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Notre Dame du Haut: Religion by the hand of a faithless Architect Essay Question 1

By Carlos Pinto 11023588 U30007 – Introduction to Architectural History and Theory


Essay Question 1

Many people consider that all modern architecture is reductive and without detail. While this is true of some versions of modern architecture built after the 1900s it is certainly not the case for all. This question asks you to choose a public building (i.e. not a residence) that was designed with thoughtful detailing. The public building you choose must be designed by one of the architects mentioned in the lecture series or referred to in the list of seminal houses. Choose three aspects of the building that are details with particular intent. Explain the reasoning behind that detailing. Reflect on later buildings by that architect and consider if the detailing evolved in some way.


Fig. 1 – Le Corbusier


Fig. 2 – Notre Dame du Haut, also known as Ronchamp Chapel

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, famously known as Le Corbusier, is acknowledged as one of the forefathers of Modern Architecture. He has conceived many well praised modern buildings that were inspiration for generations. I intend to show that Modern Architecture was not constrained to reductive and designs lacking on detail by analysing three aspects of The Ronchamp Chapel, located in France, that were conceived with

detailed and thoughtful purpose. Also, I want to see if those details were a base for further thinking on later buildings by Le Corbusier. Would an outmoded form-praising France hold back a visionary architect? Many have had the difficulty in emerging successful from a means whose philosophies were still entangled to the traditional and strict back bone of a society, but Le Corbusier would find a way through it. The start of the project of

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Fig.3 – Father Couturier

Fig. 4- East Door. (in text : “Observe the play of shadows, learn the game…”

Ronchamp’s Chapel start was troubled by itself as Le Corbusier was reluctant to accept the commission by the Association de l'Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut, and possibly for not being a man without a preference for the worshipping of the Catholic Religion. Such bitterness could be felt because of the “rejection of the Basilica at La Sainte Baume” Samuel (2004)1. Le Corbusier eventually gives in to the words of Father Couturier, who said a great artist is needed for the job, not a Catholic architect who “would feel bound to make copies of ancient churches” (Couturier, 2004)2.

Fig.5 – Auguste Perret

One of Le Corbusier’s main evidence in his buildings is the use of reinforced concrete. It was introduced to him by Auguste Perret while working at his office in 1908-1909 and it proved to be a ground-breaking material. Jeanneret realises how reinforced concrete would enable him to support the main structure of a building only focusing on a few points without having to be limited by the arrangement of stone walls. This innovation would be a main characteristic of the church, and it would be mostly visible on the “double curve of its roof, shaped like a concrete shell, and its inclined walls” (Choay, 1960) 3. These walls, apart from their inclination, have more to them than the mere shape that the naked eye

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can see. They are like shells that

Fig. 6 – South wall (left) and East wall (right), with the East door in-between.

Fig. 7 - East Door

flow around themselves, and provide the church with a cavernous aspect, almost as if it is a fortress. John Alford follows this line of thinking and believes that Le Corbusier brings an intent to fuse a ““symbolic fortress and tomb” with the “Ship of Life or of the Soul”” (2003)4. This idea of an insurmountable construction gains strength when an analysis on the East door is taken. The choice of concrete as the material for the door provides that area with an intrinsic feeling of indestructability to the visitor, and whose entrance seems to be holding the protection of something of extreme value on the inside. Flora Samuel recalls the “stone that the angel rolled away from the entrance of Jesus’ tomb on the third day, the day of his resurrection” (Samuel, 2004) 5, that indeed is a mark on the history of Christianity, and was possibly recreated onto Ronchamp by Jeanneret as the division between the mortal world and a divine realm. Le Corbusier himself talks about the importance of a door, as he mentions that the opening of a door is the beginning of an entrance to the realm of the

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Fig. 8 – ‘The Birth of Venus’, by Alessandro Botticelli, 1486.

Fig. 9 – Detail of a woman and a pine cone, by Le Corbusier. Special attention to the last sentence which translation means “The modern cathedrals will be built on this”.


Gods, and that these doors are “the doors of the miracles”6 (Le Corbusier, 2004) 6. Another peculiar aspect about this door highlighted by Samuel is the fact that it faces the rising of the Sun, and therefore reinforces the argument that this door is indeed a symbolism to the “death and resurrection of Jesus” (Samuel, 2004)7. The curvy shape, tenuously resembling that of a female body on the handle of the East door gives sense to Le Corbusier’s seek for balance. Being a ‘world ruled by men’, Corbusier wants to make this church a place where women can be an integral part of the Christian culture. The cockleshell next to the handle is also a contribution to the feminine memoire present in the building. This imprint can have many conclusions regarding its analysis, and one of them is that of a literal demonstration of the protective and sheltering reasoning behind a door. On a more broad view, the cockleshell’s feminine connotations can go back to the representation of Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’.

Fig. 10 – East door’s handle detail, with a cockleshell imprint on the top left corner.

Fig. 11 – Exterior of the chapel on the east side, during a pilgrimage day.

Fig. 12 – South wall seen from the interior of the chapel, with the door seen on the right corner.

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The role of Venus in the Roman mythology as the Goddess of Love and Beauty suggests that the feminine shape of the body is an interpretation that could be perceived by Le Corbusier, and therefore outlines the possibility that the feminine body plays a role in the conception of Notre Dame du Haut’s design. Also, according to Samuel’s research, “Le Corbusier associated Yvonne with the figure of Venus who, in turn, has long been associated with that of Mary Magdalene” (Samuel, 2004)8. It can be suggested that this confirms the relationship between the symbolism behind the origin of the East door, and

Fig. 14 – Southeast view of the underside of the roof.

Fig. 13 – Pilgrim praying on his knees.

the feminism attributed to the church’s design, or in the case of the handle, to the role that Mary Magdalene played in the ‘opening’ of Christianity to the world. Another aspect of the building to be mentioned is the aluminium cladded roof. Its shape is so well defined and yet so vague that it “overflows with concrete, everyday images”(Pauly, 2003) 9. This may invoke in everyone’s minds many different origins for its design, but the truth is that according to Le Corbusier, it has a

Fig. 15 – Southeast plan the chapel, clearly appealing the brown of aluminium’s corrosion of the roof.


Fig. 16 – Le Corbusier, water plan of water cistern, Ronchamp.

Fig. 18 – The light shading between the roof and the wall highlights its ‘floating’ characteristic.

Fig. 17 – Water cistern and gargoyle.

Fig. 19 – South wall drawing. “Modulor everywhere. I defy a visitor to give, offhand , the dimensions of the different parts of the building”.

very specific source. “The shell of a crab picked up on Long Island near New York in 1946 is lying on my drawing board. It will become the roof of the chapel” (Corbusier, 1957) 10. The use of shells throughout the chapel becomes even more evident, and apart from their protective features towards the animal that inhabits them, their natural environment – water – is also something relevant to the feminine. Water is one of the ancient symbols of feminism, and a scarce element on the top of the hill where the chapel is situated, which brings the question regarding why such a fascination for this liquid. Le Corbusier did not forget the difficulty on getting water and turned the roof into a water conduct that would guide the liquid

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Fig. 20 – Light shining in through the gap between the wall and the roof.

“through a gargoyle shaped like an abstracted pair of breasts and down into a cistern, womblike in form.” (Samuel, 2004) 11. Rather than being supported on the walls of the building, the roof is suspended on concrete columns, which makes it look like it is

somewhat transcending view to the ones in the interior of the chapel. Light has always played a crucial role in religion, ever since the worshiping of a God amongst men. Pagan rituals have always attributed supernatural powers to the Sun, and light is nowadays still seen as a

Fig. 21 – The light entering in the building through the South windows and roof gap provides a beautiful show of colours and intensely transcending light.

floating. This carries the role that the roof plays in the distribution of light to the interior of the chapel. The gap it creates between the ceiling and the walls enables a strip of light to get through, providing the visitor with a dramatic and

purification element in Christianity. Le Corbusier manages to create an incredibly contrasting use of light outside as while “it breaks violently against the pillars or the sunbreaks, inside is manipulated with infinite subtlety” (Choay, 1960)12. The difference between two worlds then

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seems to be defined, creating an interior environment that is alien and distant from the exterior. This enhances the purpose of the door mentioned earlier, which acts as a definite barrier between two different realms. Light’s symbolism in religion is relevant enough for the architect to incorporate it onto a design, making it part of the experience in the chapel. But it is not only a part of the religious aspect of a chapel. Visitors still need to walk around and the dim light emanating from the top is not enough to distinguish edges clearly on ground level. The creation of windows in the South wall then contributes to “the manner in which daylight enters the chapel” (Kahera, 2002) 13, the lighting of the interior of the building and also to the embellishment with smaller details. It also takes advantage of the use of concrete, as this material enables its perforation without jeopardizing

Fig. 22 – Interior of the South wall.

the infrastructure of the wall. Being a connoisseur of the human body, it wouldn’t surprise me if Le Corbusier took the risky move to juxtapose

Fig. 23 – “Blessed among all”.

the concept and line of the human body to the unreachable divine side of the church. Lucien Hervé’s photo of the southeast wall of Ronchamp “looks uncannily like skin seen at close range” (Samuel, 2004) 14,

Fig. 24 – Drawing highlighting the windows on the South wall. There can also be seen the representation of the ‘Modulor’.

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Fig. 25 – Landscape view of the facing the South wall.

Fig. 26 – The enamel painted windows transmit a glimpse of colour into the inside of the chapel .


which corroborates Le Corbusier’s words “I believe in the skin of things, as in that of women” (Corbusier, 2004) 15. The whiteness of the exterior of the wall also contrasts to the interior of the building, “lit only by small apertures (…) filled with coloured glass” (Roth, 1993) 16.

the white wall overshadows the small and detailed glass. But when relating that to the principle of what a tomb is like, the exterior is meant to smother the interior purpose, and it is possible that it was considered in the design process. “This south wall provokes astonishment” (Corbusier, 1957) 17.

The windows are hand painted with enamel paint, creating colourful light patterns on the opposite walls and floor of the chapel. Seen from the outside, the windows are barely visible, and their purpose may be seen as merely as another means for light’s entrance into the interior of the chapel. There is a feeling that there is more to know from the interior than from the outside as

Despite having its construction completed more than forty years after Le Corbusier’s death, Saint Pierre still does justice to his affection with concrete. This fortress-like church, completed in 2006, can be related to the enclosure seen in Ronchamp’s chapel, where windows are yet difficult to be seen, making it look like a lightless chamber. The light

Fig. 27 – Both sides of the wall have slopes converging to the windows.

Fig. 28 – Congregation at the East entrance of the chapel. 13


Fig. 29 - Despite not holding religious celebrations in its interior, the lights surrounding it creates an environment that recalls to a more extravagant way of depicting the traditional glass tiles.

comes from the top openings that resemble chimneys taken from the futuristic world of Antonio Sant’Elia. The windows that are on the walls, invisible from the outside then take grid forms that are dispersed all around the building on a lower level when seen on the inside. It is possible that the concept of the windows was based on Ronchamp’s

Fig. 32 – Saint Pierre, Firminy, France. (2006)

Fig. 30 – Electric Power Plant, Antonio Sant’Elia, 1914

South wall was transfigured into Saint Pierre’s (Firminy, France) building as they keep the visitor extraneous to what the inside holds. Le Corbusier seems to leave in these two religious establishments the idea that religion is a realm that has to be reached after one abstracts himself from all exterior senses.

Fig. 33 – The top resembles the one of a factory.

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Fig. 31 – Heidi Weber Museum, also known as Centre Le Corbusier (1967).

Ronchamp’s roof is almost an architectural piece on itself. The fact that it rises over the wall seems to metaphorically pull the viewer’s conscious to the supernatural image of Christ rising to Heaven. This link to religion and to the incredible may not have had great influence in Le Corbusier’s later buildings, but there seems to be a relationship between

Fig. 34 – The roof seen from ground level.

the lack of contact between the roof and walls on both Notre Dame du Haut and Heidi Weber’s Museum, opened in 1967. There are big differences between the materials chosen for the aspect of both roofs, but their structural concept remains to my view, very similar. Despite not playing a role in the dissipation of light to the interior of the building the way it does in Ronchamp chapel, Weber’s roof’s plasticity has the same aesthetic importance to the building.

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to any other building. Several buildings were designed by Jeanneret after Ronchamp’s chapel, but few had the same contextual intent.

Fig. 35 – Chandigarh’s College of Architecture’s imposing entrance.

The attention to the roof on the museum seems to be catalysed by the structural beams that work almost as lines that attract the viewer’s sight to the top, but this exterior positioning of the beams would not have the same impact on Notre Dame du Haut, as that such deviation could have destabilized the ‘supernatural’ purpose that is embedded in it. The East door of Notre Dame du Haut is one of the parts of the chapel that most attention was given to. This is almost like a sculpture particularly devised by Le Corbusier, and its symbology and purpose can hardly be transmitted

The East door is a part of a whole, and therefore it is very unlikely that a posterior building or part of a building by Le Corbusier had a starting point that could have had this door as a conceptual template. Despite this, there are entrances of buildings that gain similar relevance, such as the one in Chandigarh’s College of Architecture, opened in 1959. Just like the Ronchamp’s East door, this entrance is cast in concrete, and the material’s predominance makes it a bold and eye catching part of the building’s design. Contrasting with Ronchamp’s door, Chandigarh’s is highly coloured with yellow, red and black, but it holds details to it, that like in the East door may escape to a first glance. Corbusier’s anthropometric scale ‘Modulor’ seems to be represented here through the blue and red twist detail. This possibly has the intent to make the visitor have a first-hand experience with dimension, enhancing the importance of such

Fig. 36 – Chandigarh’s College of Architecture (1959). 16


feature in Architecture, just like in Notre Dame du Haut. Le Corbusier may not be praised by many as an innovative architect, but he was an architect that reinvented himself building after building. The proof of this resides on his opening to new challenges, which culminates in the conception of Ronchamp chapel. This was a mark on his own approach to religion, and to his famous view of design to the masses. After visiting the chapel, James Stirling referred to it as a symptom of “the crisis of rationalism” (Stirling, 2003) 18. The idea that Stirling tries to show of a chapel that forces the explanation of every moment of its design is not at all out of context. But, over the years it has been suggested that religion itself, and

Christianity in this case, is embedded in symbolism, and therefore demands a thorough understanding and decoding from the scholar. The fact that Le Corbusier, being non-religious, created a building with such a religious purpose and meaning without having the temptation of following the repetitive work of precedent architects is commendable. Le Corbusier had the wish and belief that people’s behaviours could be changed by affecting their feelings. On this line of thought, Le Corbusier had the “intention to imbue each visitor to Ronchamp with a sense of the transforming and restorative power of harmony, as manifested through colour, sound and form”19 (Corbusier, 2004).

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Bibliography

1 Samuel, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, Page 119 2 Couturier, Marie-Alain (n.d) cited by Samuels, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, Page 119. 3 Choay, Françoise (1960), Le Corbusier, G. Braziller, New York, Page 22. 4 Alford, John (n.d.) cited by Upton, Dell (2003), Signs Taken for Wonders, Journal ‘ Visible Language’, Volume: 37 , Issue: 3, Page 332+. 5 Samuel, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, Page 127 6 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (n.d) cited by Samuel, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Flora Samuel, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, Page 127. 7 (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, Page 127. 8 Samuel, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, 127 9 Pauly, Daniele (n.d.) cited by Upton, Dell (2003), Visible Language Journal, Volume: 37. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2003. Page Number: 332+. 10 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 88. 11 Samuel, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, 121 12 Choay, Françoise (1960), Le Corbusier, G. Braziller, New York, 23.

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13 Kahera, Akel (2002), Gardens of the Righteous: Sacred Space in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Cross Currents Magazine, Volume: 52, Issue: 3, Page 328 14 Samuel, Flora (2004). Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, 120 15 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (n.d) cited by Samuel, Flora (2004). Le Corbusier: Flora Samuel, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, 120 16 Roth, Leland (1993) Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, USA, Page 495. 17 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 99 18 Stirling, James (n.d.) cited by Dell Upton (2003), Signs Taken for Wonders, Journal ‘ Visible Language’, Volume: 37 , Issue: 3, Page 332+. 19 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (n.d) cited by Samuel, Flora (2004). Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, 119

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Figure Referencing

1 http://42ndblackwatch1881.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/c-4.jpeg 2 http://browse.deviantart.com/?qh=&section=&q=ronchamp#/d196mfl 3 http://www.menil.org/images/couturier.jpg 4 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 46. 5http://api.ning.com/files/aYZtUQFIGtBffX86NTVyN*VFpl9diqTzwCvv6Kq2*Mv mAE62RQ7w*ILiy8ZncsV*M7Xn9mld9LDdPmHQ6x-6aZP7byd8Mu1n/AP.jpg 6http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_ckKPiPHuEvM/SwFclJMbSAI/AAAAAAAAA6o/5RaH aSiZ9GY/s1600/CIMG7429.JPG 7 http://www.flickr.com/photos/iqbalaalam/2652314046/ 8 http://www.artinthepicture.com/artists/Alessandro_Botticelli/birth.jpeg 9 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 117. 10 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 128. 11 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 125. 12 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 126. 13 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 112.

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14 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 54. 15 http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_e_vSrdaYB4/TTdkTlh_3qI/AAAAAAAABpo/UfBnX5feyes/s1600/Ronchamp+1.jpg 16 Samuel, Flora (2004), Le Corbusier: Architect and Feminist, Wiley Academy, Chichester, England, 122 17 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 67. 18 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 108. 19 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 118. 20 http://lh4.ggpht.com/qGuGq7mLVlM/SHO7Eah_XOI/AAAAAAAAAtQ/O2xt51C0t6I/P1120815.JPG 21 http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3155/2501817738_d43be951bd_o.jpg 22 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 30. 23 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 115. 24 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 96. 25 Popa, Stelian (2008) http://fc05.deviantart.net/fs36/i/2008/261/5/b/R_o_n_c_h_a_m_p__landscap e_by_stelianpopa.jpg 26 http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_HBLiCn_Xbps/SwEGPMSpEZI/AAAAAAAAAFY/Ae7Q 7aYckFo/s1600/interiornave.jpg 27 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 17.

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28 Jeanneret, Charles-Édouard (1957), The Chapel at Ronchamp, Praeger, New York, Page 17. 29 http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2006/07/27/arts/30ouro.slide3.jpg. 30 http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lsi4qfsYIn1qjza6po1_400.jpg 31 http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/7862492.jpg 32http://www.concierge.com/images/cnt/articles/April07/new_wonders/cnt_ newwonders_001p.jpg 33http://3.bp.blogspot.com/--3iSG2Fh2Q/TbPaUg8IBTI/AAAAAAAABDE/4HwWkTS5S0I/s1600/Road+Trip+09-042011a+14-04-2011+1031.jpg 34 http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_nbq2z7LV5VM/THvvS6YLEyI/AAAAAAAABzM/Gw3Z hZ5xFEQ/s1600/F-Centre+Le+Corbusier,+Heidi+Weber,+Zurich.jpg 35 http://www.flickr.com/photos/36284883@N00/4199656386/ 36http://www.ayushveda.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/chandigarhCollege-of-Architecture.jpg

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Notre Dame du Haut: Religion by the hand of a faithless Architect