which is felt to be a logical one. Obviously it reflects Le Corbusier’s insistence on volumetric economy; and it would be reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the final premises of the arguments on which it is based are not really susceptible to empirical proof. Secondarily, the monastery would seem to be determined on the basis of category, i.e. by its relation to a series of propositions which postulate the ideal form of a Dominican establishment, conceived in the abstract, and presumed to be valid irrespective of circumstances of place or time. And, finally, these more or less aprioristic deductions are brought into antithetical connection with specific conditions of locality.
The site was allegedly of Le Corbusier’s own choosing. It could be supposed that other architects might have chosen otherwise. But, if a superb prospect verified the selection, it does also seem probable that this particular terrain was chosen for its inherent difficulties. For at La Tourette the site is everything and nothing. It is equipped with an abrupt slope and a lavishly accidental cross fall. It is by no means the local condition which would readily justify that quintessential Dominican establishment which seems to have been preconceived. Rathel’ it is the reverse: architecture and landscape, lucid and separate experiences, are like the rival protagonists of a debate who progressively contradict and clarify each other’s meaning.
Above all, the nature of their inter-action is dialectical; and thus the building, with its church to the north, liturgically correct in orientation, separated from but adjoining the living quarters which face the sun, is presented as though it were a thesis for discussion; and thus the site inevitably rises to function as counter-proposition. There is a statement of presumed universals and a contrary statement of particulars. There is the realist proclamation and the nominalist response, the idealist gesture, the empiricist veto. But, if this is a procedure with which Le Corbusier has long since made us familiar, and if such is his particular mode of logic, there is, of course, here in the programme a curiously pragmatic justification for its exercise. For it was, after all, a Dominican monastery which was here required. An architectural dialectician, the greatest, was to service the requirements of the arch-sophisticates of dialectic; and there was, therefore, a quite special dimension of appropriateness which inhered to the approach.
But, if the building thus answers to the ethos of the institution, this was surely the mere accident of parallel attitudes, of equivalent rigour. The architect scarcely set out deliberately to provide a plastic analogue of scholastic debate. It was only that his state of mind and that of his clients were co-incident in their astringent quality, and that both parties were ironically aware of their common identity and difference. Above all, it was not a case of the architect mimicking scholastic reasoning so much as it was the presence on both sides of irreproachable intellectual integrity which has disinfected the logical conclusions of the argument of all those conciliatory flavourings which are apt to be the outcome of attempts to bring religious institutions and modern architecture into accord. At La Tourette there are no turgid atmospherics. There is nothing ingratiating or cheap; and, as a result, the building becomes positive in its negation of compromise. It is not so much a church with living quarters attached, as it is a domestic theatre for virtuosi of sceticism, with, adjoining it, a gymnasium for the exercise of spiritual athletes. The figure of the boxer and his punch ball on the terrace or the 1928 project for Geneva has become conflated with the image of Jacob wrestling with the Angel.
However, this is to discuss effects before causes. The play on spiritual exercise as physical gymnastic may be one of the more invigorating themes at La Tourette; but it is a result rather than a determinant, and the immediate causation of the building, apart from the dialectic of architecture and site, ought now at least briefly to be noticed. -While, since Le Corbusier has always been frugal with ideas and never mistaken mere experiment or intellectual profligacy for thoughtfulness, the more obvious causation is not far to seek.
There is the famous structural schema for the Maisons Domino, with its conception of space as something horizontally stratified like the layers of a Neapolitan wafer; and there are the corollaries to this drawing: a denial of the spatial expression of the structural cell, a relegation of the column to the status of punctuation or caesura, and a penetration of the resultant product by a labyrinthine construction of miscellaneous partitions which propagate a centrifugal stress. This is almost all. Basically, it is all by now very old; and as a result there is very little to say about the living quarters of the monastery taken by themselves.
There are the usual elements of wit: an entrance which is possibly a little too Japanese, and the five parlours adjoining it; a spiral staircase which parodies something from a mediaeval building; and the astonishing Ledolcian fantasy of the oratory as seen from outside. But these are the quodlibets of the scholastic discourse; and more important are the distinctions of emotional tone which the different levels of the living quarters support. This is effected by an orchestration of light. There is a movement from the brilliance and lateral extension of the refectory and chapter house, through the more somber tonality of the library and oratory, up to the relative darkness and lateral closure of the cells. Thus there are progressive degrees of concentration and intimacy; but if, in their turn, the cells~ are like a hundred private recapitulations of the church, it is now necessary to close the circuit and to approach this most problematic element.
The quality of the church, in which chiaroscural effects reach their maximum and in which negation becomes positive, cannot be photographed, nor will it here be analyzed. Perhaps as a form it is to be related, not as first may appear to a late Gothic prototype-some King’s College Chapel or Franciscan construction in the valley of Mexico—but to Le Corbusier’s own (and contemporaneous) Roite à Miracles from the Tokyo Museum. This ‘Box of Miracles,’ intended as the stage of an open-air theatre, although it scarcely displays the same attenuated volume, does show the same slightly oblique cut of the roof, a similar entrance condition from the side, and an identical hangar-like appearance. To borrow a term from Vincent Scully, it is one of Le Corbusier’s megm-on volumes, one of those open-ended tunnel spaces compressed between vertical planes which have persisted in his work alongside those more advertised sandwich volumes where the pressure of the horizontal planes is more acute.
A history of the cross fertilization of the megaron and sandwich concepts throughout Le Corbusier’s career would be entirely relevant to the discussion of La Tourette; but it is scarcely an account which can fall within the scope of a short critique and it might now simply be noticed that, while at Tokyo a megaron and a Poissy-type sandwich occur together within the same project, at La Tourette they are so compounded within a single block that LeCorbusier is able simultaneously to secure the manipulation of all spatial coefficients.
To a block one attributes a structural continuity, Iinking textural consistency of space and a homogeneity of spatial grain or layering. While recognizing it to be a hollow and to be empty, one still conceives its emptiness as, in some way, the metaphor for a block of stone or a block of wood. It is exploitable only on the condition of collaborating with the nature which it has been assumed to possess. Or so it might have been thought. But at La Tourette, these precepts which one may often believe Le Corbusier himself to have taught and which one has sometimes felt to be a norm of procedure, are conspicuously breached, and breached with a sophistication so covert that only retrospectively does one become conscious of this means by which he has been able to charge depth with surface, to condense spatial concavities into plane and to drag to its most eloquent pitch the dichotomy between the rotund and the flat. By violating a unity at conception, by jamming two discrete elements within the same block, Le Corbusier has been able to instigate both tension and compression, sensations of both openness and density and he has guaranteed a stimulus so acute that the visitor is not aware of the abnormality of his experience.