All fans of architecture have a list of structures around the world they want to visit some day. Le Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp was one of mine. I had studied the great architect’s construction via glossy photos and renderings in books and magazines, but I always promised myself that I would experience Notre Dame du Haut firsthand. On a bright July day in 1998, I had my chance.
I arrived in Ronchamp, in the eastern part of France, via train. The sun was setting, and I walked up the hill toward the chapel, following signs that directed me to the gatehouse entrance—only to be turned back by the lone cashier in the small souvenir shop. Ronchamp was closing for the evening. I was out of luck; my encounter with Le Corbusier’s masterpiece would have to wait until the next day. (I should mention that I visited Ronchamp before Renzo Piano’s unfortunate addition was built, but that’s a discussion for another column.)
I had arrived in Ronchamp with not much more than a camera, backpack, and change of clothes. I was spending the summer in Southern and Central Europe, touring countless religious structures for my master’s thesis, and if there was anything that unified those structures, it was in their use of the powerful yet illusive symbol of light.
A month before Ronchamp, a friend of a friend took me to a tiny Mithraic temple built into a cave in the hills of Tuscany. The two-thousand-year-old temple was windowless, illuminated only by the natural light of the entrance and the butane lighter of my chain-smoking guide. Christians had long ago taken over the space; saintly images were painted onto the cave’s limestone walls. I imagined the early rituals of the worshippers, lit by torches, the mysteries of the rites unfolding in the flickering light of burning flames.
My travels took me to Ravenna, where artists used slender slices of alabaster as windows for their basilicas four hundred years after the time of Christ. Light in the worship spaces was even and balanced, casting a warm glow upon the golden mosaics that lined the high walls of the nave and the apse of the sanctuary. Romanesque churches of the Dark Ages were indeed very dark, almost fortress-like spaces with massive stone walls and slits for windows. Today, put a couple of euros in the nearby machine and a blaze of halogen lights illuminates the space with dramatic uplighting as the original architects could never have imagined.
I found that it was in France that architects embraced the power of symbolic light most skillfully. French Gothic churches used load-bearing buttresses to free up vast expanses of walls for glassy illuminations. There are moments when sunlight pours into a sanctuary with triumphal might, while at other times the same light gently illuminates the rich colors of stained glass, whose images reveal the story of a persecuted Christ. A week before my journey to Ronchamp, I was in Vence, France, marveling at the light of Henri Matisse’s tiny Dominican chapel. The white, glazed tiles reflected the artist’s stained-glass Tree of Life, and the light was so bright, the effect so uplifting, it was as if the walls disappeared, and I was floating above the Earth, worshipping in the heavens above.
Light is the most volatile, the most powerful of all symbols. We see this today in the green movement, in which we use the light of the sun to power our lives with solar technology; conversely, because of our modern pollution, too much light entering our atmosphere now has the power to destroy us. Perhaps, too, our visceral, almost unconscious connection to light stems from the fact that without it, we would have no life at all. Is it any wonder that no matter the era or religion, light is seen as a divine force of nature?
Green buildings demand that designers be students of light. The more they understand and appreciate the nature of the sun’s illumination, the more they can foster life-giving, even transcendent spaces for people to live, work, and worship.
That next morning in Ronchamp I walked eagerly up the hill to Notre Dame du Haut. At the clearing in the forest, the chapel revealed itself. It was like an ancient Greek temple crowning the hilltop. Its white textured-concrete walls, freshly painted, reflected the brilliance of the morning sun. Within the outdoor worship space, I walked under the iconic, prow-like rooftop to the concrete altar and looked out onto the dewy, freshly cut lawn, which could hold ten thousand worshippers. Beyond the clearing, rolling hills disappeared into the misty horizon. I was completely alone, and as a Christian, I couldn’t help but imagine I was one of thousands surrounding Jesus as he gave the Sermon on the Mount.
I made my way to the other side of the sculptural edifice, through the abstractly painted doors to the interior of the chapel. Inside, it was completely silent, and my eyes struggled to adjust to the cave-like darkness. A rack of slender devotional candles had been lit by an unseen hand, their soft glow contrasting with the sunlight that streamed through small openings in the outer wall. A crevice of light between the sloped walls and ceiling made it seem as if the ceiling floated effortlessly overhead.
Whereas the exterior of Notre Dame du Haut is extroverted and ebullient, its interior is introverted and mysterious. I sat in a pew and took in the space, alone, in silence. I watched the piercing rays of light from the constellation of small openings process across interior surfaces and objects. It was almost musical, how the light would beam through one tiny window, then be extinguished as another became illuminated.
Along the rear wall of the church were two smaller alcoves, where light was captured high above in periscope-like features. From openings at the top of the silos, diffused light rained down, casting shadows on the textured walls of each alcove and reflecting on the white linen cloths of the altars. Atop these sat lone candles quietly flickering in the soft white light.
I continued to sit in silence for a long time, no longer marveling at the design of the space—instead I became lost within it. Le Corbusier guided me though his design, his mastery of light, to something far deeper. And I realized that more than ever, architects, with an ever-increasing understanding of the power of light, have the potential to do the same, in every building they create. “I wanted to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace, and inner joy,” Le Corbusier said of Ronchamp. He succeeded. We should aspire to do the same.
Alan Oakes is an architectural historian, writer, documentarian, and regular contributor to gb&d. Drop him a line at [email protected]/magazine.