Le Corbusier Pilgrimage

By Doug Crisp

During the late summer of 2016 I took an architectural pilgrimage of sorts, tracing some of the pivotal works of Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier

15th century chateau in Trélissac.

Noted as one of the founding fathers of Modernist architecture, Corbusier’s works were in startling opposition to the popular works of his time. During this trip I happened upon the idea of experiencing a similar visual opposition by staying in traditional French chateaus, a great counterpoint to the Modernism I would see throughout my days.

Ancient area of Rocamadour.

Beginning in south-western France, I would make a diagonal crossing through the country to the north-east, finishing with a dash across to Paris.

15th century chateau in Allier.

Chateau and gardens of Marqueyssac – Dordogne, 17th century

The building I pictured as the milestone of my journey was Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, completed in 1955. I had studied this building at university and pored over images in books and on the web for years. It delivered, and then some. 

I had never seen or imagined a building like this before, Corbusier had pushed his favorite material, concrete, to its limits of the time. 

I had been told most people are surprised by the size, picturing it as much bigger than the reality. I felt as though it sat perfectly, I even had to sit staring on the lawn outside for a good while before I could walk around and enter the building. 

Perhaps it was the fact I had wanted to see it with my own eyes that added to the ‘hairs-on-end’ feeling I had, though I challenge anyone to find a building with such presence. 

A building constructed entirely out of concrete would certainly be imagined as heavy and foreboding, Brutalism may even spring to mind. However, upon entering the chapel, the fluidity and light is what overwhelms the viewer, the elegant gaps between the monumentally thick walls and sweeping ceiling trick the eye. 

Corbusier’s five foot thick wall, punctured with tapering window voids, and the vaulting curvilinear towers create dramatic shadows on the speckled concrete walls.

With my eyes given a solid workout, I didn’t realize there would be more to come at my lodgings for the night, a 13th century chateau in Longecourt-en-Plaine. This chateau was the accommodation I was most looking forward to, and it overwhelmed in a different sense to Ronchamp.

Coming from Australia, which has a modern history, I am always blown away by the scale of time that Europe has experienced. 

My host Roland explained to me the different stages of the chateau, which his family had occupied since the 15th century. Tales of visits from Catherine de Medicis, of the devastation of the original castle in a battle with Imperialists of Gallas in 1636, through to modern stories of Nazi occupation and American liberation were told in the grand ballroom where soldiers partied the night away. 

Roland even had original books documenting this history, and ancient artefacts he had gathered from the property grounds.

The next day was a short trip to Corbusier’s Sainte Marie de La Tourette near Lyon, completed in 1953. This monastery aligned more with Brutalist (a term Corbusier used to describe his beloved raw concrete material) principles, but still retained an elegance only really noted in the details of the structure. 

If it appears foreboding from the outside, the feeling is again diminished upon entering the thought-provoking spaces and dwarfing volumes of the interior.

The color repetition and window walls throughout soften the materials, with the highlight being the crypt, drenched with light from circular voids above. 

Ronchamp and La Tourette stand out as religious buildings that don’t rely on traditional iconography and decoration, but stark creation of space, to achieve an atmosphere of reflection.

I was able to experience Le Corbusier’s vision of a cultural master plan at Firminy, outside Paris. Located on this site are the Maison de la Culture (1953), Unité d'Habitation (1967), Stade (1968), and the Église Saint-Pierre (2006).

Apart from the Maison de la Culture, these buildings were completed posthumously, with the Église Saint-Pierre presenting interesting perspective on the limits that Corbusier was pushing as an architect. Although this building was completed in 2006, the form and rising interior space challenged construction crews, even with the aid of modern technology.

It was an eerie experience to walk around this quiet district and question how successful Corbusier’s vision for a modern utopian society through architecture has become.

After viewing so many large-scale projects, it was nice to move on to a scale I identify with more in my own work. In Paris, I visited the Maison La Roche (1925), and in Poissy, Villa Savoye (1928). The smaller scale of these buildings did not limit their ability to impress.

Again, Savoye was a building I had studied and gazed at in many different mediums, so to visit was a real highlight. Throughout the trip, it was interesting and sometimes amusing to view the reality and context of the location of these celebrated projects. 

Catching a train out to the suburbs of Poissy, you walk through the quiet but pretty town, up a winding hill (hot in the sun!), and along a main road before arriving at the gates of the house. 

The house is obstructed from street view by trees and hedges and is nicely revealed to you in a clearing as you meander down the driveway. Another ‘hair-on-end’ moment followed as I kept reminding myself that this home had been completed in 1928.

Corbusier’s eye for detail and disregard for traditional perspectives makes this an endlessly entertaining space to walk through. I particularly enjoyed the master bedroom spa, and bedroom / ensuite / hallway triple door set, that however absurd, just makes sense.

To call this journey an eye-opener would be a gross understatement. I encourage any architect or non-architect to experience these places even though they are a little off the beaten track. Viewing architectural milestones in real life has become an obsession and I was honored to see these beautiful projects in the flesh.