With a plan afoot for Renzo Piano to add buildings to the site of Le Corbusier’s famed Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, a perfect storm of good intentions in conflict is brewing. At issue are ultimately two types of pilgrimage: the original religious one of contemplation and prayer, and the latter-day architectural version.
The Association Œuvre Notre-Dame du Haut that owns Ronchamp is within weeks of seeking a permit to build a new visitor center, a cluster of 12 habitats for nuns, and meditation space down the slope from Le Corbusier’s 1955 masterwork. And when a building permit is granted, the Fondation Le Corbusier, the Paris-based keeper of the master’s flame, has said that it will sue, reluctantly. “We are trying to make sure the site is preserved for eternity,” said Michel Richard, the foundation’s director. “We are afraid that in 10 years, the sisters will go away and they will be replaced by a B&B.”
“It is the most poetic building by Corbusier,” said Piano in an interview in his Manhattan office. “But he made it to be a place of worship, not just a sculpture. It proves that a secular person could create a place of religious feeling.”
According to association director Jean-Francois Mathey, son of Francois Mathey, who was involved in hiring Corbusier in 1950 to build the chapel (on the site of a 1799 church destroyed by World War II bombs), the idea to invite a group of nuns to live on the site came about a few years ago as a bulwark against creeping tourism. The site attracts some 100,000 people a year.
“We feared that with so much traffic, the spiritual quality of the chapel—not the architecture itself—would little by little disappear,” Mathey said. “It should be a place of silence and prayer, not a fun fair.” The association decided to invite a “praying presence” of nuns from the Clarissine order (more commonly known as the Poor Clares) who would be tucked into Piano-designed cells on the far side of the hill. Corbusier himself had consulted with the association about adding a monastery, but concrete plans were never developed.
Since Ronchamp is a cultural landmark, the French Ministry of Culture is required to approve plans for change and they did, unanimously, six months ago. The association, however, did not seek the benediction of the foundation. “That was probably a mistake,” said Piano. There have been three or four meetings between the architect and foundation that Piano described as very helpful, especially about measurements and materials. For its part, the foundation said that it was not flatly opposed to a new program for the site, nor against Piano. “We are well aware that Renzo Piano will take all precautions called for,” said Richard. “They should just build farther away.”
The association considered several architects besides Piano, including Tadao Ando, Glenn Murcutt, and Jean Nouvel. In the end, the first two were deemed too far away, while the idea of Nouvel was rejected because “he would only design something Jean Nouvel,” said Mathey. “We loved Piano’s museums in Basel and Berne. He is a poet and a philosopher, too.”
Piano himself was somewhat hesitant, and not because of the complexities of building respectfully next to an icon. After all, he has designed additions to several icons, including Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (in a preliminary design stage) and Richard Meier’s Atlanta High Museum (2005). But the Ronchamp project is by far the smallest in his office, very sensitive, and with a relatively miniscule budget of $13 million. “There would be no reason to put myself in this funny situation were not a work of passion,” he said.
Piano did not even start to design until he had walked the site last winter, driving stakes into the ground where it would be possible to build without being seen from the top of the hill where the chapel sits. According to French law, any changes within 500 meters of a designated landmark are open to the scrutiny of the Ministry of Culture, but the grounds around the chapel building are not subject to this landmark protection. Thus, although the new structures will be invisible, they do come to within 60 meters of the chapel. Piano plans to reforest the flanks of the hill with some 800 evergreens and native deciduous trees, spending one-third the entire budget on landscaping.
Jean Louis Cohen, the preeminent Corbusier scholar who is on the board of the foundation, also walked around the site last summer. “Maybe you wouldn’t see it, but you would feel it,” said Cohen in an interview in which he showed slides documenting the chapel from every possible angle from below the hilltop. “The harmony of the place would be disturbed; it would lose the sense of being a pilgrimage and impoverish the chapel itself.”
The plan includes a new visitor center to replace the current one—a makeshift pink box at the base of the hill. Renderings show a simple split shed with a dynamic bifurcated roof jutting in directions that echo the swoops of the chapel’s roof. The tilting roof planes would be made of both zinc and green-roof materials, making it appear as if it were rising from the forest floor. It has been positioned to allow people parking their cars to get a glimpse of the chapel up the steep hill. The nun’s cells are even simpler at 120 square feet, bermed into the hillside in the woods just below the knoll’s clearing and invisible from the top. Piano is thinking of giving each cell a high-tech light scoop, similar to those at the High Museum, but here atop 20-foot columns that would draw light through the trees into each cell.
Mathey explained the opposition is the only barrier to going ahead. “They thought someday of recovering the chapel. Now, since Renzo Piano is going to put his mark on the hill, they don’t like it,” he said. (The foundation was alerted to the association’s plans to move forward by an article [.pdf] that appeard in August in the Catholic newspaper Le Croix.)
Getting a permit to build will not be difficult, as the Ministry of Culture has already approved the plans. Once a building permit is issued, there is a two-month period, something like a marital banns, when the opposed can step forward. “The foundation is well aware that we’ll have to do something,” said Richard.
While presenting the plans for Ronchamp in his Meatpacking District office overlooking the site of the new Whitney museum he is designing, Piano took a break from simultaneously meeting with representatives of The New York Times about the trees on the roof of their new building and taking an interview with Newsweek about the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. At lunchtime, his old colleague and friend Richard Rogers and his wife Ruth arrived. Asked if this were a project he would take on, Rogers looked incredulous.
“I am mad, aren’t I?” Piano said, with a laugh. “But I like risk.”
JULIE V. IOVINE
Piano insists the new buildings will be all but invisible to chapel visitors.
RENDERINGS AND MODELS COURTESY RPBW
The nuns' residences are hidden amid the trees, but a variation on Piano's High Museum light wells will provide ample natural light.
A site plan gives a sense of the location of the nuns' quarters, at left, and the new visitor's center, located near the road at the bottom of the drawing.
A model of the nuns' residences. The orange chimneys are the light wells.
In addition to housing for the nuns, a small sanctuary will also be built amid the trees.
A model of the new visitor's center. As the topography shows, it will be built into the surrounding landscape, like all the new buildings.
One of Piano's signature drawings illustrates the relationship between the residences, their light wells, and the trees.