Corb’s Chapel

BDP Chair, Chris Harding, featured in Building Design’s ‘50 Wonders’ where he nominated Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Haut chapel as one of the world’s 50 best buildings.

I first saw a picture of Ronchamp before studying architecture. The white plastic shapes and giant upturned roof (which I later discovered was inspired by a crab shell picked up on Long Island in 1946) looked like nothing I’d seen before.

I can’t recall studying or discussing the building at university – possibly because it stepped outside the oeuvre of Corb’s machine-age manifesto. Perhaps he would consider Ronchamp an outlier too given the freedom that the simple brief and hilltop setting gave him.

Our first visit wasn’t planned. I spotted it on the map on our way to Italy, so we made a detour. Those who have visited will have experienced the way it comes into view as you rise up to the plateau. I’m told the building is very small and frankly I haven’t a clue what the dimensions are. It feels the right size – a human size. So much has been written about Ronchamp but fundamentally, the building can only truly be understood by those experiencing it. On our second visit with a youngish family everyone split up to experience it alone. This is essentially a place to speak to God, not each other.

Notre Dame du Haut

During the first visit I picked up a lovely pocketbook of text and sketches for Ronchamp. In it Corb describes first visiting the site and then tucking it away in his memory to ‘float’, ‘simmer’ and ‘ferment’ until one fine day the idea is born. Ronchamp is not the product of machine-age thinking but the magic of intuition to create a spiritual and intimate experience. This got me thinking about today’s challenges and whether we want a world conceived and constructed by algorithms and robots or humanity and passion. If Corb were alive today I’m sure he would be fascinated by this challenge and the creative potential of humans and artificial intelligence working together.