Opinion & Features

Sacred masterpiece or conjuring trick?

Maria Antonietta Crippa and Françoise Caussé admire the chapel that shocked the Catholic world

In the 1950s the idea of commissioning Le Corbusier to design a chapel at Ronchamp in eastern France provoked many misgivings.

This was partly because of the architect’s reputation as the theoretician and builder of a radical new kind of architecture and urbanism and partly because his best-known works included none of the spaces and forms critics expected in a church.

But in fact a close and stimulating relationship developed between Le Corbusier and Ronchamp’s commissioning body, the Commission d’art sacré of the Diocese of Besançon: he learnt from the people who appointed him as architect and who persuaded him to take on a task he had initially resisted because he was unfamiliar with the faith he would be asked to accommodate. And they learnt from him.

Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, built to replace a parish church damaged by fire in 1913 and unintentionally bombed by the Allies in 1944, was a building that overturned – perhaps irrevocably – ways of planning a church that were almost 2,000 years old.

The project was admired, detested or feared, and the reactions it provokes have continued to be extreme. To many, the forms of the chapel have seemed arbitrary, an end in themselves, exclusively aesthetic or emotional. Others have seen it as a conjuring trick by a super-skilled designer or as heavily loaded with spirituality to no particular purpose.

Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, completed in 1954, aimed to seek out the original significance of the hill, the chapel and the houses for the pilgrims and chaplain, all assimilated in a single system of architecture, art and landscape that reinvigorated the ancient status of the locality as a place of Marian devotion.

While the almost total dislocation of the Ronchamp chapel from traditional Christian church layout was dramatic, it was still linked to the vast constellation of Christian structures worldwide. It did not provide a new church typology that could be repeated on other sites; rather, it was a new place of worship in beautiful surroundings with ancient significance, able to contain and facilitate acts of collective prayer as well as private meditation, in keeping with the Christian message.

Le Corbusier and the Catholic Church could be seen as a strange coupling because of Le Corbusier’s unfamiliarity with the faith – he was an agnostic architect, born into a Protestant family. But the rough draft for a guide for the “uneducated pilgrim”, found in the archives of Ronchamp, draws attention to the exceptional quality of the chapel and to its non-traditional character. It maintains that anyone, whatever his or her cultural background, can understand it.

It was a geographical and historical fulcrum – a crossroads of peoples, nations, civilisations and religions. As early as 1957–58, the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar acknowledged the joyous nature of Le Corbusier’s space and the paradoxical ingenuity of his expression.

He wrote: Ronchamp: why has it become such an important symbol for us? A symbol which some oppose but some joyfully applaud, and the applause is louder and more widespread than the opposition: many people, who in other ways diverge, are united (in so many different ways) in their welcoming of this work. Where does all this joy and optimism about Ronchamp come from? The two terms define the central event. Where does the certainty come from? The certainty that something has been created which, like a pebble thrown into a pond, continues to make concentric rings?

In the first place, the building is there, among us, a work of spirituality – spirit here means above all human spirit, ingenium that can never be realised without perfectly mastered techne – but, by chance, the outcome is like a miracle, raised far above its own potential, with which, like an image of divine wisdom, it can now play.

There are other buildings which, thanks to modern techniques of construction, display a kind of shimmering lightness – bridges, flyovers, houses; one does not notice their weight. Here, however, even though technical wizardry plays its part, this is not what you notice; what we notice is the playfulness of a unique free spirit, liberated by the strength of his creative imagination. We too (although weighed down by our worldly cares) are lifted by playfulness into the realm of true freedom.

Le Corbusier’s chapel on the Colline de Ronchamp would never have been realised had it not been for a movement promoting modern religious art which developed in France during the second half of the 20th century. Notre-Dame du Haut therefore owes its existence to an exceptional set of circumstances that stretch back through the century: the separation of Church and state in 1905, a condemnation of Modernism by Pius X in 1907, a confrontation within religious art between the desire to retain the “traditional” in church architecture and decoration and the quest for “modernity”.

Nevertheless, the commissioning body ensured that all aspects of the chapel at Ronchamp reflected the Catholic liturgy and symbolism. Lucien Ledeur, a central figure within the commissioning body for the chapel, went to Paris “at least once a month for six months, to spend the whole afternoon with Corbusier, whom he genuinely instructed”. He taught him about the “liturgical function of the church [and] Marian spirituality”, and these “private lessons” explain the absence of any “religious solecisms”.

The chapel was blessed on June 25, 1955 by the new archbishop, Mgr Marcel-Marie Dubois. At the beginning of the ceremony Le Corbusier read out a letter. He had wanted to “create a place of silence, prayer, peace and inner joy”; his approach was “motivated” by an appreciation of the sacredness of the site.

Le Corbusier acknowledged the differences between the sacred and the religious; he was inclined to regard the sacred as a matter for the individual, to be treated with great discretion.

In Ronchamp there is an evident sense of the sacred within the architect, the commissioning body and the pilgrims, brought together to create a visually innovative building which nonetheless adheres to Catholic liturgical practice. The fruitful encounter between new and old creates an unprecedented work and poses a question about the relative values of intentionality and reception when dealing with art. The question is inherent to the profession of the architect.

We can say with certainty that the final decades of Le Corbusier’s life involved a continual process of interpretation and reinterpretation of the drama of mankind’s existence on earth and the possibility of expressing this through art.

Towards the end of what is considered to be his final testament, written a month before his death in the sea at Cap-Martin, Le Corbusier recalled, perhaps to quieten something that was troubling him, “this marvellous sentence from the Apocalypse: ‘There was silence in the sky for about half an hour’ ”. The solemn, total silence recounted in the Gospel of John, which came about after the opening of the seventh seal, marks the passage to a new era.

The architect was encouraged by the sentence to think of what he was leaving behind as a legacy: it was “the thought, nobility and fruit of labour”, which could become a “victory over fate beyond death, and perhaps take another, unforeseeable direction”.

Le Corbusier: The Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp by Maria Antonietta Crippa and Françoise Caussé is published by Royal Academy Publications and distributed by Thames & Hudson, £48