Ronchamp (pop 3000) is in the French region Franche-Comté, 418 ks SE from Paris, on the Swiss border near Belmont. In 1950, Swiss/French architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965) was commissioned to design a new Catholic church in 1950. He initially declined the invitation, but apparently became inspired by the site on a hill top that offered views in all four directions. Like the original stone C4th pilgrimage chapel that was bombed during WW2, Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut de Ronchamp was to sit among a wooded terrain, 150m above the rest of the village.
Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut de Ronchamp
When Corbusier agreed to design Ronchamp, it had to be modern, not just in its materials and designs, but because it would function as a religious sculpture. The Church leadership wanted to get rid of the chapel’s old decadence and ornament by embracing modern art and architecture. The chapel needed to be rebuilt as a meditative and reflective space void; spatial and religious purity thus became one of Corbusier’s main focuses.
The walls were mostly stark, whitewashed concrete, because restricted access required most of the structure to be produced onsite. Stones from the former church were used in the construction. Up to 2.7m thick, the southern wall was pierced by 27 windows of various sizes in glass. These window frames were like small tunnels that allowed soft light to be reflected at a variety of angles throughout the day. There was no connection to stained glass; Le Corbusier considered that this form of illumination was too closely bound to old, Romanesque and Gothic architectural notions.
The curving walls acted as a practical method of supporting the concrete and masonry construction, as well as the massive curvilinear mushroom roof which appeared to peel up to the heavens. The curve of a massive grey roof of the chapel seemed to be a mirror of the curve that the chapel sat on. It rested on embedded pillars hidden in the walls, rather than on the walls themselves, giving the impression of the roof floating 10cm in the air. The clerestory windows, fitted between the top of the walls and roof, helped provide the interior with more light.
The Le Corbusier-designed chapel was consecrated in 1955. It had an interior space for one altar, three chapels and c200 worshippers. The concave eastern wall had a second outdoor altar which allowed services for 1000 outdoor worshippers.
As today's visitors always note, the light enters into the chapel where it appears inside as a washed-out, ethereal atmosphere. The effect of the light evokes emotional qualities that create heightened sensations in tune with the religious activities. We know Corbusier designed small puncturing apertures on the façade that amplified the interior light by tapering the window well in the wall cavity. Each wall became illuminated by these differing window frames, which in conjunction with the stark white washed walls, still gives the walls luminous qualities punctuated by a more intense direct light.
Above the plain altar, the east wall has several pinhole-windows and one substantial window with the Madonna and Child in silhouette.
On the wall behind the altar in the chapel, the lighting effects create a speckled, starry pattern. And there is a larger opening above the cross that emits a flood of light, creating a powerful religious and emotional experience.
The church has three towers of between 20 and 27 m high. These provide space for the side altars inside the church and are lit through windows fitted below the cement canopies. The chapel has no bells. The light is what gives meaning to the chapel.
Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut de Ronchamp's interior has very limited décorations. The main nave is 25 x 13 m with the floor following the natural uneven slope of the hill towards the main altar. Eight rows of wooden benches were added at the insistence of the church authorities – Le Corbusier would have preferred worshippers to remain standing. Clearly this design was not typical of Le Corbusier’s rational, rather boxy functionalism; instead it was to be an early postmodern design in a sculptural style, a modern response to a religious site. Still maintaining Le Corbusier’s principles of purity and openness, this is one of the most instantly recognisable designs of the mid C20th.
The whitewashed concrete post-modern Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut is still a popular site for religious pilgrims and architecture lovers. The large enamelled door in this wall is used only for special pilgrimage events such as Assumption of Mary Aug 15th and Nativity of the Virgin Mary Sept 8th. Three thick white walls curl inwards from the outside to create smaller chapels at the sides of the main space. Two sit on either side of the north entrance and one in the south-east corner next to the main entrance.
Ronchamp has been on UNESCO's World Heritage List since 2016. The Le Corbusier chapel is privately owned and thus one of few places of Christian worship in France that charges admission fees. Buy guidebooks in the bookshop.
See the small Pyramid of Peace designed by Le Corbusier and mostly constructed from rubble from the previous church. It is a memorial to the soldiers who died during the liberation of Ronchamp in September 1944.
And see a modern monastery that was built into the hill in 2011 to house seven nuns. The project was criticised for ruining the appearance and the acropolis-like approach to the chapel, but it didn’t matter. The monastery was built into the slope of the land and was barely visible from the chapel.
Read Sacred Concrete: the Churches of Le Corbusier (Birkhauser Verlag 2013 ) which shows how Le Corbusier was intensely interested in religion and faith. Examine the architect's relationship with religion and see his four designs for La Sainte-Baume (Southern France), Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut de Ronchamp, Cloister of La Tourette Lyon, and Church of St. Pierre, Firminy.