Renzo Against Corbu
When Renzo Piano was commissioned to make some additions and adjustments to Le Corbusier’s iconic Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, it caused an uproar. Now that the scaffolds have been removed, Richard Ingersoll wonders what the controversy was about.
The acoustic landscape gains a good listener
When the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp was unveiled in 1955, it convulsed the world of architecture. Le Corbusier, who for most modern architects represented the undisputed prophet of rational, techno-based architecture, had designed an aberration, difficult for most of his followers to comprehend or accept. James Stirling, writing in the Architectural Review, voiced the general reticence of the Modern Movement toward the master’s Expressionist exploit.  The poet of the right angle had completely abandoned orthogonals! Since then, Corbu’s church has become one of the few universally acknowledged masterpieces of 20th-century architecture, according to William Curtis “a building unequaled in its spatial mystery in the modern age.”  In 2006, when the Italian architect Renzo Piano was commissioned to make some additions and adjustments to the surroundings of the chapel, a second uproar flared over Ronchamp. The Fondation Le Corbusier, supported by an excellent cast of architects and historians, orchestrated a bitter campaign to block the new construction as an affront to a site that they pleaded should be conserved in perpetuity as modern heritage. Their hostility to the project led Renzo to make several changes in the proposal, including moving the new interventions about twice the distance initially planned from the south façade of the church. 
Now that the scaffolds have been removed from Renzo’s project, opened on Sept. 8th for the annual pilgrims’ festival, one wonders what the controversy was all about. The conflict seems as arcane as a dispute among medieval theologians over the virgin birth. Corbu, a humanist without religious ties, brought a primitive pantheist spirit to his initial project, a church with pilgrimage functions, which in the end mostly served architectural pilgrims in search of a beautiful place of silence. Renzo, who likewise belongs to secular humanism without religious affiliations, added a convent for the Order of the Poor Clares (Les Clarisses), who moved from Besançon, and now will use Corbu’s church on a daily basis, enriching its program with a more traditional religious purpose.
The original chapel was constructed in the 13th century and over the centuries attracted pilgrims to the cult of the Virgin on the steep hillside site of Bourlément, about a km outside of Ronchamp. After its partial destruction during World War II, the committee of owners pursued its reconstruction and through the intervention of Père Couturier, the great promoter of modern art for ecclesiastic purposes, engaged Le Corbusier. Corbu brought to the project a lifetime of architectural inspirations and the guiding metaphor of “acoustic” forms. The blanched, rough cast cladding evoked the hillside houses of Santorini, the rounded walls recalled the whitewashed mud walls of villages in the Maghreb, the light scoop chapels corresponded to the triclinium at the end of Canopus at Hadrian’s villa, while the thick hollow roof was inspired by a crab shell found on the beach while visiting Costantino Nivola on Long Island. But aside from this mnemonic repertoire, the composition of the chapel, which presented such a dramatic break from Corbu’s rational designs, emerged from his daily practice of painting. Since 1943 he crafted hundreds of versions of a particular image, sometimes known as “Icône,” showing a buxom woman he had observed in a church at Vézelay during a period of aerial bombardments. She remained piously transfixed with hands folded beside a flickering candle. The hooded shape of the principal light scoop of the chapel at Ronchamp and the dramatic upsweeping curve of the roof to an acute point corresponded perfectly to motifs of the head and breasts in numerous versions of “Icône.”  The massive concave wall, in parts two meters thick, was constructed from a concrete grille stuffed with the stones of the ruined church and punctured by the deep reveals of randomly placed windows. The play of the rounded forms of the sloping walls achieved the quintessence of Corbu’s “acoustic” shapes, inspired by the human ear and musical instruments.  He subsequently projected the metaphor to the entire site, calling it an “acoustic landscape.”
Much of the condemnation of Renzo’s intervention concerned its presumed disrespect for the integrity of this landscape. The new project proposed the removal of an anomalous building, known as the porterie, alterations to the parking area, the clarification of the approach to the church, and a restructuring of the southern slope with the help of the landscape architect Michel Corajoud. The truly devout pilgrims have always climbed up the hill from Ronchamp’s cemetery via an enchanted forest trail, lined with fourteen Stations of the Cross. At the end of this itinerary they found themselves in an asphalt parking lot looking at the homely prospect of the porterie. The sequence has now been altered, reducing the parking to a planted lot for limited number with special needs, and forcing the majority to park at the cemetery, where they have the option of walking the forest trail or taking a jitney service. The trail has been connected directly to the final ascent to Corbu’s church, and instead of being confronted with the porterie, which was removed, flange walls now direct one to a new greeting area on the south, served by an immense fire place, a small café, an a lecture hall. Renzo’s critics maintained that this addition to the program of Ronchamp would contribute to the crass commercialization of the site, but almost all previous visitors to the church sought the gratification of postcards and books as mementos of their trip and searched in vain for a bit of comfort. Ronchamp’s famous bad weather was monumentalized by Corbu in the single gargoyle spout debouching from the low point of the roof into an oval fountain. Thus Renzo’s cryptoporticus reception area finally offers the brave pilgrim, or tourist, a bright, comfortable retreat and place to dry off next to a roaring fire, where they can also find a bit of nourishment.
The campaign against the new project also took issue with the insertion of the sizable convent (the overall intervention, with the visitors’ center, measures 1,740 sq.m.) for the Clarisses, which it was thought would overwhelm the church with its volume, if not with its different architectural language by a “high-tech” architect. While Renzo has avoided making citations of Corbusian motifs, limiting his inspirations to a few ideas found in Jean Prouvé’s work, the formal result of the new project in no way competes with the originality of Corbu’s church. Renzo in certain situations has created some of the most monumental works of the last decade, including the soon-to-be-finished Millennium Tower (The Shard) in London, but some of his finest works have been compatible additions to existing sites, such as Richard Meier’s High Museum in Atlanta, or the Morgan Library in New York City. Since the triumph of Centre Pompidou, conceived by Piano with Richard Rogers and Peter Rice in 1976, Renzo has attempted to dissociate himself from being typecast as someone who uses technology for spectacular effects. His projects since the breakthrough project of the Menil Collection in Houston, seem more like landscapes than exploits in innovative technologies.  While the new convent employs an up-to-date system of concrete construction, wrapped with detached zinc pergolas, the only technological innovation remains unseen: a dozen thermal wells were drilled 90 meters into the rock of the hill to help ensure a steady interior climate of 17 degrees. Renzo’s buildings, which are discretely tucked into the hill and virtually invisible, perform as exemplary passive solar design, and need little, if no, energy support. The large, south-facing windows of each volume are shaded by the deep eaves of zinc-clad metal pergolas, set a few centimeters above the concrete roofs, and are further moderated by narrow greenhouse pochées. This natural system of cooling and heating the air, along with the thermal advantages of being partially set into the hill and covered with intense planting, provides a high degree of sustainability without reverting to high tech equipment.
The layout of the new convent follows the topography of the southern part of the hill, an area that previously stood largely inaccessible. The roof of the upper wing of the new buildings spreads out as a grassy terrace for looking over the forest into the valley. Organized in two curving bands to resemble the dense fabric of a medieval hill town, the upper wing of the convent includes two workshops for sewing, a library, a refectory and kitchen facing a small glazed court, and the trapezoidal oratory. The twelve cells for the sisters and eight guestrooms extend off of the corridor of the lower wing. The gently curving corridor receives natural light through wide gaps that alternate between each pair of cells. The cells make a veiled reference to Corbu’s La Tourette offering a similar sense of austerity and ergonomic good sense. But instead of the dark, narrow spaces, one to two in proportion, Renzo’s cells offer lightness, warmth, and comfort. One enters through a cedar-lined foyer with a sink on one side and a storage space on the other. The area of each cell, furnished with a cedar-framed bed, desk, and chair, is perfectly cubic, 2.7 meters in each direction, with the orange-colored ceiling inclined slightly upwards toward the exterior. A cedar panel relieves the heaviness of the smooth concrete walls. The meter-wide greenhouse pochée, garnished with a lone citrus tree, provides a fully glazed view to the forest, giving each sister the option of an independent exit through the rear door of the cell to the outer terrace. Throughout the complex the outer windows conform to narrow, half-meter-wide panes with varying heights, giving the elevations a uniform measure.
Finally, Renzo’s critics were appalled, and perhaps envious, that the convent’s program included an oratory, a second church open to the public. This appeared to them as an arrogant effort by the new architect to upstage the old master. The oratory of the Clarisse waits at the end of the upper wing’s corridor but visitors also can reach it through a stairway that pierces through the upper terrace. Partly submerged and completely without facades, the modest, trapezoidal space contains an altar close to the back wall of the embankment, and behind this two small chambers for the sacristy and choir. The flaring side walls open to a large greenhouse narthex, which like the smaller greenhouse pochées of the cells contains citrus trees. The western flange is perforated by three slots, bringing light to a small tabernacle, while behind the eastern flange three niches have been prepared for relics. The altar, made of three solid cedar beams, rests magically on two steel legs, cantilevered from below, and a transversal skylight behind the altar brings a smooth white natural light to illuminate the area where the priest performs the mass. While lacking the narrative verve of Corbu’s church, Renzo’s oratory is not without formal invention. The vault begins as a flattened arch over the glazed elevations of the narthex, floats above the side flanges, and terminates in a segmental arch over the altar. This geometric sleight of hand, along with the careful craftsmanship of the smooth concrete surfaces throughout the convent, and the small glazed court of the refectory bring to mind Louis I. Kahn, not Corbu. Renzo, indeed worked briefly for Kahn in the 1960s, and is currently constructing the addition to the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, where vaults with uncanny cycloid curves, intimate courts, and butter smooth concrete surfaces prevail.
For most of the 20th century Corbu reigned as a demiurge for architecture culture, an unmatchable source of clever ideas about form and type, yet a prophet without honor. Despite Corbu’s invectives against the academism of the Beaux-Arts, his own legacy has fostered another sort of academy, sanctifying the Corbusian language of composition and details along with all of the master’s works. This June, for the third time, UNESCO rejected the proposal by six countries to declare 19 of Corbu’s works, including the Chapel at Ronchamp, as world heritage sites. If one thinks back to most of Corbu’s buildings, they rarely stand the test of time: the Cité du Refuge and Maison La Roche-Jeanneret were disastrous from a climatic point of view, the Villa Savoye uninhabitable after a few years and by 1951 turned into a barn. The two out-buildings on the Ronchamp site, one for the guardian, the other the “pilgrims’ house,” despite their sod roofs seem particularly anomalous to the site. The latter indeed blocks the views to the valley in a way that Renzo’s buildings do not. Yet the chapel at Ronchamp, which has few functions to satisfy, remains one of the only buildings by Le Corbusier without technical or programmatic malfunctions. Corbu proved a tireless source of creative solutions that were usually far ahead of the capabilities of the context in which he was working. Renzo proceeds in a more pragmatic manner, listening carefully to the place and the people and finding the appropriate technical and formal answers in dialogue with all of those involved in the project, which in this case included Soeur Brigitte a particularly well-informed user, as well as the dissenting members of the Fondation Le Corbusier. After the plants have filled out a year from now, chances are no one will ever guess that the new convent posed such a threat to the proposed heritage site. One wonders if Le Corbusier, who refused that anything be added to the site back in 1959, would have been upset today. When asked by Philippe Boudon about the alterations made during the three decades after the construction of his Cité Frugés housing project at Pessac, Corbu’s response seems insightful here: “la vie a toujours raison.”  Renzo’s additions came from listening carefully to the problems of the site, including the concerns of his critics, resulting in a subtle compliment to the monument that will help preserve the site through the care given by the sisters and the comfort given to the visitors. Corbu’s acoustic landscape has gracefully benefitted from Renzo’s auditory approach.
Client: Association Oeuvre Notre-Dame du Haut AONDH (whose president Jean-François Mathey is the son of one of the original clients for Le Corbuiser’s chapel); Association des Amis de Sainte-Colette AASC. Other associates: Franciscan Trois compagnon; Fonds national d’aménagement et développement du territoire; Franche-Comté Evasion, Parc regional des Ballon des Vosges; Amis de Le Corbusier (whose president is Domenique Claudius Petit, son of Le Corbusier’s client for the Unité in Marseilles, and the works at Firminy Vert).
Architect : Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Paris office, project architect, Paul Vincent.
Landscape architect: Michel Corajoud.
Budget: porterie: €2.0 million; paysage: €3.3 million; couvent: €4.0 million; total €9.3 million. Donations in kind were made by companies including Vitra (reproductions of Jean Prouvé’s desks and chairs) and iGuzzini (lighting).
Construction of the porterie and couvent was carried out between 2008-2011; inauguration, Sept. 8, 2011. Size: 1,740 sq. m.
1. James Stirling, “Ronchamp. Le Corbusier’s Chapel and the Crisis of Rationalism,” Architectural Review, March, 1956. Stirling presented the work with great respect but found it Mannerist, technically inconsistent, and overly concerned with producing a spectacular image that was probably not a good influence on the development of modern architecture, reasoning that “when the emotions subside there is little to appeal to the intellect, and nothing to analyse or stimulate curiosity.”
2. William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, NY: Rizzoli, 1986, p. 175.
3. Michel Kagan, Natalie Regnier, Ronchamp: l’acoustique du paysage, (unpublished text, 2008-2011). The major objection to Renzo Piano’s project is that it alters the landscape and adds structures that are a négation des valeurs corbusèennes. The general sentiment expressed by Jean-Louis Cohen, president of the Fondation Le Corbusier, is that Le Corbusier violently opposed any changes to the site in 1959, and his view should be respected, as one would do for any site considered historic patrimony. If any new structures were to be added they should go to a more distant site. The single addition made to the site previously was Jean Prouvé’s carillon bells in 1975.
4. Richard Ingersoll, Le Corbusier. A Marriage of Contours, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 1990. Constantino Nivola owned several versions of “Icône” made between 1947-1951.
5. Christopher Pearson, “Le Corbusier and the Acoustical Trope, an Investigation of Origins,” Journal for the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. 56, no. 2, June 1997, pp. 168-183.
6. Richard Ingersoll, “The Porosity of the Menil Collection,” in Art and Activism. Projects of John and Dominique de Menil, ed. Josef Helfenstein and Laureen Schipsi, pp. 222-231, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. One of the strange coincidences in the Corbu/Renzo conflict is that Père Couturier, who brought the Ronchamp project to Le Corbusier, was the spiritual adviser and artistic mentor to Piano’s great patron, Dominique de Menil (née Schlumberger), converting her to both Catholicism and modern art.
7. Pessac de Le Corbusier – Étude socio-architecturale 1929/85, Philippe Boudon, Paris: Éditions Dunod, 1967. In English: Lived-in Architecture. Le Corbusier’s Pessac Revisited, trans. G. Onn, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979, Corbu’s response translates as “Life is always right.”