When the French Catholic Church embarked on a huge reconstruction programme in the middle of the last century, to replace 2,000 buildings destroyed by war, it had a dilemma.
Many of the leading artists of the age were not notably devout. So some pragmatism was required. “In the present circumstances,” said one of the clerics overseeing the project, “we feel it safer to call on geniuses with no faith than believers with no talent”.
.... from the deserted stop at Ronchamp, where there were no buildings, only small rain shelters on either side, the rest of the trek was on foot. And soon after turning left on the outskirts of the town, for the steep walk to Bourlément hill, I found myself amidst the “acoustic architecture” (the sounds of the forest) in which Le Corbusier set his modernist masterpiece.
The site is sufficiently remote that it is a surprise to learn it saw heavy fighting in the second World War. But it did. A previous church here – itself a replacement for the much older one struck by lighting in 1913 – was destroyed in the German bombardment.
And stones from the original have been incorporated into the grounds of the new one as a small pyramid with the dedication: “On this hilltop in 1944, French soldiers died for peace”.
As for Le Corbusier’s chapel, from certain angles, and strange as it appears, you could almost believe it had emerged organically out of the forest. White, with a brownish canopy, it looks from one side like a giant toadstool. But it is almost entirely concrete, softened only by the sunlight trapped in various hidden apertures.
The bits that are not concrete are glass: plain, coloured, or painted with the architect’s own religious graffiti and pictures of the sun, moon, stars, flowers, butterflies, and various other things that make up the surroundings.
In the decade that remained to him after he built the church, he had jealously guarded the site, fearful of a “new Lourdes”. So when the planned additions (by Renzo Piano, whose better known works include the Pompidou Centre) were announced in 2005, on the chapel’s 50th anniversary, they provoked some horror.