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Dismayed Responses to Renzo Piano's Ronchamp

William JR Curtis’ critical review of Piano’s Convent Extension struck a chord with AR readers. Collected here are some of the letters that the editor has recieved in response to Curtis’ scathing appraisal of Renzo at Ronchamp

Laurent Salomon

Laurent Salomon, ASA is Président de la Société Française de Architectes and Professor at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Architecture de Paris-Belleville

One cannot congratulate The Architectural Review enough for having published the text by William JR Curtis with its sharp and incisive criticisms of the disastrous interventions by Renzo Piano and Michel Corajoud at Ronchamp (AR August).

For millennia, this hill top supplied a key viewpoint on the way to the Alps, and the spirit of the place was magnified by Le Corbusier’s masterpiece. With the dubious pretext of inserting nuns in a burrow, the Piano/Corajoud project has degraded Ronchamp to the level of a stop on guided tours. 

Perched like a jug on the roof of a mini-market, the poor Chapel has now lost its footing and is reduced to a subject for discussions of architectural language: curved or not curved, coloured or black and white. Masterpieces of human sensibility are precariously reliant upon a few things well done, but human stupidity and vulgarity know no limits.


‘the dubious pretext of inserting nuns in a burrow’


Alejandro Lapunzina

Alejandro Lapunzina is Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

William JR Curtis’ text dedicated to the new entrance facilities and convent at Ronchamp is an extremely insightful, measured and objective assessment of Renzo Piano’s building and the process that led to its construction. Over the years I have often visited Ronchamp with William and groups of students; he shared with us his profound knowledge of the site’s history, of the Chapel and of Le Corbusier’s intentions.

As the process of design and construction of the new facilities evolved, his concern always was that Le Corbusier’s timeless and universal masterpiece should remain intact. He closely followed the many stages of the process and kept a distance from the two camps that collected signatures through petitions for or against Piano’s project. While understanding the need to improve the entrance building, he was doubtful about the place of the convent and related facilities. Early in the process he had warned that the proposed buildings might be an ‘architectural’ contamination that would undermine the millenary sacred site. Sadly, he has proved to be right.

The new structures do not satisfy the promise that the intense relationship between the site and the Chapel would not be affected. The inexcusable ‘privatisation’ of the site’s entry gate and the related irruption of the car into the pilgrims’ ascending spiritual promenade (religious or architectural) constitute an irreparable alteration of a place that has preserved a keen spirituality through the centuries, one that an architect with such a deep sense of the poetics of a site like Le Corbusier had interpreted to the highest degree.


‘an irreparable alteration of a place that has preserved a keen spirituality through the centuries’


Joseph Giovannini

Joseph Giovannini is an architect and critic based in New York

Whether the blame belongs to the well-intended client or the very capable architect, or both, the results of the additions to Ronchamp diminish that very unexpected masterpiece. It is an issue of control: how to keep architecture from disciplining what Corb left untamed and ‘natural’.

Perhaps it’s not in the genes of the systems architect who co-invented the Pompidou Centre to take on the disobedient mysteries of a sanctuary whose power is rooted in a sense of wonder. Piano is a linear architect who rules space, and the mismatch we feel is the confrontation between his sense of measure and the incommensurate that Corb so magically orchestrated on the site and in the chapel.

Also, though Piano is a master of light, his light is secular, and has little to do with Corb’s sense of light as mystery revealed. Thanks to Mr Curtis for trying to protect the fragile. The sublime is fugitive.


‘his light is secular’


Alicia Azuela

Alicia Azuela is Professor at Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

When I opened the August AR and saw the double page illustration at the beginning of the article by William JR Curtis about Piano’s horrific intervention at Ronchamp, I nearly had a fit. What a disaster to have cut the ceremonial route of one of the most beautiful chapels in the world. I speak not only as a Mexican art historian deeply interested in 20th-century visual culture and in the sacred landscapes of Antiquity, but also as a private individual who chose to be married at Ronchamp 35 years ago. We all strolled casually up that path to discover the unfolding scenario of light, shade, geometry and landscape that was Corb’s dream at Ronchamp. Now the pastoral pilgrim’s route has been ruined by clumsy concrete walls, an electric gate and cars on the sacred way. Curtis is right: a universal masterpiece has been ruined. Le Corbusier’s vision is blemished for ever more.


‘ruined by clumsy concrete walls, an electric gate and cars on the sacred way’


Teodoro González de León

Teodoro González de León is an architect in Mexico City and was a collaborator at Le Corbusier’s Atelier, 1947-48

I offer William JR Curtis my solidarity on his pertinent criticism of the deplorable intervention at Ronchamp − an architecture-landscape site − summit of 20th-century culture. Blindness of the bureaucratic church, blindness of the architect, and blindness of the patrimony keepers.

I treasure the memory of three visits to Ronchamp, under the rain, under a radiant sun, and amidst the fog: the mystery of space and the movement of forms. It is an enormous loss.


‘amidst the fog’


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