During the summer, we drove to Denmark to stay with architect friends there. En-route we stayed one night in eastern France and one night in Germany and I noticed that we would be passing very close to Ronchamp on the second day. For those that do not know, Ronchamp is the site of a pilgrimage chapel that was reconstructed by Le Corbusier in the 1950s. The chapel is situated in a superb location on top of a hill in wooded country overlooking the village of Ronchamp in the Haute-Saone and looking out over the Saone valley plain to the west and the Belfort Gap to the east.
In 1950 Le Corbusier was asked, by the Archbishop of Bésancon, to design a new chapel at Ronchamp to replace the one destroyed during the war and unusually, the church authorities wanted to break with tradition and commission a truly modern building. Le Corbusier, after first refusing the commission agreed to it after visiting and being inspired by the site. While differing from the majority of his other ‘International Style’ buildings in its irregular and sculptural shape (apart from sharing some of the sculptural shapes found on the roof of the Unite building), it is a truly modern building in its use of materials and its handling of form and space.
I last visited the chapel in the early 1960s when I was a student and I was keen to re-visit it. Since my last visit, a bell tower designed by Jean Prouvé has been constructed adjacent to the chapel and a new entrance building, visitors’ centre and a convent for the ‘Poor Clares’ a mendicant order of contemplative nuns all designed by Renzo Piano have been constructed below the chapel. There has also been extensive landscaping of the area around the site.
We arrived there early one morning before many other tourists had arrived and had the chapel more or less to ourselves. The new buildings by Renzo Piano sit below the chapel and are built into the hillside with ‘green’ roofs so that, from above and from the chapel itself they are not visible. They are very simply but very nicely detailed. I particularly liked the profiled steel sheets that project out over the windows to protect them from direct sunlight which is similar to a detail I have used many times in buildings in the tropics.
The chapel itself consists of the main space the floor of which slopes down to the altar and which is mainly lit by small windows punched through the south wall, and two small side altars that are lit by clerestory windows. The roof to the main space appears to float above the walls as there is a 10 cm gap between the top of the walls and the underside of the dramatically curved roof. The interiors are quite dark with subtle lighting from the small windows in the south wall and from the clerestories making for a very dramatic space. The main ‘pilgrims’ door is also on the south side and is very large and covered inside and out with coloured enamel designs by Le Corbusier.
On the eastern side the roof over-sails an external altar and pulpit that face onto a large space between the chapel and the ‘pyramid of peace’ (a memorial to the fighting that took place in 1944), that can accommodate 10,000 pilgrims.
All-in-all a very special place that impressed even a weary old cynic like myself!
While in Denmark we stayed at our friend’s summer house at Marielyst on Lolland, Denmark’s most southerly island. While there, we visited the Fuglsang Kunstmuseum which is a purpose-built regional art museum designed by Tony Fretton Architects (they won the commission in a competition) to house the Storstrom Art Museum’s permanent collection of Danish fine art from the period 1780 – 1980. The building also houses galleries for temporary exhibitions, a shop, a café, a learning centre and admin and storage spaces.
The museum is located deep in the Danish countryside, which in Lolland is very flat and open, and very close to the sea. It is surrounded by farmland and a lot of sheep which can wander right up to the walls of the building.
The museum is a low-key, low-rise building set in a loose assembly of existing rural buildings including a large, long barn and a manor house. It is constructed of brick, painted white with high roof-lights (to stop direct penetration of sunlight) over the main gallery spaces.
At the entrance end are the café and shop with views of the long, central gallery and at the other end of this gallery is a rather strange space, off-set from the main axis of the building and having full-height windows giving views of the surrounding countryside, the sea and the sheep. The other galleries lead off the central galleries and all of the galleries are very well lit for the display of paintings (unlike many galleries that I have visited recently. Altogether a very nice building, if somewhat unexpected given the location, and the antithesis of Ronchamp.
On our way back to Sérignac we stopped off in Utrecht and visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I also wanted to visit the Zonnestraal Sanitorium in Hilversum designed by Jan Duiker which I made a study of when I was a student but unfortunately we did not have time. The Rijkmuseum has been completely renovated and extended (by Spanish firm Cruz y Ortiz) and it is an amazing building beautifully renovated (though I felt that some of the detailing let it down) and has some wonderful paintings. Best not visited in August though; too many tourists only interested in taking snaps of themselves and of the paintings!
We then stopped in Paris in Poissy outside Paris in order to visit the Villa Savoye which I had never visited but we also had time to visit the Picasso Museum in Paris itself. Another renovation and extension of a beautiful existing building (the Hotel Salé) and the result is quite stunning. Beautiful materials and exquisite detailing (that cost a fortune) by the architect Jean-Francois Bodin and of course the contents are extraordinary (there was an exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture on when we visited); well worth a visit at any time.
The Villa Savoie, the weekend home of the Savoye family was constructed between 1928 and 1931 and was the culmination of the architect’s research and the first implementation of his ‘Five Points of New Architecture’: the use of piloti to raise the main part of the building off the ground; the provision of flat roofs and roof gardens; the separation of structure and internal walls to facilitate open-planning; the separation of structure and façade so that windows can be freely placed and the provision of long, horizontal windows.
The house is set in the middle of a large, flat lawn across which a gravelled road leads to the entrance of the house (which is at the rear) around a curved, glazed wall the diameter of which was based on the turning circles of the cars of the day.
On the ground floor are the main entrance and the service rooms: a servants’ room, a laundry and a large garage. From the entrance a dog-leg staircase and a ramp lead up to the first floor where are located the main living areas: the living room that opens onto a large terrace; a kitchen and pantry; the main bedroom with its own bathroom and a dressing room that opens on to the terrace and two other bedrooms that share a bathroom. The staircase and another ramp lead up to a roof terrace and a ‘solarium’ protected by a curved wall. When the house was built there would have been views of the Seine from both terraces but these are now obscured by trees. Le Corbusier based the design of the house on the ramps that link the ground floor to the first floor and the first floor to the roof terrace and all of the communal spaces revolve around these ramps which also open up the centre of the building.
With the ground floor set back from the first floor on three sides, the house appears to float above the ground on its slender pilotis and the continuous ribbon windows to three sides on the first floor (and a similar opening on the fourth elevation to the first floor terrace) do away with any idea of front and back while the stark white walls with the ribbon windows set almost flush give reality to the architect’s idea of a house as a ‘machine for living’. In actuality, even today, it seems to me that the house would make a very useable and enjoyable home (even though the Savoyes did not seem to enjoy it very much!).
At the entrance to the site is the caretaker/gardener’s house which is delightful and is apparently the only built example of Le Corbusier’s minimum one-family house.