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Head east of Paris, to the small commune of Ronchamp, and you’ll find a small church high on a hill, which 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 simple architecture can bring a building to life and elevate it to celestial grandeur. Notre-Dame du Haut is also surrounded by other UNESCO-listed architecture and bucolic landscapes in every direction.
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. A fourth-century chapel was later built on the site and 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 name 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.
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 that symbolised the excesses of the past and that seemed out of place with the stark realities of a post-war world.
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, a city within a city 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.
The chapel was consecrated on 25 June 1955. At its inauguration, Le Corbusier said, ‘en bâtissant cette chapelle, j’ai voulu créer un lieu de silence, de prière, de paix, 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 on 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.
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 than the church itself can fit can come to worship.
Two other spiritual and artistic structures have since been added to the site around Notre-Dame du Haut – the Monastère Sainte-Claire and a garden, La Porterie, which also fits with Le Corbusier’s ideals and was built out of concrete and extends to 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.