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In defence of Le Corbusier

· Why the convent built by Renzo Piano in Ronchamp fails to convince ·

Some great architecture is born in isolation and acquires its character from this condition.

This is the case of the Madonna di S. Biagio at Montefiascone, of the Santuario di S. Luca in Bologna, of Frank Lloyd Wright's House over the Waterfall and of many other buildings across the world. Spoiling this seclusion with new, more or less camouflaged buildings in the vicinity of a masterpiece undoubtedly damages the perception of this isolation. Le Corbusier, as in the case of the chapel [Notre-Dame-du-Haut] that he built at Ronchamp, had understood the full value of this when he took a stand against those who wished to “continue” what he saw as definitively complete. “It's insane! Leave Ronchamp alone as it is. Don't open the door to abomination”, he wrote in 1961, when the possibility of building on this hill was first brought up; and a year later he added: “Do not restructure, I beg you. Leave things in this deeply moving state”.

The underground convent and guest rooms designed by Piano at the edge of the plateau on which the chapel stands are a eulogy to the fashion of architecture that is concealed, so as to avoid an impact on the environment.  The intervention, entrusted to a community of nuns, is part of  a “re-spiritualization” programme for the site that leaves one perplexed.

The chapel is in fact one of the instances when modern culture, having consciously taken a step back from the Christian message, recognizes eternity and power. The controversies it stirred up in the secular world are well known. Argan published a vehement article in Casabella against this “conversion” . If Le Corbusier could conceive of this architecture full of creative frenzy, in blatant contradiction to the principles of rationalism solemnly promulgated in the 1920s,  it is because  he was rediscovering in himself a secret and profound part of faith in the mystery of life, that prompted him to declare, a few months before his death: “Far from the noise and the madding crowd, in my den (because I am a meditative spirit, I have compared myself, by myself, solely to a donkey, through conviction), for 50 years I studied the genre “Man” and his woman (wife) and their children. One concern moved me imperatively: to introduce the sense of the sacred into the home; to make the home the temple of the family. From this moment everything changed. A cubic centimetre of  dwelling-place is worth its weight in gold, it represents possible happiness. With such an idea of its dimension and function today you can build a temple on a family scale, in addition to the cathedrals that were built... in another epoch. You can do it because you will put the whole of yourselves into it”.

Can the rapprochement to faith of one of the heroes of modern life be “spiritualized”? I would not say so. To me it seems that removed from solitude and isolation, set beside an institutional structure not only does it lose its persuasive powers but also its symbolic and prophetic value, which speak to us of a world that must “turn over a new leaf”. “In Bogota, in 1950, I had had the feeling that there was a new leaf to turn over: the end of a world, immanent, imminent. Is all that is left to know the duration in human hours, seconds or minutes of this... catastrophe? No, friends, of this liberation. An ordinary circumstance and not in the least solemn; a business trip to Bogota filled my hands in only five days with a quantity of facts and proofs of a general and a personal kind, that were capable of affirming without anguish – on the contrary, with the joy of the future – that the page must be turned, a great page of human history; the history of the life of men and women before the motor car; of the life it has interrupted, shattered, pulverized. For example, in the USA in New York with 15 million inhabitants, the horror of an affluent society with no purpose or reasons”.

What can be said of Piano's convent? The architect did his best, minimizing, showing concern for the life of the little community, but he also had to plan a small shrine and there the comparison has become embarrassing. It would have been better for him had the project, difficult to frame in his work –  so dazzling and so sure of itself – remained on paper and had the sisters not left their house in Besançon in which they had lived since the 19th century. Ronchamp in its isolation, lapped but not overcome by the roar of the media, is there to testify that there can be a convergence between modernity and Christianity, but that it does not, perhaps, consist in the Church surrendering to the civilization of statistics and of computer science or to her presence “in all the nooks and crannies of the web”, but rather, without rejecting the present and with the “joy of the future”, in her contribution to turning over a new leaf.

It is a pity that today, despite his churches and his golden underground creations, Piano has drifted away from that “sacredness” of which Le Corbusier speaks, to which he had profitably drawn close at the time when his work was progressing, when he was travelling round his open work sites in Otranto or Burano helping the inhabitants to repair their houses.




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 21, 2020