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Charles Eduard Jeanneret was born in 1887 in Switzerland and moved to Paris in 1917 where he spent the rest of his life (Colquhoun, 2002, p.137). After designing and building his first house in 1905 in Switzerland Jeanneret was persuaded to become an architect by his architecture teacher Charles L’Eplanttenier (Colquhoun, 2002, p.137). In the time when he moved to France in the begging of the twentieth-century great popularity had single-word names. Therefore the architect decided to change his grandfather’s name (Lecorbésier) and adopted it as his pseudonym Le Corbusier which he used for all his works later. He became well-known all over the world as an architect, painter, writer, and lecturer also for being one of the founders of modernism, brutalism, and functionalism (the movement is usually associated with Jeanneret’s works and theories (Norberg-Schulz)) in architecture. Not only rationalism played an important role in his architecture Le Corbusier also believed that one of the most interesting accepts was how proportions of edifices affect on people’s perception. Thus he created modular which he used for designing and sizing all his works and projects later.
Another aspect of his architecture is that he considered it to be the ‘organization of masses’ (Choay, 1960) where he played with volumes using concrete as the main building material and with light creating great shadow patterns inside. Jeanneret was one of the most notable architects of modernism who wrote the general concept of modern building in 5 parts: 1. raise building above; 2. roof gardens; 3. free plan; 4 continuous windows; 5. free facade. After World War II in the twentieth century, the modern movement became dominant. It characterized by the rejection of old traditions and Neoclassicism and replacing them with technology new material such as steel, glass, and reinforced concrete. This essay will explore the use of concrete as a modern material in Le Corbusier’s chapel in France. Notre Dame du Haut is a chapel located on the top of the hill near the Ronchamp in eastern France (https://www.inexhibit.com/mymuseum/notre-dame-du-haut-le-corbusier-ronchamp-chapel/). The name of the church (Our Lady of the Heights) was taken from the previous building Christian chapel built in the 4th century. Riccardo Bianchini also pointed out that during World War II the old Church was bombed therefore the decision to rebuilt it was made. The owners of the chapel asked Le Corbusier design it in 1849 since they wanted the edifice to be more modern they also promised him freedom in designing. At that time the architect was 63 years old and he had no experience in designing religious buildings. Therefore, his first intention was to reject the project.
However, after visiting the site, he agreed to build the new chapel. As well as that church Jeanneret also created two other simple constructions on the place which are now hidden under the grass roof. Standing in the top of the hill the new building is surrounded by a considerable number of trees and a small village (fig.1). This beautiful landscape inspired Le Corbusier to design Notre Dame du Haut which from 2016 is UNESCO World’s Heritage Site as well as other 16 works of the architect in France. The designing process was mainly done by sketches and models. Jeanneret aimed to provide pure and silent space for meditations and prayers, a place where people would feel free, comfortable and safe (https://www.archdaily.com/84988/ad-classics-ronchamp-le-corbusier). The final output is the most unusual work of the architect which seems to be more an enormous and monumental artwork rather than the modern building. While the style of the ‘sculpture’ seems to be complex, however, the space organization is relevantly simple and consists out of 3 parts: three chapels, two entrances, and the altar. Massive and thick slightly curved walls, which seems to appear from the hill as a part of it, create free-planed space inside as well as they provide some space outside under the roof. Another exciting design elements are unconnected masses of the Ronchamp when they seem to be solid from a distance (Deborah, p.76) which we can see on the plan (fig.) Andrew Kroll also emphasizes that Le Corbusier’s main aim was ‘Spatial purity.’ The architect was trying to escape the overflow of useless architectural elements which would distract people from the primary purpose of the building. The white color of the walls creates the pure and innocent atmosphere while the light coming from the colored glass windows acquire different colors space inside becomes heavenly and mysterious.
Although, the most interesting and the most remarkable part of the project is the roof (Adrian Forty). Some people think that inspiration was airplane wing or hat. However, Le Corbusier used a form of crab shell he found on a Long Island beach (Deborah, p. 76) to create the roof which is looking different from all the sides. Another exciting aspect is silver light from outside which is coming from the narrow line between the walls and the roof (https://www.archdaily.com/84988/ad-classics-ronchamp-le-corbusier). That small but fascinating detail gives the feeling of weightless of pureness to the whole construction and connects the Ronchamp with heaven. The slight bend in the roof structure was made to show the link between location and design. In other words, the hill and the roof are having the same line (fig.) which creating barely visible relations. As a pioneer of the modern movement and the architect who was creating by masses Jeanneret’s main material was reinforced concrete which received massive popularity with the modernism (Giedion). The Notre Dame du Haut was erected mainly using that concrete as almost all Le Corbusier’s designs including Villa Savoye in Poissy and Saint-Pierre in Firminy. Reinforced concrete is a system of materials in which steel bars are used inside the concrete to provide great flexibility of forms and strength. These advantages of it are the most suitable for Le Corbusier’s idea and the atmosphere it could provide fits well with the building’s purpose. The hardest part of the chapel roof is made out of 2 concrete slabs and space 2,26 meters between them which is forming the shape of the structure. To make the building waterproof, the architect decided to cover the one top roof’s membrane with aluminum tiles.
The roof is supported by small columns which paced on the actual wall. These elements are made from the same material, and they suppose the separate the roof from the walls dividing them by the natural light creating a robust religious image. The walls are curved and thicker near the ground. That was done for two reasons: 1. to increase the stability of the building; 2. to connect the surrounding area with the design. Another material that was used is stones from the previous church that stayed there (same as last). When the south wall is Le Corbusier’s original design with a different shape, size and incline of the windows the other walls are made out of the old church’s stone. Another part which should be considered is floor which follows the natural slope of the hill going down towards the altar. In conclusion, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut is one of the most interesting buildings of that time and in the world. The unusual design and not standard proportions are making it stand out from another architect’s works. However, at the same time, the chapel still contains the main principals such as spatial purity, openness and the secure connection to the surroundings. The reinforced concrete structure with rocks from previous church help to convey the atmosphere of privacy and meditation.
The concrete roof as the most exciting part of the building seems to be as well the essential one and the hardest from the technical point of view providing the most pleasant part of the edifices appearance. The reason why I choose the topic and the Ronchamp since I consider the modern movement to be the most interesting as it rejected old traditions and created something new, something essential as a part of history nowadays. As well as modernism, I am very interested in concrete. For me, the material is not cold or unattractive or uninteresting, soulless. Concrete amazingly plays with light and shadows; it can make the large masses weightless, for instance in Notre Dame du Haut. Although the material is cold by touch, it can provide the warmest atmosphere in the interior as well as the fact that usually, it does not distract from more important aspects of architecture or design.
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