Ronchamp? Where’s that?
You may find yourself wondering the very question. Well, Ronchamp, though not your average tourist destination, is a small sleepy town in eastern France. Though many may question, “Well if it’s not so popular, what IS the reason for visiting such an obscure town in France?“. Although Ronchamp is not your average town to visit, it is a tremendously significant place for architects and architecture lovers all over the world. Why so? A very significant Swiss born architect by the name of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known by his alias Le Corbusier, built one of his renowned architectural masterpieces there, Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut .
Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut
The Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, or for us english speakers, The Chapel at Ronchamp, is an iconic architectural piece designed by Le Corbusier who was one of the pioneers of the Modernist movement in architecture in the early 1900’s (since our visit the chapel has been one of 17 Le Corbusier structures that have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites List). As an architecture enthusiast, this is one of the many different sites that one makes pilgrimage to. It is then redundant to say that when my grandfather Daniel made me aware of the chapel’s proximity to Basel while we were together on our Basler Fasnacht trip, I was beyond excited to make a trip to visit this famous chapel!
Our trip was planned on a long-weekend so that we could make a comfortable journey to France. After making a brief overnight stay in Zurich to enjoy the city, we finally began our journey.
At first the journey consisted of mostly only long stretches of highway, but nearly as soon as we had crossed the almost desolate guardhouse at the border control (the agreement between the European Union and Switzerland allows for very easy border access), we were able to see the stark difference in the French landscape.
The French Landscape
After driving a few meters on the French highway, signs slowly began to change from German to French. The most notable difference was the French landscape. Unlike Switzerland, whose landscape is very mountainous with a high density of buildings, the landscape in this region of France was a lot flatter with fewer built structures to disturb the wonderful scenery. The green pastures swept along the French highway for miles as we drove along with music from the local radio station playing.
it was certain that France had many historical remnants that were well preserved.
In the far distance, along the occasional mountain ranges, we would see castles that sat atop them; large architectural relics that were able to survive their era from the medieval ages to the present. Signs indicating exits to view various historical architecture, ranging from chapels to castles, came up around every 5 miles; it was certain that France had many historical remnants that were well preserved.
Ronchamp Here We Come!
After buying an old fashioned printed map, getting lost not once, but actually numerous times and being confused by how to purchase a data roaming plan so that we could access Google Maps (thank God for GPS!) we finally found the correct route to the famous chapel. Unfortunately, by the time we had oriented ourselves and made our way to the site, the chapel’s visiting hours were expired.
Our misfortune still did not hamper the awe I felt being in the presence of this architectural masterpiece. Being on this famous site felt other-worldly. Throughout my undergraduate years at architecture school, the significance of this chapel was obvious to us as there were numerous articles and even books analyzing the structure. I even remember writing one of my first year analytical projects on this chapel. Never in a million years had I imagined being able to make the pilgrimage to this world-famous site. It was nothing short of breathtaking.
La Maison d’Hôtes du Parc
We made our way back down to the small village in the valley below to find our stay for the night. We had researched bed and breakfasts in the vicinity on google and settled on one named La Maison d’Hôtes du Parc. The reason for choosing this bed and breakfast was because it had advertised a nice view to the famous chapel.
When we found the place, we were both taken aback at the beauty of the BnB. It was a two storied home that reflected the French architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. The home was surrounded by a lush garden which one could tell was a labor of love. Another charming touch was the beautiful river that ran alongside the property. Even more special were the two men who ran the BnB. They greeted us with the warmest most genuine welcome which we found very heart warming.
If we had thought the outside was beautiful, the interior was even more breathtaking. It was apparent that these two men took pride in restoring and maintaining the home’s 19th century relevance through its decadent decor. It felt like we were thrown back in history to a time where attention to detail and gaudy design was the main style of decor. It seemed like we royals living in the mid 19th century. As we were shown to our room we observed, with even more detail, how these owners placed painstaking detail in making their home have both the feel of a palace but still the familiar quaint feeling of home. The room, the Coppelia, perpetuated this theme with antiquated furniture and decor.
As night drew near we sat outside in the garden by the river to relax and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Upon looking up we saw the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut sitting atop the hill in all its glory. There were uplights shining unto the structure to highlight its significance to our village and any passersby below. To close the night we went to enjoy what was my first real French dinner at a restaurant that was recommended to us by our hosts at La Maison d’Hôtes du Parc.
As the sun made its way to the sky I was up with it. Today was the day! Although Jerry is not much of a morning person, my architectural geek excitement was palpable and contagious. We got dressed and prepared for breakfast. Very much in keeping with our experience thus far, breakfast was prepared and served to us like we were royals.
We then were off to finally make the pilgrimage to Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut. Jerry and I were probably the first patrons on site at its opening hour of 9 am. Upon entering the grounds, we could see the vast amount of trees surrounding the site. We were also able to overlook the villages in the valley below. I could certainly understand why this site was chosen for such a sacred structure. It was at one with nature and lent itself to a god like presence, overseeing the villages in the valley below.
Architecture by Renzo Piano
The entry to the visitor’s center was a sleek and very modern structure built by modern architect, Renzo Piano. Piano had been commissioned to design and construct a new visitor’s center (the previous was a visual obstruction to the chapel) as well as a convent for the Poor Clare nuns. He completed this addition in 2011. Humility was the key concept architect Piano employed in his design of these modern structures. Each building was built tucked away into the hillside and thus is inconspicuous in comparison to the magnificence of the structure Corb had designed to sit atop the hill.
A God Among its Surroundings
Upon entry to the official site we were lead up a graded path along which trees and shrubs were planted. These plants eliminated side view distractions and lead vision directly toward the chapel that was straight ahead. I thought this was a clever use of nature to create a feeling of anticipation for the end goal, the celebrated chapel. Once we ascended the slope, we were greeted by the magnificent scale of the chapel itself; a large sculptural piece that sat like a god among its surroundings.
We were first greeted by the south facing wall, where one of the most distinct features was the rise of the walls and roof toward a pinnacle. This design gesture was probably used to imitate the rising slope of the hill upon which the chapel stood. The south facade also featured a seemingly haphazard array of window openings with beautiful stained glass panes.
On closer inspection, I was able to observe the great thickness of the walls through the depth of the windows. Another noticeable feature of this facade was the main entry to the chapel (though it has not been opened for numerous years, leaving the back entry to be the main access to the church). The door to the entry boasted a colourful painting done by Le Corbusier himself and seemed to serve as a an abstract piece to break the stark white facade.
Along the east facade I was able to see the full volume of the roof which protrudes from the chapel. It was a beautiful display of architectural genius! To me it seemed as if a boat was about to set sail toward the sky. The facade also houses a small external chapel; a somewhat cave-like stage area created by the flanking rising south wall and a semicircular structure from which a column rose to lend structural support to the curl of the cantilevered roof.
Although the most plain facade (there were absolutely no openings), what was interesting to me about this facade was the function of the roof. It had a protruding gargoyle which was used to help funnel rain water. Below the gargoyle stood an artistic yet functional concrete sculptural piece used as the chapel’s main area for water collection.
The North facade also had many random window openings which reminded me of abstract artwork. It was clear to me, too, that although this facade held aesthetic value, it was more private in order to hide service. There were stairs along the facade which lead to the upper private sections of the chapel. The secondary entry was also located on this facade (it is now used as the main entry to the chapel) and is flanked by two towers which rise like pillars from the earth.
As we entered the chapel an immediate sense of reverence befell us. Inside was a silence (although good for worship was not good for the sound of my shutter) that would make even the most non-religious person somewhat spiritual. The interior was cold and stark, as the chapel is made of concrete in its un-embellished state. This is typically how the use of raw concrete makes a person feel but I suppose too that the chilly spring weather may have played a role in that.
The layout of the chapel was quite simple. Benches were only placed on the right side of the chapel whose floor sloped downward toward the altar. The lighting inside the chapel was by far the most appealing part of the interior, with the most notable lighting effects coming from the south wall. The openings from this wall are cut deeply into the thick wall, allowing soft light to splay over the otherwise austere walls and furniture of the chapel. In addition, these openings used stained glass to create beautiful colored lighting within the church.
Another interesting method Le Corbusier incorporated to bring light into the chapel was the use of the “floating” roof. The roof of the church does not sit exactly on top of the walls but rather sits a small distance above it, allowing light to glow at the edges of the walls. This made the chapel seem as if it had a halo which I find very fitting for the symbolic holiness a chapel represents.
Secret Photo Club
We were not permitted to capture images of the interior BUT who would have traveled so far and not have taken a few images of this famous chapel? NO ONE. Each visitor who came inside looked at the others who were also inside, with a wary wondering glance. A few shutter clicks then silence, then a few more. Eyes flitted towards the entry as new entrants made their way inside but as these new visitors became inducted into our secret photo-taking club we developed an unspoken code to alert each other on the coming of other official persons.
Choral Practice with the Poor Clare Nuns
We sat a few moments inside the church where eventually the Poor Clare nuns came for choral practice. Their voices were angelic, reverberating from the concrete walls and increasing in volume. We listened a few more minutes before leaving and taking one more overall look at the chapel in all its glory.
History, the Key to Modernity
This first trip to France was certainly memorable for not only were the people and the landscape beautiful but also it held beautiful bits of history still preserved, scattered among the modern lifestyle. From the old castles that so frequently dotted the French landscape, the well-preserved mid-nineteenth century BnB we stayed in and certainly to this architecturally relevant chapel which helped to usher the modern style of architecture into relevance. To be able to view this structure built by one of the architectural greats of the era was absolutely awe-inspiring.
To be modern is not a fashion, it is a state. It is necessary to understand history, and he who understands history knows how to find continuity between that which was, that which is, and that which will be. – Le Corbusier