The architectural highlight of our bicycle ride across France was visiting the Notre Dame du Haut chapel, a steep climb from the town of Ronchamp. Designed by Le Corbusier and built in 1955, this expressionist chapel is one of the icons of 20th century European architecture.
Built on a wooded spur above the town, the chapel is visible from almost six miles (ten kilometers) away. Our initial impression was that it abandoned local vernacular styles, scale, and use of materials in favor of more modern reinforced concrete.
The chapel seems to have been designed from the inside out. The interior's power, space, and silence are expressed through the clever control of light and the massing of the walls and roof. Like traditional European churches, the space is divided into a single nave with small side chapels. In Notre Dame du Haut, these side chapels puncture the massive main roof and allow light in from above, carefully controlled and colored to give each chapel a separate identity and intimacy. Light draws the eye to specific statues, while shadow provides private areas for prayer and reflection.
The building's exterior is expressed as a complicated form of three white intersecting roughcast walls supporting a concrete convex roof. Intricacy is added through the external altar, skylights, and stained glass openings.
Concrete is used extensively throughout. Le Corbusier added texture and detail through patterns in the formwork. Color is restricted to the glazing and paintings on the main doorway. The limited palette of materials and colors results in a pure and intricately detailed architectural form.
The chapel is fantastic. It has a strong presence when seen from a distance, and still it has detail and interest at every level. It is well worth the climb to reach it.
On the road in Ronchamp, France
Matt Bridgestock and Adam Mellotte