Classic Design: Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut

Le Corbusier’s Coline Notre-Dame du Haut. Photograph by G. Vielle ©ADAGP, 2013.

People feel meaningful and connected when the created environment is full of spiritual energy.

Unlike the conventional religious buildings in our impression, Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel is like a calm boat sailing freely but full of spiritual energy. How does this magic and masterpiece building come?

The original Ronchamp Church, which stands on a high place and has a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains, has become a battleground for military strategists since the Middle Ages due to the dangerous terrain. At the end of World War II, it was bombed by the German Allies. After the war (1950–1953), Le Corbusier participated in reconstructing the destroyed church. The religious buildings at that time were primarily inanimate academic paradigms. But Le Corbusier is not bound by convention. He completely disintegrated the form of Western churches, created a new religious atmosphere, and raised the aesthetics of Western religious architecture to a new realm. Ronchamp Church becomes a masterpiece of Western modern religious architecture.

Ronchamp Chapel is also called the House of Magic, and its unique shape makes every aspect a timeless visual poem. Le Corbusier dismantled the cumbersome traditional styling but absorbed the important visual elements of the classic church, which is a pretty natural integration without revealing any traces in the details. For example, the thick and sturdy walls on the west side of the church make people feel the thickness of the Roman church, but he made holes of different sizes and shapes on it, which integrated a light music sense into the severe church. And these avant-garde openings are inlaid with stained glass of traditional Gothic architecture, and the patterns on them are highly simplified, like graffiti.

In addition to shape and color, he brought light’s expression to the extreme. In the Genesis of the Old Testament, God created light, and all things have life. The atheist Le Corbusier seemed to grasp God’s creation better than any believer, weaving light into magical effects. Light passes through the undulating colored holes on the wall, creating a sacred and magnificent Genesis effect in the solemn interior space, which is exactly the mysterious atmosphere religion hopes to create.

For most of his career, Le Corbusier was an advocate of “Form follow function.” Yet he hoped to return to the psychological scale of building through Ronchamp Chapel, to create “a very engrossed, silent contemplative ship.” It brings me to the thought of Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture: “Excluding utility and function, things are also made to present meaning.” When the created environment has meaning, people feel meaningful and connected.

The divine atmosphere inside the church
The church interior
The lighting window in the church
The lighting window in the church

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