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Secret History of Buildings: Notre Dame du Haut

The profoundly spiritual church on a hill that was designed by an atheist

Notre Dame du Haut, at Ronchamp in Franche-Comté, eastern France, is a profoundly spiritual place designed by an avowed atheist.

Architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who is better known as Le Corbusier, was initially reluctant when he was approached to redesign the hilltop chapel, but was inspired by its surrounding landscape and the site’s turbulent history to create “a place of silence, prayer, peace, inner joy”.

The first building on the hill above Ronchamp is thought to have been a strategic camp dating back to Roman times. Its first Christian usage was probably in the fourth century: in the Middle Ages it became a parish church, and in the 18th century a pilgrims’ chapel.

During the French Revolution it was sold as an item of national property, only to be bought back in 1799 by four local families who wanted to restore it to its spiritual glory. Since then has twice been partially destroyed: by fire in 1913, and by bombing in 1944. Le Corbusier first visited it in 1950, and the present building was inaugurated five years’ later.

Le Corbusier’s design is a fusion of his forward-thinking humanist architectural ideas and the history of the site. Cloaked within the simple white arch-like structure of the chapel, for example, are stones used to build the previous church. The structure is made from brutalist concrete, but because of accessibility constraints was constructed by hand, recalling the adobe, or mud brick, structures of early churches in the Middle East.

Its outward form is sculptural rather than massive, with gently curving walls, which seem to grow out of the ground. The chapel’s sail-like roof, inspired by an upturned crab’s shell, appears to float above the walls, allowing a sliver of light to penetrate at the join.

Le Corbusier defied the symmetry of traditional churches by replacing conventional windows with a series of apertures of different sizes and angles. These create a dappled light which plays on the pure white surface of the interior walls. A religious metaphor is created by the larger opening above the cross, which casts a powerful shaft of light across the inside of the building. The effect is breathtaking: from the outside visitors expect a dark, sombre space: from the inside they experience luminosity.

The chapel is just one of a cluster of buildings that sit on the hill at Ronchamp. Le Corbusier also designed a pilgrim’s shelter and chaplain’s house for the site, and on the ridge of the hill, he built a Pyramid of Peace in memory of the soldiers who died during the liberation of Ronchamp in 1944.

A decade after Le Corbusier’s death in 1965, the then-chaplain of Notre Dame du Haut invited Jean Prouvé, an architect, engineer and specialist in ironwork, to create the open campanile that sits on the eastern side of the church.

The structure emulates the simplicity of the main building, making use of the two large bells that had survived the bombing, and adding a third that was cast for the occasion. Between 2006 and 2011, the architect Renzo Piano was commissioned to design a monastery for the seven sisters of Saint Clare who have made their home on the hill, and a visitors’ entrance pavilion.

After two failed attempts, Notre Dame du Haut was entered into the UNESCO world heritage listings in July 2016.

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