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Le Corbusier and the Theological Program

Published onApr 23, 2021
Le Corbusier and the Theological Program
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Le Corbusier at work, Paris, 1947. (Photograph courtesy of Archives Fondation Le Corbusier.)

One of the ideas that has greatly influenced the development of architecture in this century is that of the building program. In simple terms, this can be defined as the statement which lists the requirements of a particular project and the rational manner by which those requirements are met. Less prosaically, the idea encompasses the total understanding of the architectural problem: an understanding that extends the architect’s role from that of mere coordinator to one of creative catalyst.

“The modern school holds to the programme as the source of unity,” writes John Summerson. “The concept of the building must arise from within the programme; the programme itself must be the architect’s medium, just as much as the materials with which he builds.”1 The task of the architect in this process is to absorb himself fully, yet dispassionately, with all the issues that constitute the program, and then produce, in formal and spatial terms, an architectural synthesis that will enable the client more fully to carry out the tasks for which the building is designed.

So natural is this approach of the modern movement, so obvious its ultimate consequences, “that although the outward forms of the New Architecture differ fundamentally in an organic sense from those of the old, they are not the personal whims of a handful of architects avid for innovation at all costs, but simply the inevitable logical product of the intellectual, social and technical conditions of our age.”2 This method of working lay at the heart of the Bauhaus teaching, and has helped produce much socially inspired architecture of recent years.

Applying these directives to the specific problem of church building, a serious architect would expect to acquaint himself with the liturgical and other functions that make up the theological program. He need not have personal faith in those functions, but his professional concern for the impact of architecture upon society should lead him to a natural interest in the likely relationship of the Church, its buildings, and the social milieu, and the hope that his architecture could foster that activity. Indeed, an appreciation of the Liturgical Movement, that endeavor to reintegrate Christian life and worship, which has been described by one scholar, David Edwards, as “an understanding of the Church as drama in which all who take part review their faith in the Lordship of Christ,”3 enabled such architects as Rudolf Schwarz (1897-1961) to create new, if rather stark, architectural forms for the Church. These, and buildings by architects of like interest, have their focus in the gathered nature of the assembly.

Schwarz’s own architectural theories and writings on church design are very similar to the general propaganda put about by so many of the pioneer modern architects. Much of this had sprung from the pen of Le Corbusier, whose Vers une architecture is a gospel of program theory. Yet it is one of the eternal fascinations of that master that he so often failed to follow in practice what he had preached in his writings. Certainly by the time he came to produce the church buildings during the latter part of his life, the paradox is revealed most fully. The pilgrimage chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamp, the monastic college of La Tourette, and the parish church at Firminy Vert are profoundly serious and heartfelt works, but they do not seem to seek their justification within an orthodox theological program.

Le Corbusier did not ignore contemporary liturgical understanding; in fact he went to some pains to satisfy it, but he was never really concerned with stimulating that understanding, nor with giving it a new emphasis by his architecture. Despite the apparent modernity of his churches, they do not significantly advance the theory of ecclesiastical building, a situation in direct contrast with his work on urbanism and housing, where he sought to shape a better social order through physical ideas. More nearly, Le Corbusier’s church buildings seem to represent the architect’s own struggle to come to terms with the spiritual insights that occupied him throughout his life: the reconciliation of mankind within a natural order and the resolution of the apparent conflict between individual freedom and the collective society.

These insights are worthy of a place in any sacred philosophy, but they are not specifically or wholly Christian ones, and, as such, are somewhat tenuous ideas on which to construct church buildings. “I am not a churchgoer myself, but one thing I do know is that every man has the religious consciousness of belonging to a greater mankind, to a greater or lesser degree, but in the end he is part of it. Into my work I bring so much effusion and intense inner life that it becomes something almost religious.”4 This rather romantic understanding pervades much of Le Corbusier’s musings on the sacred, but it is no substitute for a sound theological approach. It may explain why the churches he designed, so exciting in many ways, fail to stand the test of theological analysis.

In common with other utopian planners, Le Corbusier had no place for institutionalized religion within his ideal society. He did, however, stress the importance of spiritual values. “A new truth can only emerge from the technical and spiritual revolution of modern times,” he wrote in the part of La Ville radieuse that describes the Radiant Village.5 “The spiritual would incite in the peasant family an urge to become a thinking entity in the heart of modern society. An entity that will think with the special and precious quality found only in people who are in permanent contact with nature.” Le Corbusier here reveals his faith in nature, but the church building has no part to play. The symbol of the technical revolution in the Radiant Village was to be the grain silo: the spiritual was to manifest itself in a community center, a building with educational as well as social pretensions.

“The laws of nature exist. It is useless to ignore them…. The laws of nature are always there to urge us on towards the creation of human laws that will in their turn be prodigiously simple and yet prodigiously effective.”6

He follows this comment with:

mankind, endowed by heaven with three precise and totally different characteristics,… reason, … the nature of our earthly destiny,… and passion. … There exists a universe already immense and marvellous enough, that is made up of all we can see or perceive, and to that universe we have given the name nature. … All man has to go on are the laws of nature. He must just understand the spirit of them, then apply them to his own environment in order to create out of the cosmos something human. In other words, a genuine new creation for his own use.7

Le Corbusier endowed nature with religious significance and, as he claimed himself that architecture contains an essence of the religious experience, it follows that nature should have an important influence upon his specifically spiritual works. It is not without importance that these particular commissions came to him late in his career, when, with his reputation established, he was free largely to dictate the terms on which he worked. Clients wanted a Le Corbusier building, and the architect was relatively free to explore his own preoccupations. Some argument developed early in the work on Ronchamp, which was resolved by the diocesan authorities claiming responsibility for liturgical matters and leaving artistic matters to the architect’s judgment. Canon Lucien Ledeur, who carried much of the administrative responsibility for the project for the Besançon archdiocese, later described their conversations with Le Corbusier: “We know why we approached you, we didn’t ask you specifically to do this or that, but we did say to you that we needed a chapel which must respond to certain conditions. For the rest, we know who you are, we have chosen you, now try to put something forward to us.”8 The need for a fundamental appraisal of the program, in this case the highly complex one of the place of pilgrimage within the demythologized society of the second half of the twentieth century, seems never to have been considered.

In the postwar years, Le Corbusier turned away from the Purist symbols of crisp technology that he had employed in his earlier period and expressed himself in a more earthy idiom. The problems of access for plant and materials may have affected the construction at Ronchamp, but that at La Tourette bears a brutal crudity that cannot simply be excused as economic necessity. In the second chapter of Manière de penser l’urbanisme Le Corbusier claims that there should be no conflict between spiritual and technical ideals.9 In his overtly religious works, the man-made image of imperfection appears to be the conscious choice of expression.

The church buildings of Le Corbusier remain highly personal investigations, late in life, of the fundamental questions that fascinated him throughout his career. He undertook the work only if the conditions were right, and the importance of the actual setting was paramount. In June 1961, a few months after the triumphant completion of La Tourette, he received a letter from Louis Secretan, the pastor in his birthplace of La Chaux-de-Fonds, asking him to build a church in that town. Le Corbusier replied:

I have received your letter of 20 June 1961 asking whether I would build a church at La Chaux-de-Fonds.

I built the Chapelle de Ronchamp (a chapel of pilgrimage) and the Couvent de la Tourette (the inner life of meditation and religious activity) because the program (ritual, human scale, space, and silence, etc.) was favorable, as also were the landscape conditions exceptional. I am not a builder of churches. I am continually obliged to decline the offers made to me….

I cannot envisage myself inserting a church into the context that you have evoked in my mind through your photographs. Forgive me for giving you a negative response. Had you said to me, “Will you create a place open all the year, situated on the hilltops in the calm and the dignity, in the nobleness of the beautiful Jura site?”, the problem could have been considered. It was a problem of psychic nature and, for me, of decisive value.

With my deepest regrets and my best wishes.10

This letter would seem to demonstrate Le Corbusier’s own lack of interest in the task of church building, as a means of extending Christian understanding. It gives weight to the claim that the architect used the commissions he did accept to explore natural and spiritual values that were more real for him. “People were at times surprised to see me participating in a sacred art. I am not a pagan. Ronchamp is a response to the desire that one occasionally has to extend beyond oneself, and to seek contact with the unknown.”11

Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp

Of all Le Corbusier’s religious works, those built, or those which remain as ideas, the chapel at Ronchamp is both the most well known and the most mysterious. The plea to rebuild the war-shattered shrine to Our Lady on its hilltop setting above the Saône Valley came in 1950, when Le Corbusier had barely recovered from the rude rebuttal of his project for the sanctuary at Sainte Baume. He was finally persuaded by a combination of personal requests, perhaps the most influential being that made by Father Pierre Marie Alain Couturier, the Dominican priest who had such a marked influence on his liturgical understanding. Father Couturier, who died in 1954 at the age of 56, had been trained as an artist particularly interested in stained glass, before joining the Order of Preachers. In 1937, he became codirector of the magazine L’Art Sacré, which had been founded two years previously.

Couturier considered that a revival of Christian art and architecture would occur if the most talented artists of the day were employed, irrespective of their personal beliefs. He had been a friend of Le Corbusier’s for some years and was to support him over both Ronchamp and La Tourette. Elsewhere he was instrumental in bringing together a whole series of artists, among them Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Georges Rouault, to adorn the Church of Notre-Dame-de-Toute-Grâce in Assy, and he also supported the commission of Matisse to decorate the Chapel at Vence.

Couturier’s policy was perhaps the antithesis of the more liberal understanding of the program theory. Excellence and artistic sincerity were to come not only before faith and piety, but also before what might be described as liturgical empathy. Unfortunately, he lived to see neither Ronchamp nor La Tourette, but both buildings stand as apt memorials to his philosophy.

The site at Ronchamp has been a holy place since pre-Christian times, and Le Corbusier’s building has a strong affinity with so many other hilltop shrines, not least of which is the Acropolis at Athens, which had such a profound affect upon his thinking.12 Marcel Maulini, a local resident, wrote to the architect about the site in March 1951, pointing out that the setting had been a place of sun worship. “Your chapel will soon become part of the ancient solar system of Rond-Champ,”13 he observed, and his letter contains a sketch of the double-natured Dionysius.

So well known is this chapel now (it has already passed into the world of popular art, adorning travel posters and postage stamps) that its impact upon the architectural world of the 1950s is difficult to recall. It is even more difficult to procure a reason for its form. Shortly before the dedication in the summer of 1955, Alfred Canet, who had acted as secretary for the local building committee, wrote to Le Corbusier, saying that a small booklet was to be prepared for the opening, explaining the story of the building. He asked the architect for a statement, but the reply was evasive, referring Canet instead to the explanation in the fifth volume of Oeuvre complète. “I have no more complete explanation to give, since the chapel will be before the very eyes of those who buy the booklet. That is better than the most eloquent speech.”14

The text about Ronchamp in Volume Five of Oeuvre complète is virtually the same as Le Corbusier had used for the press release in May 1953. It briefly relates the history of the chapel and the importance of “the acoustics of landscape” to the germination of the design (Fig. 74). The original idea for the construction is described, but perhaps the most telling remark states: “It was agreeable for once to become absorbed in a disinterested problem without any real practical programme, the reward being the effect of architectural forms and the spirit of architecture in the construction of a vessel of intense concentration and meditation. The researches of Le Corbusier have led him to the perception of an ‘acoustic component in the domain of form.’”15

Figure 74
The southeast corner of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, 1950-1955. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)Images

But neither this nor the subsequent publications16 really explain this mystifying building. Le Corbusier’s answer to Canet could be excused as the reaction of any architect at the end of a long and difficult project, when the real anxieties of successful completion loom so large. It also shows that he himself considered an experience of the building infinitely more worthwhile than a written apologia, and perhaps he felt that so personal a creative statement defies justification.

Other commentators have had similar difficulty in tracing the origin of the ideas behind the architecture of Notre-Dame-du-Haut. A. M. Cocagnac, writing on the chapel at Ronchamp,17 tells how, after absorbing and sketching the impact of the site, Le Corbusier let the impression gestate for a few weeks. Then one day, he took a piece of charcoal, a drawing medium he did not usually favor, but one that enabled him to work quickly, and he sketched the idea.

René Bolle-Reddat, the present chaplain, ventures the explanation of creative inspiration as “a phenomenon which had always surprised the human race and caused the downfall of the clinical and logically minded,”18 but he does believe that some key may be found in Le Voyage d’Orient, especially in the chapter describing the visit to Athos. This passage is a wonderfully evocative description of the remote monastic promontory, and it vividly conveys Le Corbusier’s appreciation of sculptured architectural forms amid wide and beautiful landscape. Le Corbusier’s writings on the cultic significance of Athos are, however, tinged with the somewhat fey romanticism he often seemed to employ when describing the sacred. It is not perhaps unfair to suggest that Ronchamp suffers from similar sentimentality.

Stanislaus von Moos offers a more down-to-earth view.19 He reminds us of the teaching based on the study of natural phenomena—trees, shells, roots, and so on—which Le Corbusier received from L’Eplattenier. In his early days at La Chaux-de-Fonds, the young Jeanneret had expressed the desire to build a temple to nature in the Jura hills, and this notion would certainly tally with Le Corbusier’s vision of spiritual matters, a natural religion beyond the sounds of conventional theology.

Charles Jencks considers that the forms of Ronchamp have their root in Le Corbusier’s painting, and that the building contains many examples of “consistent irony.” “Le Corbusier’s faith in the established Church and dogma seem quite tenuous, as if it would be strengthened by being denied.”20 Many have claimed that the building represents a departure from rationalism, and a refutation of the architect’s early beliefs. It seems to have shocked James Stirling, who wrote within a year of the dedication:

It may be considered that the Ronchamp Chapel being a “pure expression of poetry” and the symbol of an ancient ritual, should not therefore be criticized by the rationale of the modern movement. Remember however that it is a product of Europe’s greatest architect. It is important to consider whether the building should influence the course of modern architecture …, and certainly the forms which have developed from the rationale of the limited ideology of the modern movement are being mannerized and changed in a conscious imperfectionism.21

The shapes may seem perverse, the ideas an apparent departure from mainstream modern architecture, but Le Corbusier’s classical vocabulary of curved and rectilinear forms (first given clear expression in the La Roche-Jeanneret houses at Auteuil) is merely continued in Ronchamp’s sweeping, yet developed curvilinear expression.

All these theories would seem to suggest that attempts to explain and define the reasons for the building obscure rather than clarify them. Ecclesiologically, Ronchamp makes no attempt to give new architectural understanding to the setting for pilgrimage: it is simply the response of a complex visual artist to Canon Ledeur’s challenge, and each individual must now make his own response to that answer.

Le Corbusier had intended the visual acoustics of the landscape and building to be echoed audibly. Nowadays, tasteful melody issues occasionally from loudspeakers set among the trees, but this is a rather watered-down realization of the architect’s idea. A detached bell tower was planned to emit electronic music to the assembled congregation and the far horizons. Early in 1954, Le Corbusier even wrote to Edgar Varèse in New York, requesting a composition for the inauguration ceremony.22

It is interesting to speculate how the whole understanding of the design might have been influenced if it had been backed by atonal music. Notre-Dame-du-Haut appears to have its cultural tradition rooted in the ideas that inspired the late Romantic compositions of Mahler and the philosophy of Nietzsche, yet Le Corbusier was, perhaps, seeking a less contained expression.

The chapel at Ronchamp may defy analysis, and may contain contradictions, but as a place of pilgrimage for the spiritually and architecturally devout it is still a popular success. There can be little doubt that Le Corbusier’s response to the somewhat abstract notion of sacred architecture, within and yet against landscape, is a triumph. The white shape sits against the sky, the building itself a backdrop to the occasional outdoor services, attended by many thousands of worshipers. The concave east wall defines the open-air sanctuary, the roof soaring out to encompass not only the pilgrims on the hilltop but the infinite landscape (Fig. 75). Inside, the building is much less successful and, strangely, less mysterious in reality than in photographs (Fig. 76).

Figure 75
The northeast corner of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)


Figure 76
The interior of the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Ronchamp, looking toward the sanctuary and devotional statue. (Photograph by Russell Walden.)

The reason for this probably relates to Le Corbusier’s own instinctive understanding of the problem. The interplay of built form with a gathering of humanity in nature completely absorbed and fascinated him, but the requirements of the pilgrimage church were of less interest. “I have not experienced the miracle of faith, but I have often known the miracle of inexpressible space, the apotheosis of plastic emotion.”23

Le Corbusier’s handling of space and volume in tangible and symbolic terms has been one of his greatest contributions to architecture; externally the chapel at Ronchamp captures this magical essence, but the inside is spatially disappointing. So vacuous is the interior that it raises the suspicion that Le Corbusier was more concerned with the sculptured nature of the enclosing surfaces than with the volume they surround. “The key is light,”24 wrote the architect, but the dynamic quality of the south wall kills the subtlety of the floating, crab-shell inspired roof. Only when the sun is low in the sky does the interior take on an ethereal quality, and even then the glare around the statue of the Virgin—the spiritual focus of the building—is somewhat disconcerting. The idea that this image should be related both to worshipers inside and without is a brilliant one and fully expresses Le Corbusier’s sophisticated understanding of spatial relationships. But its implementation fails to convince in fact, as it does in notion.

The architect raised certain questions about the elements of the building in December 1950, and in June of the following year he met with Canon Ledeur and the local curé to discuss the finer details of the program. Despite these meetings, the liturgical arrangement appears arbitrary, and the different elements do not seem to have been given significant architectural “place” within the total volume. The position of the two public entrances, and the rather leftover space to the west of them; the precise number of side chapels; the seats and their situation within the building; indeed, the interplay of nave and sanctuary; all these crucial parts seem to have been considered artistically rather than ecclesiologically.

Some two years after completion, Le Corbusier had the freestanding cross moved from its original position immediately behind the high altar to its present place on the diagonal, coordinating the sanctuary with the devotional statue. Aesthetically this is a distinct improvement, but the need to make the change is somewhat strange. The project architect, André Maisonnier, had written to Canon Ledeur to verify the position of the cross some six months before completion.25 All this perhaps reveals that the conflicting needs of Catholic liturgy, pilgrimage space, and the architect’s more primitive spiritual vision were never fully resolved.

Le Corbusier sacrificed the seeming fashion of both architectural and theological logic to achieve the result he sought. For the student of architecture, trained to think in a linear manner, Notre-Dame-du-Haut is disturbing, as the puritanical straitjacket of modern rationalism is apparently thrown to the winds. The south wall is not massively load bearing; it is a framed structure. The hovering effect of the roof above the southeast buttress is only maintained by recessing the top of the pier, so that it does not appear to touch the horizontal plane. The so-carefully composed elements of the main entrance, enameled doors, concrete panel, roof and curving chapel wall are only controlled from the outside. Within, the ceiling is seen to carry beyond the glazed slot that marks the external cantilever of the curving soffit.

For the present-day student of theology, encouraged to believe in the social realities of everyday religion, Ronchamp is something of an anachronism—perhaps the last of the self-consciously designed “holy places.” Yet for some it seems to touch the very nature of existence in a way that disturbed the radical theologian from his contact with a more immanent God. Is this a valid feeling of the numinous, or mere Kitsch? Here again we encounter the paradox of Le Corbusier, who took the whole building most seriously.

Two months after the dedication of June 1955, he went to Cap Martin for a holiday. From there he wrote letters to Alfred Canet, the curé, and Marcellin Carraud, a lawyer from Vesoul and a prominent member of the building committee. These letters are more than the common courtesy of an architect writing to his client, and that to the chaplain tells how worthwhile the efforts to realize the project had been:

After being away for two months I greet you and ask if you are pleased. It seems that after all this great effort by a lot of people things have succeeded.

You are making a stand, resisting a great many assaults and replying to a great many questions. You must have been worried at times. Nevertheless you have been one of the courageous people in the adventure. I wanted to say thank you to you, for Notre-Dame-du-Haut is placed on one of the sites sympathetic to my effort and without our agreement and that of the Committee this rash enterprise could have come up against an obstacle.26

Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette

If the chapel at Ronchamp represents Le Corbusier’s belief in the divinity of nature, the monastic college of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette is his resolution of the individual versus collective dilemma (Fig. 77). Building began on the beautiful site above Eveux-sur-L’Arbresle within a year of the completion of Ronchamp, but the idea for the design had been established a few weeks before Couturier’s death, toward the end of 1953. A letter from Couturier to the architect in July of that year said: “I know, in advance, that in its poverty, it will be one of the purest and most important works of our time, and I hope that you also will be pleased with it.”27

Figure 77
Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette, 1956-1959, from the south. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)

La Tourette, even more than Ronchamp, owes its inspiration to Couturier, and his early letters to the architect are full of encouragement and advice. He suggested that Le Corbusier should visit the Cistercian monastery of Le Thoronet in Provence (and, as Wolfgang Braunfels has pointed out,28 La Tourette bears more than a superficial resemblance to that medieval building). “[Le Thoronet] has the real spirit that a monastery should have, no matter in what period it is built, as man devoted to silence, to recollection and meditation, in a community life does not change very much with the passing of time.”29 Basically this statement of Couturier’s remains true to this day, but subtle yet radical expressions of the monastic life have recently called for a very different architecture.30

Ronchamp may not have attempted to redefine the architecture of Christian pilgrimage; even less does La Tourette show the way toward a new understanding of monasticism. It is perhaps unfair to criticize the building for a situation that was not apparent twenty years ago, but such have been the changes in the Religious Life that for all its brilliance as a work of formal architecture, La Tourette is now somewhat outdated. André Belaud, who administered the project for the Dominicans, has himself said, “We would not build a similar place today.”31 But there is still immense admiration for Le Corbusier from among the community. Perhaps La Tourette failed as a monastic college because it kept too rigidly to the traditional program suggested by Couturier; judged simply as architecture of its time, however, it still has much to communicate.

The monastic ideal first impressed itself upon Le Corbusier during his European tours from 1907 to 1911. The celebrated visit to the Charterhouse of Ema in Tuscany is considered to have had a profound effect upon Le Corbusier’s architecture and planning theories.32 After Couturier’s death, L’Art Sacré planned to publish some of his reminiscences. Among these were extracts of his conversation with Le Corbusier, and P. R. Regamey, writing for the journal, asked for verification of the ideas discussed concerning the visit to Ema. Le Corbusier explained that his understanding of humane architecture (“faite pour le bonheur de l’homme”), which had been aroused there, really concerned the resolution of the individual versus collective problem: “… which is the key to sociability. Respect for individual freedom, benefit to the common good, true harmony constantly focusing itself amid ever-changing circumstances.”33

The commission for La Tourette gave Le Corbusier the opportunity to express this understanding in the building type that first presented the idea to him; yet he seems to have accepted the project because it was concerned with housing a community, rather than simply encasing a cultic act.

He visited the site early in May 1953, and wrote immediately to Couturier that “the idea is already in my head.”34 But he did not want to commit himself to paper until he had had more time to think about the problems and discuss them with his clients. Toward the end of that year, he discussed his ideas with Couturier, then a dying man. On I January 1954, the priest wrote: “I have written to Father Belaud to let him know of our conversations: he came last Wednesday and is entirely in agreement with what was said about the general disposition.”35 These ideas remained the essence of the realized project.

During the slow design work (building did not start on site until the summer of 1956) economies had to be made, and the cost was cut by about 50 percent. But Le Corbusier would not allow the essential elements of the idea to be compromised. A few months before construction began, he wrote to his chief assistants about proposed savings: “I have made total revisions with all the reductions that the project will allow. I am not able to indulge in any other savings, and I will not sanction any other changes. Excuse my lack of modesty, but I love this scheme: I think it is a good work and I want to see it built as it is.”36

The building remains, therefore, much as the original concept discussed by Le Corbusier and Couturier. There is no doubt that financial cuts, which had to be made, have seriously affected the quality of the structure. The construction is poor, and the mechanical services are inadequate; the building should have been double-glazed, and the heating and hot water installations are only partially complete. The poverty of which Couturier spoke has been achieved in fact, but perhaps not in idea; Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette is a grand, maybe even grandiose building. Its strength, however, lies in the conviction with which the idea has been carried out. The different elements (community rooms, teaching areas, living quarters, and worship spaces) combine in a most comprehensive composition. The apparent dilemma of the individual among the collective is resolved. The building is intricate, yet simple, completely unified both physically and symbolically. The utter self-confidence of the intellectual statement makes La Tourette a masterpiece, a brilliant expression of the order of authority that so obsessed Le Corbusier. The paradoxes that make it an unsatisfactory monastery now are those of this particular master architect, even of the Church today.

Landscape is again the touchline of the idea. From a horizontal roof line, whose backdrop is the wooded slopes of the rolling Rhône countryside, the tight, formal composition marches down the grassy slope (Fig. 78). The church erupts from the soil, the rest scarcely touches the ground. As Anton Henze says:

The building is open to the forces of the landscape but as a man-made structure it stands aloof from the fields and forests of nature. The overall aspect of La Tourette stands in contrast from nature, emphasizing the frontiers which separate the sacred precincts from the world. In its detail Le Corbusier abandoned the conception of the claustrum but in general terms he restated his own basic ideas about the closed precinct.37

Figure 78
Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette from the west. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)

This divorce from the world, yet desire to save it, is the eternal dilemma of monasticism, and is a particulary searching question for the Religious at this time. The Dominicans of La Tourette seem to have inflicted this problem upon themselves: the Order of Preachers is an urban foundation, and yet Furneaux Jordan justifies the rural setting of La Tourette on the basis of its collegiate function—the countryside offers seclusion to the students before they face the rigors of the world.38

The difficulty is compounded at La Tourette. The building is developed around a courtyard plan: the church occupies the northern side, the communal accommodation with the cells is elevated on the other three sides. The central enclosed space is a continuation of the falling landscape, which flows virtually uninterrupted through the columned structure. In some senses, this is a subtle way of introducing the world of nature to the world of spiritual and scholarly asceticism, but in reality it is a strange experience. The monastery sits templelike within its country setting: with its hollow form, it defines a private open space, but fails to make proper use of it (Fig. 79). The rectilinear courtyard is divided into four unequal parts by the cruciform cloister, a further example of a clever idea, yet one only superficially related to the monastic ideal. The continuous form of the traditional cloister admitted endless perambulation, a far more apt symbol of monastic existence than can be gleaned from the cross-shaped routes at La Tourette, which are mere circulation passages. If cloister has no significance for twentieth-century monasticism, it seems somewhat perverse to give the form so much importance.

Figure 79
The internal courtyards of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)

These conflicts of form and understanding can be found throughout the building, and can be explained perhaps by the aspirations of architect and client to produce “high art” with limited resources and in a manner increasingly at odds with changing theological understanding.

The main church with its crypt chapels is a magnificent space, so much more controlled than the interior at Ronchamp. The traditional plan of the monastery church has been adopted, and this must have helped to give the place coherence. It is an awe-inspiring volume in which to keep silence, but acoustically it is a disaster. A faceted treatment to the walls, which would have helped remedy this, was omitted for economic reasons, and the architect considered its omission would spoil a space that he claimed had an admirable acoustic.39

As an architectural statement La Tourette has had a profound influence upon subsequent buildings. Robert Venturi, while acknowledging the Mediterranean vernacular of La Tourette, traces examples that follow a similar form: Boston City Hall, the Art and Architecture building at Yale, the Agronomy building at Cornell, and the Neiman-Marcus store in Houston.40 To these might be added the British Embassy in Rome and the Birmingham Central Library. In 1965, the monastery was classified as an historic monument, which should guarantee its permanence.

But as a lasting response to the problem of twentieth-century monasticism, it has already proved a failure. The monastic college was a victim of the student unrest that swept through France in 1968, and the building, while still occupied by the Dominicans, is now serving as a theological study center. It is some measure of the structure’s success that it can adopt this role without undue physical change or embarrassment and that the architecture can stand for itself, devoid of its original function. But the building as it is now used must be very different from Couturier’s original understanding. Following the liberal influence of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the outward formality of religious discipline has largely disappeared, and the architecture is no longer a framework for strictly regulated activity. The inherent truths of the Religious Life remain, but in a different, more relaxed guise. La Tourette remains as an interesting architectural statement by dint of its aesthetic quality. Like seaside rock, it carries its message right through, and for this integrity it will always be worthy of respect.

St. Pierre at Firminy Vert

The physical distance between the rural retreat of La Tourette and the industrial town of Firminy is not great, but the demands of a monastic college are very different from those of a parish church in a mining community. Firminy lies at the head of the industrial belt that sprawls from the Rhône through St. Etienne. Only the beauty of the undulating countryside provides relief from the pervading atmosphere of a worn-out environment. It seems a strange place to find a new suburb, Firminy Vert, with buildings designed by some of the best architects in France—until it is known that Eugène Claudius-Petit, Minister of Reconstruction after the Second World War and champion of Le Corbusier for the original Unité d’habitation at Marseilles, was mayor of the town from 1953 to 1971.

In 1960, Claudius-Petit asked Le Corbusier to assist in the layout of the new suburb and to design himself a group of civic buildings: Youth Club (now the Maison de la Culture), stadium, swimming pool, and church. The following summer, Le Corbusier wrote to A. M. Cocagnac, then director of L’Art Sacré, “about a Church I am designing for Claudius-Petit at Firminy. He forced my hand, but I accepted because the geographic and typographic conditions were favorable. I have a plan and I would like to discuss it with you … to see if you approve of the liturgical arrangement.”41

The idea for this design dates from a sketch drawn by Le Corbusier for a church in the 1920s; “venue un beau jour = venue ‘un beau jour,” he scribbled on the drawing, and he does not seem to have considered it necessary to revise his thoughts. The project for St. Pierre at Firminy suffered many setbacks, reductions, and cancellations. “They have circumcised me,”42 the architect is reported to have exclaimed, but despite these problems the germ of the idea has not been sacrificed (Fig. 80). After the architect’s death, his supporters have kept the project alive, and an agency was set up specifically to promote the enterprise. A start was finally made on site in the autumn of 1973 (Fig. 81).

Figure 80
The 1964 model of St. Pierre, Firminy Vert. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)


Figure 81
St. Pierre at Firminy Vert under construction, March 1974. (Photograph by Martin Purdy.)

Le Corbusier’s sketch of the building43 shows it as a thumb punctuating the landscape, and this importance of the church to the urban design of Firminy Vert was one of the arguments used by Le Corbusier’s followers for the retention of the scheme. The setting of Firminy Vert is a northward facing bowl, far more hilly than Le Corbusier’s drawing suggests. The funnel-shaped profile of St. Pierre will rise from its sunken site, above the lip of the stadium. It is in close proximity to housing—some of it in multistory form—and the recently completed swimming baths (architect André Wogenscky). But from nowhere can it be seen in isolation, and the form suggests that it should be so considered, despite the claim that the design should be understood in relation to the rest of the town. The main body of the church, in a shape reminiscent of the main hall of the Legislative Assembly at Chandigarh, grows from a two-level base of vestries and ancillary accommodation. The congregation enter the church by an external ramp, and the seating rises again in a floating, segmental tier from the sanctuary level. It will be a dramatic interior, in which the introduction of natural light has again been sensitively considered. Even if the exterior promises to have less impact than the idea demanded, the inside should provide a thrilling experience. But it is just this excitement which casts doubt upon the validity of the design.

For the last two decades, there has been increasing concern about the form and content of ecclesiastical architecture, and the representatives of almost all Christian denominations are now seeking to portray themselves in the role of servants rather than masters. It would seem that the ecclesiastical authorities for Firminy have had grave doubts about the suitability of the design of St. Pierre, and only the supporters of Le Corbusier’s architecture have managed to get work started with money raised by themselves.

The early architects of the Liturgical Movement were almost wholly concerned with creating an internal space where the cult could be performed in reverent participation. The design of St. Pierre, with its pedigree going back to the 1920s, would seem to suit this requirement well, but with a number of important omissions that an architect more concerned with the theological program would not have made. The multilevel congregational space of the Le Corbusier church was partially employed to relieve the impression of emptiness when only a few worshipers are gathered together. Tiered seating is more suitable for theatrical appreciation than involved worship and fails to acknowledge the subtle relationship between celebrant and congregation. Many successful churches before and after World War II show little concern with external appearance; the basis for their design is internal relationships rather than the setting of form within landscape.

Last and most important, ecclesiastical architecture has developed rapidly. Its concern now is not simply for the creation of space for cultic acts, but the fuller realization of the place of the church in society. This has resulted in a wider understanding, which goes beyond mere change in ecclesiological fashion. Sacred and secular are viewed not as opposite poles, but as elements within the same spectrum. Buildings designed for this realization have sought to break down the barriers that the preceding centuries had set up between the church and the world; they are more human in concept providing for a greater variety of activities.

Much of this has happened since the final form of St. Pierre was agreed in 1964, but it is against this that the completed building will have to be judged. St. Pierre at Firminy Vert promises to be the most exciting parish church built this century; theologically it could prove to be the most irrelevant.

All this can be understood largely by Le Corbusier’s attitude toward the design. Claudius-Petit forced his hand to accept the commission, and the architect satisfied the liturgical understanding then prevalent. But for Le Corbusier the important ingredient was the building as an object, and it is on this subject that the contemporary saga of the scheme for a church in Bologna is most revealing.44

The revival of interest in liturgical art and architecture in Italy was due largely to the inspiration of Giacomo Lercaro, Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna. A conference on the subject was held in that city in September 1955, and drew attention and good wishes from a number of well-known architects and scholars, including Le Corbusier.45 Following this, Cardinal Lercaro set up the quarterly magazine Chiesa e Quartiere and began the Centro di Studio e Informazione per Architettura Sacra. The sixteenth edition of Chiesa e Quartiere, published in December 1960, was devoted to La Tourette, and Le Corbusier was very pleased with the praise bestowed upon him by the magazine.

The Church at Bologna

Bologna at this time was a rapidly expanding city, and Cardinal Lercaro wanted the new churches to be built by the very best architects. The directors of the Centro di Studio asked Cocagnac of L’Art Sacré to approach Le Corbusier about one of these projects, but Le Corbusier remained cool about the offer.

A year later (February 1963) Le Corbusier visited Florence to inaugurate an exhibition of his work at the Palazzo Strozzi. While in Italy, he received a personal letter from Cardinal Lercaro asking him to work in Bologna: “… it would be for me and my diocese a truly precious gift if you would design one of your churches.”46 Le Corbusier wrote almost immediately: “You ask me to become involved with the problem of your churches. Alas, I haven’t a moment. I am, like the last of mankind, subject to a twenty-four-hour day, and the annual calendar.”47 But he did offer the ray of hope that he might change his mind: “Don’t despair, if you really want something. A popular song says ‘A day will come.’ Be confident like the youth who sings this lyric with other things in mind.” It was a strange letter perhaps to write to an eminent Cardinal Archbishop, but in fact for some reason it was never sent. It is reported, however, that Le Corbusier remarked of this request to Cocagnac: “Why does one have to wait until one is old and useless before being asked to do all the interesting things?”48

The apparent lack of commitment and casual attitude of Le Corbusier does not appear to have deterred the Italians, and various documents about three alternative sites were sent to his studio. A sketch appears in Jean Petit’s Le Corbusier lui-même for a church in Bologna,49 but there is little other evidence that he thought greatly about this scheme.

The Italians were ever-optimistic, and a delegation from the Centro di Studio visited the office in the Rue de Sèvres on 25 February 1965 with Capellades of L’Art Sacré. During this visit Le Corbusier explained his project for St. Pierre at Firminy, and expressed the difficulties that were besetting the scheme, which at that time seemed unlikely to be built. The offer then came from the Italians that Le Corbusier should build his original Firminy design in Bologna. At the end of the following month, the architect wrote to Cardinal Lercaro: “I have had a visit from two young envoys, sent to ask on your behalf if I would be willing to construct in Bologna the church which I designed for Firminy. The plans are finished and, if you think it useful, we would be grateful if you would send photographs of the chosen site, a survey plan with levels….” (Fig. 82)50

Figure 82
Plan and section for a church project at Bologna, 1963. (Photograph courtesy of Glauco Gresleri.)

Work continued at a great pace on the design during the summer, and after Le Corbusier’s death, Cardinal Lercaro declared that the promise to build the church in Bologna would be maintained. José Oubrerie who had worked closely with Le Corbusier on the Firminy scheme (and is now in charge of that project) visited Bologna. He rejected the original site selected in the district of Beverara and found a more suitable one.

The problems caused by the settling of Le Corbusier’s estate compelled Maurice Besset, who directed the committee looking after the dead architect’s practice, to write almost immediately to Cardinal Lercaro. Besset reported that it would not be possible to go ahead with the Bologna project until all legal matters had been resolved. This decision could only be taken by the Administrative Council of La Fondation Le Corbusier, then not properly constituted, and the rights of the design were still held by the Parochial Association in Firminy.

Since 1965, Cardinal Lercaro has resigned from his position in Bologna (1968), the Centro di Studio has disbanded, and work has begun on site at Firminy.

These dealings with the enthusiastic group from Bologna, who were greatly impressed with his work in general and with the scheme for the parish church in particular, is so typical of Le Corbusier’s attitude toward his church commissions. By this time he was an old man. A postscript in the letter he failed to send to Cardinal Lercaro stated, “I forgot to tell you that my doctor has given me orders to cut down on work. I am seventy-five years old, three-quarters of a century.”51 Throughout his career he had always been unwilling to compromise the essential idea of his architectural vision; with the church projects, and especially during the last years of his life, he was perhaps more concerned with the actual realization of that vision than with the ultimate relevance of its meaning. For Firminy, he had been content to work up a thirty-year-old sketch for the design of St. Pierre; at Bologna he finally did not even suggest this. Instead of thinking out the particular program required for a suburb in the expanding Italian city, he was quite prepared to transpose another solution, and look for, even modify, a site on which to place it!

Architecture is a “pure creation of the spirit,”52 he had written in Vers une architecture, and no one would deny the spiritual content of Ronchamp, La Tourette, or the Firminy/Bologna churches. But in the same book he had to remind us that “Architecture is governed by standards. Standards are a matter of logic, analysis and precise study. Standards are based on a problem which has been well stated…. We must first of all aim at the setting up of standards in order to face problems of perfection.”53

The church buildings of Le Corbusier fail theologically because he was neither willing nor perhaps able to set the ecclesiological standards that might have allowed him to approach a perfect solution. Yet because Le Corbusier remains so absolute an artist, some commentators would claim that his churches do set new pinnacles of excellence. Of Ronchamp, Kidder Smith doubts “if a finer church has been built since Filippo Brunelleschi’s 1446 Pazzi Chapel. … It is the greatest building of our time.”54 Anton Henze describes La Tourette as “a new physical type of Christian monastery.”55 No doubt St. Pierre at Firminy will be heralded by many as the ultimate type of twentieth-century parish church.

Adulation of this sort actually obscures the real lessons that Le Corbusier’s church buildings have to teach, and invites others, less gifted, to use the superficial images the architect created without appreciating their real strengths and weaknesses.

The tragedy of Le Corbusier’s church buildings is the tragedy of an opportunity lost. No other architect of his generation was better equipped to give ecclesiastical architecture a new creative impulse. Le Corbusier’s concern for humane and spiritual values and his utter rejection of the pompous and sham are qualities the church so urgently needs to express through its buildings. He proudly told Edgar Varèse that he had been described, before the Archbishop of Besançon, as “truly a Christian, but a Christian of 5000 years before Christ.”56

Yet the church failed to harness his talent, and he failed to project for them his own interests toward a new understanding of church architecture. Instead of leading a new renaissance of religious architecture, he was content to develop and expound his own limited theories of the sacred.

The resulting works may have little to teach the student of ecclesiastical architecture who is primarily interested in the relevance of the church to society, but while part of the creative process is still concerned with the bringing together of forms in light, Le Corbusier’s buildings will always demand attention.


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