Situated on a hill in the countryside town of Ronchamp, France, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel is a strange and beautiful anomaly in the history of characteristically modern architecture, specifically the International Style, of the mid-twentieth century. Its organic, gestural form, use of abstract shapes, and incorporation of color, texture, light, and sound has strong ties to the modern art of the period. Meanwhile, its personal, intimate scale, so different from the mechanized housing projects the architect championed a few years earlier, suggests a desire to retreat from the harsh realities of a modern world, and the destruction of World War Two.

In his housing projects, such as his opus, the 1947 Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, he designed the space to be as space and cost efficient as possible, making the home into a “machine for living.” His aim was to make an architecture that was mass producible, and to render this efficiency and simplicity beautiful. Le Corbusier could look at an austere concrete structure and see aesthetic beauty. With a strict social agenda and mechanized style in place, the chapel at Ronchamp came as something of a shock to the architects of the time.

In 1950, the parish of Ronchamp, France commissioned Le Corbusier to design a new Notre Dame en Haut chapel, after the previous chapel was lost in World War Two. That structure, too, was a replacement; the original chapel was destroyed in a lightning fire in 1910. The actual site, however, had been a popular destination for pilgrims since the 13th century. The parish was small, with a population of 200, but on holy days pilgrims numbering into the ten thousands would flood the chapel and the surrounding hill.

Unlike Le Corbusier’s previous structures, the chapel has an organic feel, and responds to the natural environment. This move is more in line with his original purism philosophy in that it responds to nature. The building itself is sloped to fit each of the four horizons: a plain opposite hills and two valleys on the remaining sides.

The texture of the surfaces also reflects the chapel’s natural environment. The chapel is made of rough sprayed concrete, or béton brut, covered by a layer of whitewashed plaster. Large wooden beams provide support for the walls and roof, and also form the benches within the chapel. Le Corbusier chose concrete not just for its sculptural potential, but also because it was the most practical material for constructing a building on a hill in a remote town, a truly purist choice. The rough texture of the chapel provides a parallel to abstract expressionism: as the medium of the building, earth, is honest and conspicuous, just as modern painters focused on the medium of their canvases and paint. In addition, the organic, natural materials of the chapel stand in sharp contrast to the glass and steel that show up in the earlier works of Le Corbusier and his International Style colleagues.

The incorporation of the natural environment with the composition of the building continues with the shape. The chapel, on the outside, has a sweeping line, coming to a peak point billowing towards the sky. The entrance to the chapel is nothing more than a slit in the folds of concrete, creating the feeling of an intimate, cave-like enclosure on the inside. The structure feels and sounds cave-like, with its intimate scale and thick walls surrounding dark, hollow space.

Within the chapel, the building follows a traditional layout. In the front is a large altar with a sacristy to the left. A large choir space lines northern edge of the main chapel space, and wooden pews fill the south edge. The main south entrance is situated behind the pews. Several colored windows puncture the thick south wall creating beams of light that burst through the thick material.

The windows, and more broadly the use of light and darkness in the space is one of the most breathtaking features of the structure. The windows, positioned all over the dark wall of the south side of the church, and appearing as holes on the outside, display different shades of primary colors, and inscribed on the panes are excerpts from Marian prayers. The excerpts are simple phrases, such as “étoile du matin,” “pleine de grâce,” and “je vous salue, marie.” These small phrases suggest Le Corbusier’s interest in the poetic and lyrical elements of the spiritual.

The roof of the chapel is a large, curved slab of concrete, underlaid with aluminum. Le Corbusier says that his inspiration for the roof came from a crab shell, though critics have interpreted the sloping curve as shapes diverse as a nun's habit or a boat. 1 The roof appears to hover over the chapel, as a 10 cm band of light pierces through where the seam between walls and roof should be, “to amaze,” as Le Corbusier explains. This gesture reflects earlier themes in Le Corbusier’s work: often, thin stilts supported a large housing block, leaving the ground floor hollow and open. Robert Coombes describes this dramatic feature:

"Le Corbusier raises the roof for symbolic reasons relating to the Assumption. Levitation is astonishing because it denies the laws of gravity. Thus, by denying our expectations—that roofs remain attached to buildings—Le Corbusier signals Ronchamp’s visitors that they are present at a miraculous supernatural event."

It feels strange to mention the supernatural in talking about the calculated and rational Le Corbusier. It is apparent that a shift has occurred, or, perhaps something about the architect’s intentions are, for the first time, being revealed.

Initially, Le Corbusier hesitated to take on the Ronchamp project. He was raised a Protestant, and was understandably wary to accept a project from the Roman Catholic Church. Robert Coombes explains that Le Corbusier undoubtedly offended his colleagues by accepting a commission from the Church. “To the Modernist establishment, Roman Catholicism was anachronistic and reactionary force in the brave new world of scientific rationalism and progress.”

The chapel at Ronchamp is an honest reaction to the philosophical and physical turbulence of modern times. It seeks refuge in the intimate, the curios of mysticism, the lyrical and poetic, the traditional, the religious, and the transcendental. At the same time, it retreats from the front lines of the true avant-garde.

1. Bell, Eugenia and Ezra Stoller. The Chapel at Ronchamp. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
2. Coomes, Robert. Mystical Themes in Le Corbusier’s Architecture in The Chapel Notre-Dame-Du-Haut at Ronchamp: The Ronchamp Riddle. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
3. Le Corbusier. The Chapel at Ronchamp. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1957.