I first catch a glimpse of the chapel miles away from Ronchamp. It stands out, bright-white and alone against the dark forests of the Haute Saône on the eastern fringes of France. The land is alive with the Vosges Mountains but the villages in this mining region are cast in the grey pallor of economic hardship. From a distance, the Notre Dame du Haut chapel looks like a sun-bleached château, set apart from things familiar, much like the future.
The chapel, by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, is recognized as an architectural icon of the 20th century as much for its naive form and structural innovation as for its unabashed reference to the surrounding landscape. Frank Gehry has declared that the exhilarating form of Ronchamp has inspired his work significantly. Like so many other architects, he made the pilgrimage early in his career.
When I visited the chapel last week, there were German students sitting on the grass in bare feet, sketching the building. People speaking in several different languages crowded into the building and then spoke nothing at all when they sat in the pews and took in the cast of light. As architecture, the chapel is heroic. As architecture carrying a religious message, it is one of the most seductively spiritual buildings in the world.
Notre Dame du Haut is a pilgrimage chapel. Hundreds recently gathered here for the Aug. 15 religious holiday in France. Sept. 8 marks another important date for those who climb the hill to the chapel for the pilgrimage in honour of the Virgin Mary. At the bottom of the hill is Notre Dame du Bas, a neo-Gothic church with cobwebs in its stained glass and paint peeling from its ceiling. At noon, the bells of the upper and lower churches can be heard intermingling.
Le Corbusier's chapel exists because the Roman Catholic Church in France sought to rejuvenate itself after the Second World War through the commissioning of great architecture and art. Religious affiliation didn't matter. Vision did. Artists such as Marc Chagall and Fernand Léger were invited by the Sacred Art Commission to invigorate a chapel in Assy with their paintings; the Chapel at Vence, a masterful work of art by Henri Matisse, is also the product of the commission. During the war, German artillery fire had destroyed the chapel at Ronchamp, and its replacement became an urgent matter.
Le Corbusier was raised a Protestant in Switzerland. He was never a card-carrying believer. But Ronchamp caught his attention. Religious pilgrims had travelled there since pre-Christian times to honour the Virgin Mary. He agreed to take the project.
"In building this chapel," he wrote in 1955 when the chapel was completed, "I wanted to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace, of interior joy." He found his own spirituality in nature -- a force he expressed at Ronchamp as landscape, as light and as a woman.
By landscape, I'm including the undulating coniferous forests of the Haute Saône as well as the thick stone houses, traditionally built, that sit along the floor of the valley. Anyone who has travelled the region, as Le Corbusier certainly had, knows that many of the houses and barns are lit and ventilated by tiny square openings -- more like punches in the wall than windows. Some critics insist that the tiny apertures in the angled south wall of the Notre Dame chapel are references to the mud houses of Algeria, where the architect had journeyed. The idea is exotic. But why can't a building spring from its own context? This is what interested Le Corbusier the most for the chapel: "Ronchamp?" he explained, "Contact with the site . . . eloquence of a place, message spoken to a place."
For most of his career, Le Corbusier lifted his buildings off the ground plane: He floated the houses he designed for the Parisian elite above the ground, to separate them from the dirt, the grit, the maddening crowd. His signature ribbon windows were also located up high, all the better to edit out the unnecessary mess of the city. But in the Ronchamp chapel, the ground floor follows the slope of the site to pull the visitor toward the altar. Windows are placed in a random pattern and deeply recessed into the walls. On one of the south-wall panes located next to the ground, Le Corbusier has written simply " la mer " (the sea).
Light at the chapel is not merely a trick of electricity. (The town of Ronchamp, distressed over the radical modern design, had initially refused to provide electricity and water to the chapel when it opened in 1955.) Instead, light appears like moments of grace in a place that is otherwise heavy in shadow. Much of this has to do with the roof, which does not point like a Gothic church toward the heavens. On the contrary, it sweeps downward into the main room and hangs there like the bottom of a boat.
Looking up you might think that redemption doesn't come easily at Ronchamp. How to find deliverance from your own personal trials when the weight of the world seems to be carried in that dark concrete belly? For the patient pilgrim, light is available. It is there in the thin crack that separates the walls from the roof, a trick of design that makes something heavy seem light. And there is the suggestion of light that comes from within the chapel's three top-lit towers. Each one is designed for private contemplation. You know this the moment you see a single candle glowing on a minimal concrete altar.
Throughout the chapel, there is a womanly influence. She is there with every sensuous curve of the wall and the roof. She is there in the way Le Corbusier painted the windows in a gentle style of writing, using lower-case letters. There is the name "Marie" framed by drawings of flowers and leaves, and on another window: " Bénie entre toutes les femmes" (Blessed among all women).
But a woman's suffering has been pictured at the chapel, too. A sculpture of the Virgin Mary is framed behind glass on the east wall for visitors seated in the wooden pews to look upon. Outside, where Le Corbusier designed an outdoor altar, the sculpture turns out to be a hollowed-out figure. Hollowed out is one way to think of the three towers that dominate and unite the plan of the chapel. One of the chapels is painted burnt sienna, the colour of blood. Standing inside the hooded tower is like being pulled inside a womb.
There is also the fact that the chapel is made from battered rubble walls sprayed with whitewashed gunite concrete. Le Corbusier liked the absolute whiteness of the lime on the walls. But look closely at the texture. Compared with the silken sheen of his earlier work, the chapel walls carry the texture of a rough grotto. It reads like the rawness of human experience -- a woman's withering skin.
With every curve of the building, with every reference to nature and the gentle slope of the site, Le Corbusier chipped away at the most unforgiving dogma of the modern movement. Perhaps it was the terrible destruction of Europe during the Second World War that provoked him to radically shift his approach to architecture. Maybe it was a sign of maturity, of letting go his authoritative prescriptions for urban life, of having ended the fights of his youth.
Notre Dame du Haut is radical for its structural daring. Its rugged roof lifts off from its curved, canted walls. It is a sculpture rather than a building obviously supported by columns. This suited Le Corbusier, who was an architect desperate to promote himself as a serious artist.
Does the architecture at Ronchamp inspire spirituality? I visited Notre Dame du Haut during the quiet of an evening when no one was around. I returned the next morning for several hours. And still it wasn't enough.
If it were possible to experience it again tomorrow, I would go there again. That's the pull of the chapel at Ronchamp.