Click on photos to enlarge.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France

Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, 1954, La Corbusier.               
Although it's the middle of February as I write this, by the time you read it, I'll be dashing here and there around Paris, France, trying to see the whole city in just seven days in May. One of the major Paris landmarks I hope to see is the famed Notre Dame de Paris. If you travel much about France you quickly come to realize there are many churches and chapels of various sizes, shapes, and importance bearing the name, Notre Dame (Our Lady). There's one at Poitiers, another in Chartres, as well as Amiens, Avignon, Bayeux, Bayonne, Le Havre, Marseille, and likely a dozen more (or more). Most of them are Gothic; virtually all of them hundreds of years old; some of them rivaling, and even surpassing in some respects, the cathedral in Paris. One Notre Dame, however, the one located on a hill overlooking Ronchamp, (southeastern France near the Swiss border), is but sixty-two years old; would likely fit inside Notre Dame de Paris; and is, most assuredly, not Gothic. Notre Dame du Haut (Our Lady on High) many consider to be the first Postmodern structure of any kind ever built.
Notre Dame du Haut interior and stained glass.
Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
Notre Dame du Haut is not a cathedral, it's technically a pilgrimage chapel, though most of its 80,000 visitors each year are not pilgrims but tourists fascinated by the unique architecture, wishing to pay homage not to the Virgin Mary but to the chapel's Franco-Swiss architect who called himself Le Corbusier. Moreover, as churches go, one has to stretch the imagination to encompass such a radical design...not so much today perhaps, but certainly in 1954 when the chapel opened its brightly painting doors (below, right). In our modern era, churches have become almost like architect playgrounds with designs ranging from holy to holy split. In seeing some, you find yourself hoping God has a sense of humor. In this case, as to Le Corbusier's place of worship, the chapel is inspiring, quite beautiful in its own way, and evidence that God is, at the very least, broad-minded architecturally.

Notre Dame du Haut interior looking toward the main altar.

The main doors to the chapel, painted by
Le Corbusier himself.
Even today it's fairly safe to say Notre Dame du Haut is like no other church in the world. It's even safer to say it's like no other work by Le Corbusier as well. It's organic, sculptural, structurally and aesthetically at odds with Le Corbusier's usual rectilinear emphasis on modular standardization and industrialized architecture such as his groundbreaking Villa Savoye or his multi-family housing units built in Marseille shortly after WW II. In fact, had there not been a war, there never would have been this chapel on the hill. Le Corbusier's chapel replaced a Romanesque/Medieval chapel (below) built in the fourth century as a refuge and stopover for pilgrims traveling to Rome. However, during the war, the Germans literally bombed the hell out of it, completely destroying the noble (but horrifically ugly) pile of stone.

Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, ca. 1900.
Around 1952, a reformist branch of the Catholic church, looking to continue its relevance while warning against decadence within the church at the time, and looking to renew its spirit, chose to embrace the minimalist tendencies of Modern Art and architectural concepts. Le Corbusier was their man. His mentor was Father Marie-Alain Couturier. Together they conceived the design and guided the project to completion over a period of two years. Even a cursory glance at the floor plan (below) conveys the fact that this is no ordinary church. There's hardly a straight line or a vertical wall in the whole structure. It was as if Le Corbusier was deliberately going out of his way (or mind) in breaking free of every traditional concept of what a church should look like. Symmetry was nowhere to be found. Windows appeared to be placed randomly, seating was minimal, placed upon a platform while the altar was at the same level as the rest of the sanctuary. There was stained glass, to be sure, but more along the line of Mondrian than scriptural narrative.

Notre Dame du Haut floor plan. The entrances are at lower left and lower right.

The altar in one of the ancillary chapels.
To a great extent, the site itself dictated several aspects of the church design. It was high on a kind of acropolis, too inaccessible to allow for modular construction, which would have, in any case, offered little advantage in building a church. The structure is not large, consisting of a main chapel and two ancillary chapels. The floor of the main chapel follows the natural slope of the hill downward towards the altar. The towers are constructed of stone masonry capped by cement domes. The vertical elements of the chapel are surfaced with mortar sprayed on with a cement gun and then white-washed inside and out. The concrete shell of the roof is not supported by the walls but by concealed pylons. It was left rough, just as it comes from the formwork. The main chapel seldom sees more than a few dozen worshipers at a time, except on certain feast days when thousands attend mass held in an outside chapel in the "front" of the church.

The outdoor chapel for when crowds are to large for the inside.
As many as six-thousand can be seated on the lawn outside.
Like every lady, Notre Dame du Haut has its good sides and it's...less attractive angles. That is to say, it has a definite front and back. The front, emphasizing the soaring "point" of the sloping roof and the clean lines of the massive main wall punctuated with its multi-dimensional windows, is the view most photographed. The back side features a two-story outside stairs clinging to the side of the building. While an improvement over the pre-war structure, it seems utilitarian at best. The only fault I can find with the chapel is that they built it too far from Paris for me to see in just my seven days in May.

Notre Dame du Haut at night



  1. Dear Jim Lane,

    I am currently writing on my bachelor thesis about "Natural light in Architecture" and would like to use one of your photos of this article. It would be the second one called "Notre Dame du Haut interior and stained glass." - let me know if you would allow me to use it and if so, which references I should put.
    Furthermore a publishing company wants to publish my thesis as a small book when it is finished.

    Thanks a lot in advance,
    best regards from Austria,

    Andreas Maierhofer

  2. Andreas--

    As much as I'd like to help with your undertaking, I'm sorry to say I don't own the rights to any of the photos utilized in this particular item. They were all downloaded from the Internet.

  3. Ah ok, no worries, thanks for the quick answer!
    Any chance you remember where you got that second photo from?

  4. Andreas--

    I'm sorry, it's been too many blogs ago that I dug up the photos you're interested in. I no longer have a memory long enough for such things. All I can suggest is the system for finding such images, which I would imagine you're already familiar with--it's called Bing and Google (I prefer Bing). Type in the name of the landmark then click on "images" at the top when the page pops up. Then scan down through them until something pops up you like. Be prepared for either feast of famine. As for the second photo, I think you're at least the second person to make such an inquiry. LOL. It is a real beauty, no doubt about that.