A Hermaphrodite Virgin

Its slanted wall and its roof like a stranded ship I’ve known from pictures for most of my life. A hike through the Jura hills finally provided an opportunity to visit Le Corbusier’s famous chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, 15 km west from where the GR5 trail crosses the road to Belfort.

Built at the top of a hill and visible at large distances, the chapel yet remains tantalizingly invisible to the visitor who climbs towards it. From the (far too obtrusive) car park to the chapel, he is guided along a kind of cattle walk, part of Renzo Piano’s recent and controversial restructuring of the site, which includes a visitors center and a convent. Paying eight euros at the reception is not a sacrifice, but it does diminish my feeling of entering a sacred realm.

Most images of the chapel on the internet suffer from wide angle distortion. With a regular building one may correct this subconsciously, but the chapel’s backwards slanting front (south) wall does not allow this. The building is actually more square than one might have thought.

The less familiar north façade is very much a backside, a feature hard to explain from either the building’s function or the site. This contrast between front and back, the open outdoor chapel on the east side, and the rear towers like stumped limbs – this looks like a cubist deformation of the human body; but this comes to my mind only when I see the huge waterspout on the short west wall, a definitely masculine underbelly. It provides an outlet for the masses of rainwater that the roof – with blatant disregard for function – collects in its hollow inside.

Ronchamp-09A disregard that seems to pose severe problems of maintenance. Visiting the hill on a clouded day after heavy rainfall, I find in the interior a puddle in front of the confessional, three shy niches carved into the underbelly’s inside (and visible outside as a suggestive bulge below the waterspout). With over 10 million spent on Piano’s shelter for a dozen elderly nuns, the chapel’s state of disrepair is shocking. It also, maybe, reflects negatively upon the architect’s vision. Unlike so many buildings which gain charms with age, the chapel’s concrete surfaces decay ungracefully.

In an unintended and chaotic fashion, this puddle on the chapel floor enhances the theatrical setting of the southwest altar, lit from above through the tunnel-like tower. Le Corbusier may have been no catholic believer (rather a vague kind of spiritualist), but he could hardly escape from the kitschiness of the creed. Neither beautiful nor ugly, the building strikes me as profoundly ambivalent. Much like its creator presumably, whose recently documented fascist sympathies stirred the press just before my visit. Vague spiritualism and utopian radicalism are likely to produce dubious alliances, as well as ambiguous buildings.

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