Head east of Paris, to the small commune of Ronchamp, and you’ll find a small church high on a hill that is a fascinating architectural masterpiece.
The tiny chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut was built by the esteemed Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier. Through its creation, Le Corbusier wonderfully articulated France’s religious needs at the end of World War II. It’s a lesson in how wonderfully simple architecture can really bring alive a building and elevate it to celestial grandeur. Notre-Dame du Haut is also surrounded by other UNESCO-listed architecture and bucolic landscapes in every direction.
From its Roman beginnings to its destruction in 1944, the site has had huge significance
The Romans first established a camp on Bourlémont, the hill where Notre-Dame du Haut now stands – it’s on a strategic route from Italy through France to Germany. Later, a fourth-century chapel was built on the site that was dedicated to the celebration of the Virgin Mary. In the Middle Ages, the church was expanded and renamed Notre-Dame de Septembre. Later, people living in the surrounding villages would walk in pilgrimage up the hill to worship and its named changed again, this time to Notre-Dame du Haut, which means Notre-Dame ‘on high’. In the 18th century however, another church was built in the nearby village and Notre-Dame du Haut fell into decay. The church was sold off after the French Revolution in 1799 and it has been in private hands, and run by the local parish, ever since. During World War II, French Resistance fighters congregated at the church and it was completely destroyed by bombing in September 1944.
At the end of WWII, Le Corbusier was commissioned to build a new, modern church
In 1950, in Ronchamp, the Roman Catholic church asked Le Corbusier to build a new chapel celebrating the site’s history which would be fit for purpose in the modern world. Le Corbusier was chosen because of his minimalist style of architecture; local clergy wanted a break with the decadent, ornamental churches which symbolised the excesses of the past and which seemed out of place with the stark realities of a post-war world.
Le Corbusier is one of France’s most well-known 20th century architects
Le Corbusier is famous for designing structures with previously unused materials, such as cement which he considered more aesthetically pure than some other materials. Born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret in Switzerland (he later took up French nationality in 1930) his buildings were functional as well as beautiful, designed to encourage maximum community interaction and the coming together of people. For example, he created the Cité Radieuse in Marseille which is a city in a city, and which was constructed to provide its inhabitants with everything they would need in daily life: transport, work, a place to live and leisure activities. The Cité Radieuse has apartments, restaurants, a healthcare centre, a school and a swimming pool on the roof. Its small but perfectly formed flats reach hundreds of thousands of euros on the open market today.
Le Corbusier designed the church to fulfil its religious purpose
The chapel was completed on June 22, 1955. At its inauguration, Le Corbusier said, ‘en bâtissant cette chapelle, j’ai voulu créer un lieu de silence, de prière, de paix et de joie intérieure’ (in building this chapel, I wanted to create a place of silence, prayer, peace and inner joy). Everything about the small building is designed to highlight its religious aspects. The stark white walls allow the light to refract when it enters the chapel, giving the church a glow that is almost ethereal. The space isn’t as boxy as Corbusier’s other buildings, but instead highlights its religious purpose by sloping up towards the heavens like a beautiful sculpture. The walls are very thick so they amplify the acoustics inside and outside the church – a priest speaking at the outside altar can be heard in the field beyond. And the circular roof designed much like an aircraft’s wing, appears to float aerodynamically above its supporting columns which allows a celestial-looking light to flow through the roof space as it curves up towards the sky.
Le Corbusier put a new spin on stained glass windows
For centuries, church architects have used stained glass windows to tell religious stories through colourful imagery. Le Corbusier used them in a different way; he set back many windows deep into the walls, so that when the light streams through the different coloured glass,splashes of green, red or yellow are thrown out against the stark white walls. The space is minimal and true to Le Corbusier’s vision, an example of which is the sense of community that has been encouraged by the introduction of an outside altar to the church, meaning more people can come to worship than fit in the church itself.
The site is now part of a UNESCO-listed heritage site
Two other spiritual and artistic structures have since been added to the site around Notre Dame du Haut – the monastery Sainte-Claire and a garden, La Porterie, which also fits with Le Corbusier’s ideals – it was built out of concrete and extends the community space outdoors for prayer and contemplation. Visit this special site for a truly spiritual experience and witness the sweeping panorama over the Ballons des Vosges National Park and the Belfort Gap, a plateau in the Jura mountains.
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