June 04: sketching at Ronchamp

2012/06/04 § 2 Comments

On this day in 1950 Le Corbusier visited the site of a bombed church in far eastern France to begin designs for new chapel.

The peak of the Bourlémont hill had been a destination for pilgrims back to the time that France was called Gaul.  Almost as old, its first church was subsequently rebuilt through the centuries.  During World War II the hills and valleys in the region were the fighting fields of French, German and Allied troops.  Artillery fire in October 1944 irreparably damaged the building and after the war plans were made to hire the country’s most attention-grabbing architect to design a new sanctuary dedicated to St. Mary.

The unencumbered site–Le Corbusier’s favorite kind–inspired fabulous new sculptural ideas in the architect who, for the previous decades, had been increasingly moving away from the planar “rationality” and industrial imagery of his early work like the Ozenfant House of 1922.  The design for the new church, the main features of which were determined on that first day on the site, owed virtually nothing to his own aesthetic heritage.  Either due to his attitude toward formal religious observance, or his increasingly sculptural approach to architecture, or both (and then some), the architect determined on a singular design.  The plan, formed by looping lines that embrace small chapels that define an irregular space for communal worship, is topped by one of the most memorable roofs in architectural history.  With the appearance of a mountainous form carved from a giant concrete pile, building has the appearance of great heft.  It is a vessel that appears very informal, yet one that admits light with the strictness that informs the character of his early work.  Also a throwback to Le Corbusier’s earlier ideals, here, at the little church with the great big name (Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp) he finally achieved the idea of recycling building materials from buildings that had been blasted to smithereens by warfare, turning the debris of demolition into a new structure.  First proposed for the infill of the Dom-Ino house that was inspired by the carnage of the first world war, the approach was used to form the walls of this church building necessitated by the second one.

Like the contemporary house for Edith Farnsworth designed by Mies in 1950, Corb’s chapel at Ronchamp has transcended its role as architecture, and need not fulfill its original function–or any other–to justify its existence.  It is a pavilion of architectural ideals, a sanctuary for architectural pilgrims.  But unlike the little glass house, which is the culmination of Mies’ increasingly clear vision of what his architecture was about, the chapel is a virtual rejection of Le Corbusier’s early work. As examples of extreme developments in the work of mature, accomplished architects, these two buildings might inspire one to wonder, which better constitutes the pinnacle of a career?

Image: interior (from this source)

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