The Everyday Icon

Le Corbusier's Notre Dame de Haut, Ronchamp

There were two reasons, at the beginning, for my pilgrimage to see Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp in Eastern France. Firstly I wanted to experience the reality of the building, designed in the early 1950's by Le Corbusier, that I had been enamoured with for the last 30 years. And secondly I wanted to have a sense of this iconic building in its place on the map - its context. As the journey progressed a third reason emerged.

I had never been an ardent fan of Le Corbusier. It was this one particular building and his painting and graphic work that I admired. From when I first set foot in Europe it took me two months to get to Ronchamp . On the way I stumbled across a couple of things that kindled my growing interest in the architect and his process.

In Madrid there was a temporary exhibition of Le Corbusier's paintings, architectural drawings and furniture which I found fascinating. Then at Roquebrune Cap Martin in the south of France I visited his "bach". This was when he really went up in my estimation. Anybody who has the foresight to attach their bach to the back wall of a restaurant and punch a door through the wall for direct access to dinner cooked by someone else, has got to be worthy of further investigation.

I travelled north by train to get to Ronchamp where I planned to spend two days. There I found a mining town set in the forested foothills of the Vosges mountains. The mines are no more and the whole place has a sleepy village atmosphere. I suspect most people now travel to larger towns nearby to work. I was surprised at the lack of accommodation. The one hotel in town was being renovated - in the height of the tourist season - so my hotel was a four kilometre walk away. No B&B's, no hostels, no other architectural tourists spending more than a few hours in town.

There was a definite sense of familiarity about the countryside as I walked back and forth from hotel to town to chapel over those two days. The lush green, the rain swollen streams, the wind in the trees, the mining reminded me of Reefton just west of the Lewis Pass.

Before this new chapel, completed in 1955, there was another and another before that it has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries and once a year ten thousand pilgrims come to celebrate the birth of the Virgin. Whilst its radical architecture did cause a stir at the time, the fact of its being there on the hill behind the town and attracting pilgrims goes back way further than Le Corbusier.

And what of the building itself? I spent a long time outside getting an understanding and appreciation of this wonderful piece of sculpture and of its location commanding the four horizons as Le Corbusier described them. The soaring roof, the three towers, the water spouts, the curving, leaning walls, the wonderful door painting and the outside chapel. And going in - how dark it is, how quiet, how still. I expected more light - the photos of necessity have more light, but really it's dim in there. Once your eyes adjust, the soft light washing down the tower walls and the slither of light separating the draped roof shell from the walls becomes apparent. Chance and persistence meant I had some time inside on my own, allowing me to experience the success of Le Corbusier's aim "to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace, of inward joy". It was a profound experience.

Apparently Le Corbusier only accepted this commission because he was given a free rein. One of the leading clerics responsible for appointing Le Corbusier reputedly said that it was better to engage a genius who was a non believer than a believer with no talent. Needless to say there was huge controversy over the design and the townspeople were not at all keen. They now have to deal with two kinds of pilgrims - those coming once a year to celebrate the birth of the Virgin and those who come all year round to visit the building for its own sake.

Perhaps it is a legacy of that controversy that explains the locals' indifference to both the new breed of pilgrim and the architectural icon in their midst. In my hotel the only reference to it was a framed photo in the breakfast room of three fighter jets with the chapel below. Another image in the window of the local photographer's studio indicates that it has been used as the backdrop for a wedding photo at least once. The very-hard-to-find tourist information centre has a small selection of postcards and could those little square coloured glass windows in the house on the way up the hill to the chapel have been inspired by those in the south wall?

I wonder what it would be like if there were an iconic building in Reefton, with its similar climate and mining heritage. Reefton is a much livelier place than Ronchamp. The people who live there are still mining and if they're not they are in some way making a living from the town's comparatively short history - museums, tours, creative endeavours that draw from its colourful past. Would a fantastic piece of architecture on the town's edge make a difference to Reefton?

St Canices was designed by John Scott

Just down the road in Westport there is a wonderful church. St Canices was designed by John Scott, a nationally renowned architect, in the late 1960's. Yet until recently very few people, even architects, knew of its existence, and I doubt it makes any difference to the number of tourists visiting the region.

There is probably only one building in New Zealand that can claim the distinction of architectural tourist attraction. It's not the need to go to the toilet that drives tourists all the way to Kawakawa, it's because those very funky toilets were designed by Friedrich Hundertwasser, an architect with an international reputation. This iconic building has certainly made a difference to Kawakawa. It has put it on the map. Other businesses have sprung up around it. People are proud of their toilets.

It will be interesting to see whether things change in Ronchamp if Renzo Piano's proposed centre for the nuns of the order of St Clare within the grounds of the chapel goes ahead. The indifference of the locals to the architectural masterpiece in their midst helped to make the Ronchamp experience a highlight of my three months in Europe. The chapel of Notre Dame du Haut may be admired and celebrated by architects and tourists from all over the world, but for the people of the town, and the thousands of believers who gather there once a year to celebrate the birth of the Virgin, its chief importance is as a place of worship. It's an everyday icon.

In the meantime, I have retrieved all the volumes of my father's copies of the works of Le Corbusier from under the computer screens in the office and am now enjoying discovering the rest of the work and process of one of the great architects and thinkers of the twentieth century.

Min Hall, November 2007.

Incidentally, trawling back through records of NZIA architectural awards I note that the Kawakawa toilets have never received any recognition - perhaps Hundertwasser didn't bother to do the paperwork to be able to call himself an architect here.

published in March 2008 Cross Section