Hitorical Theory and Design of Le Corbusier

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Notre-Dame-Du-Haut/ Le Corbusier


Figure 1

“The key is light and light illuminates shapes and shapes have emotional power. By the play of proportions by the play of relationships unexpected, amazing…”

Le Corbusier [1]

Le Corbusier, also named as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, was one of the great European architects in the 20th century and designed numerous amounts of buildings across the world although of all Le Corbusier’s religious work, those built, or those which remains as ideas, the Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel at Ronchamp is both the most well-known and the most mysterious. Its organic form, use of abstract shapes, and combination of colour, texture, light, and sound are the major factors towards the modern art of the period. The chapel style of architecture is known as the International Style, Sculptural Style, Brutalism, and as well as Expressionist Modern [2].

The site is located on the highland at the top of the hill and there is an approach route which ascends from the south east, with trees giving some enclosures to the west and confining the highland on its western side. The original site had been a popular destination for pilgrims since the 13th century. Ronchamp community was small, population of 200, but on the holy days of the pilgrimage it can get up to the ten thousands of pilgrims and would flood the chapel and the surrounding hill. The original chapel of Ronchamp was destroyed in a lightning fire during the 1910s and then was re-built. Then World War Two broke out, the chapel of Ronchamp was destroyed due to the German artillery fires.

Father Pierre Marie Alain Couturier was sent to offer Le Corbusier for the project on rebuilding the chapel. Surprisingly, Le Corbusier initially refused the commission for this project saying that he did not want to work for a ‘dead institution’, possibly because of the bitterness that he felt about the Church’s rejection of the Basilica at La Sainte Baume. His assistant Andre Wogenscky, a French architect in collaboration with Le Corbusier, recorded a conversation in which the Le Corbusier told Father Couturier, the Dominican priest who had such a clear influence on his ritual understanding, that he had no right to work on the scheme and that they should find a Catholic architect instead. According to Wogenscky;

“Father Couturier explained to him that the decision to ask Le Corbusier had been taken in full consciousness of the situation, in the knowledge that he was not religious. Eventually, he said: ‘But Le Corbusier, I don’t give a damn about your not being a Catholic. What I need is a great artist… you will achieve our goal far better than if we asked a Catholic architect: he would feel bound to make copies of ancient churches’. Le Corbusier was pensive for a few seconds, and then he said: ‘All right, I accept.’”

Andre Wogenscky [3]

The first implication of “rough” sketches that Le Corbusier did, for the chapel, was to investigate the horizons setting around in Ronchamp so the chapel can be fitted in the landscape. And then there are only four horizons; to the east, the Ballons d’Alsace; to the south, a small valley; to the west, the plain of the Saone; to the north, another small valley and a village. This gives each façade of the building a reason to respond to different attitudes: welcoming, celebrating, service and symbolism. However, the first sketch of the site was just a few lines that summarised all of the key elements of the building as it was then constructed such as the spaces defined by the curved walls and the shape of the roof. “These features, imbued as they are with a sense of plasticity, are indicative of a renewal of church architecture employing architectonic means (in other words, not relying simply on the inclusion of works of modern art).” [4]

The roof was inspired by the crab-shell – which Le Corbusier had picked up the crab shell on the beach of Long Island in 1946 – though critics have interpreted the sloping curve as shapes diverse as a nun's habit or a boat. Its roof sculptural character dramatizes the power and flexibility of the concrete to unite the organic volumes. A space of several centimetres between the shell of the roof and the walls provides a significant entry for daylight. This type of designing the roof reflects earlier works of Le Corbusier’s: often, thin stilts supported a large housing block, leaving the ground floor hollow and open.

"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."

http://www.greatbuildings.com/gbc/images/cid_1213222047_Ronchamp23.jpg Robert Coombs [5]

Figure 2

The building has three towers and three doors, the one to the east for the pilgrims to access the exterior chapel for mass congregations on days of pilgrimage. The towers are made of stone masonry and are topped with cement domes. There’s another light openings in the chapel, which are the form of the chapel towers. The idea of the chapel towers is influenced by the sketches of the Serapeum of Hadrian’s Villa in 1911, in which the pothole at its end is dramatically illuminated with light. The towers appear in the interior as apses, settled the expansions of the room. These white painted apses are lighted with indirect light from above shed magic light over the curved walls.

http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1288307698-ronchamp-elyullo.jpg The light creates the effect of enclosed space. Although the interior is not fully lit, as it is, for example, the Jubilee Church by Richard Meier. The difference between the comparison of Notre-Dame-du-Haut and the Jubilee Church is the amount of light that pollutes the area. The Jubilee Church has both façade of north and south covered with glass panels allowing the full strength of the natural light in the church whereas the Notre-Dame-du-Haut only allows the light seaming from the gaps between the ceiling and the walls, and the transmitted light from the chapel towers. In terms of contrast, the Notre-Dame-du-Haut is dark, as some Gothic churches, highlighting the play of light and emphasising the holiness of the space.

Figure 3

Light is a symbol of religion so in the past architectural designs of the Gothic churches took this concept to the extreme as light is one of the most important element of any religious structure and also it gives the space an ethereal quality. The type of light joined with verticality of the space produce an atmosphere of highness, elevation and grandeur, and this method of using light has influenced the other architects such as Kenzo Tange in his Tokyo Cathedral and Tadao Ando in his Church of Light, for example. The similarity between the Notre-Dame-du-Haut, Tokyo Cathedral and Church of Light is that they all relied on gaining the natural light, whereas the light is its protagonist.

http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1288287366-ronchamp-pieter-morlion-528x352.jpg Another source of light is from the south wall, where the light penetrates through the small embrasures covered with stained coloured glass that cast a great deal of reflected light into the dim room and from the outside these embrasures seemed to be only tiny windows, but inside they open up into large white embrasures. The shape of the embrasures in the thick wall is cut implicitly and widen, allowing the light to gently fade inside. Thus this shows that the light is in the dominance of the interior in the chapel and the light is its religion.

Figure 4

The walls around the interior act as acoustic amplifiers, especially in the case of the eastern exterior wall that echoes the sound out over the field from the outdoor altar acting as the loudspeaker for the standing pilgrims. Le Corbusier wrote that the form of the chapel was designed in order to create the ‘psycho-physiology of the feelings’, but not to accomplish the requirements of religion. “As in the Basilica at La Sainte Baume, it was Le Corbusier’s intention to fill each visitor to Ronchamp with a sense of the transforming and restorative power of harmony, as manifested through colour, sound and form in the belief that it was possible to change behaviour through affecting the feelings.” [6] Sound would play a vital role in carrying a sense of harmony. The Chapel’s origin is its dominance, the music – ‘music and architecture’ in Le Corbusier’s view ‘being two arts very close in their highest manifestations’. It was Le Corbusier’s intention that here;

“They will be able to make incredible music, an unbelievable sound when they have twelve thousand sand people outside with amplifiers. I said to the priest, ‘you should get rid of the kind of music played by an old maid on an old harmonium – that’s out of tune – and instead have music composed for the church, something new, not sad music, a loud noise, an unholy din’.

Le Corbusier [7]

The exterior of the chapel and the surroundings are both united in such a way that the landscape is called in to contribute in the spiritual work of architecture. From a distance, the pilgrims can see the white tower sticking out of the woods and the more the pilgrims climb up the hill the more of the white walls of the chapel will be revealed and this type of route is influenced by the route to the Parthenon, a temple in Athens. Knowing the fact that Le Corbusier was brought up as a Protestant and in later life adhered to no particular faith but Le Corbusier stated: “I have not experienced the miracle of faith but I have often known the miracle of inexpressible space, the apotheosis of plastic emotion” [8], transforming religious architecture into the stuff of his modern architectural vision.

Shortly before the dedication in the summer of 1955, Alfred Canet, who was the 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 indirect, asking Canet instead to do the explanation of the fifth volume of Oeuvre complete;

“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 most eloquent speech”.

Le Corbusier [9]

Ronchamp has always troubled international architectural critics especially Modernists and Rationalists. Its popularity and richness of levels of communication simply swamp objections about its deviance from Modern Movement beliefs about truth to materials. In his own testimonials, Le Corbusier recognised that it was an exceptional brief: ‘1950-55. Liberty: Ronchamp. A totally free architecture. No programme other than the celebration of the Mass – one of the oldest of human institutions. One respectable personality was always present – the landscape, the four horizons. They were the ones in command…a pilgrimage place on specific days, but also a place of pilgrimage for individuals, coming from the four horizons, coming by car, train and aeroplane. Everyone’s going to Ronchamp.’ [10] (L.C., Textes et Dessins pour Ronchamp). Charles Jencks (an American architecture theorist and critic) considers that the Notre-Dame-du-Haut was the first building with the Post-Modernism style and has caused problems for Modernists and Rationalists such as Nikolaus Pevsner (a British historian of architecture), quoted;

“The building that blew apart the Modernist settlement was Le Corbusier’s tiny church at Ronchamp, designed in 1950 and opened in 1955. This very first Post-Modern iconic building drew an iconoclastic fit of gunfire from every side, especially fastidious Modernists and Rationalists such as Nikolaus Pevsner. They looked on every deviance from the right-angle as a sin.”

Charles Jencks [11]

The quotation described the Notre-Dame-du-Haut as the building with no right-angles in every “corner”. Modernism architecture follows a “form follows function” and “truth to materials” notion, meaning that the result of the design should come from its purpose and that none of the materials should try and be concealed as something else. Although Post-Modernism follows same philosophy but uses more cylindrical and impulsive shapes opposed to strictly rectangles, and horizontal/vertical lines. Within the year of the dedication, James Stirling wrote the evasive comment regarding the Modernism and Post-Modernism of the Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel;

“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 criticised 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 mannerised and changed in a conscious imperfectionism”

James Stirling [12]

Two months after the completion of Ronchamp in June 1955, Le Corbusier wrote letters to Alfred Canet, the curé, and Marcellin Carraud, a lawyer from Vesoul and a prominent member of the local building committee and the words scribed are more than the common courtesy of an architect writing to his client;

“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 agreement and that of the Committee this rash enterprise could have come up against the obstacle”

Letter from Le Corbusier to his client [13]

Giving some reasons why Le Corbusier was chosen as the architect, a member of community, Father Belaud, has explained; “Why? For the beauty of the monastery to be born of course. But above all for the significance of this beauty. It was necessary to show that prayer and religious life are not bound to conventional forms, and that harmony can be struck between them and the most modern architecture, providing that the latter should be capable of transcending itself.” [14]


[1] – Geoffrey H. Baker (1984). Le Corbusier An Analysis of Form. Hong Kong: Van Nostrand Reinhold. Page 211.

[2] – Bonbon. (2003). Notre Dame Du Haut. Available: http://everything2.com/user/Bonbon/writeups/Notre+Dame+Du+Haut. Last accessed 10th February 2014.

[3] – Flora Samuel (2004). Le Corbusier Architect and Feminist. Great Britain: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Page 119.

[4] – Arthur Ruegg (1999). Le Corbusier. Switzerland: Birkhauser. Page 103.

[5] – Bonbon. (2003). Notre Dame Du Haut. Available: http://everything2.com/user/Bonbon/writeups/Notre+Dame+Du+Haut. Last accessed 10th February 2014.

[6] – Flora Samuel (2004). Le Corbusier Architect and Feminist. Great Britain: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Page 119.

[7] – Flora Samuel (2004). Le Corbusier Architect and Feminist. Great Britain: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Page 120.

[8] – Le Corbusier (2000). The Modulor. Germany: Birkhauser. Page 32.

[9] – Russell Walden (1977). The Open Hand Essays. USA: MIT. Page 300.

[10] – Michael Raeburn and Victoria Wilson (1987). Le Corbusier Architect of the Century. Great Britain: Susan Ferleger Brades with Muriel Walker. Page 249.

[11] – Charles Jencks (2012). The Story of Post-Modernism: Five Decade of the Ironic, Iconic and Critical in Architecture. Great Britain: John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Page 187.

[12] – James Stirling(1956). Le Corbusier in Perspective. Available: http://www.arranz.net/web.arch-mag.com/5/recy/recy1t.html. Last accessed 10th February 2014.

[13] – Russell Walden (1977). The Open Hand Essays. USA: MIT. Page 301.

[14] – Geoffrey H. Baker (1984). Le Corbusier An Analysis of Form. Hong Kong: Van Nostrand Reinhold. Page 212.


[Figure 1] – Notre Dame Du Haut Front Façade (http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1288287321-ronchamp-528x352.jpg)

[Figure 2] – Notre Dame Du Haut Interior facing East Wall (http://www.greatbuildings.com/gbc/images/cid_1213222047_Ronchamp23.jpg)

[Figure 3] – Notre Dame Du Haut Aspe (http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1288307698-ronchamp-elyullo.jpg)

[Figure 4] – Notre Dame Du Haut Interior facing South Wall (http://ad009cdnb.archdaily.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/1288287366-ronchamp-pieter-morlion-528x352.jpg)