To build anything at all on Bourlémont Hill, next to a structure which has become one of the symbols of 20th-century architecture, at first sight seems inappropriate and lacking in sense. Piano himself admits that the commission surprised him, and to begin with, he turned it down (another reason was that he was too busy).
What caused him to change his mind was this project’s objective: to return to the chapel and its surroundings things which had now been almost lost — their spiritual component and intimate, human dimension. Notre Dame du Haut is currently visited by 100,000 religious and ‘architectural’ pilgrims each year, and the stream of tourist buses has turned the chapel into a kind of attraction which people head to in order to place a tick in their list of places to see.
However, this is not merely a masterpiece of modern religious architecture, but also an important Catholic holy place which was founded not later than the 9th century; a miracle-working image
of the Mother of God is kept here. Even so, the chapel has been short on luck and has many times been destroyed and reconstructed. Its previous incarnation perished in artillery fire in 1944, when eastern France was being liberated from Fascist occupation. When the heads of the Association Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut turned to Le Corbusier in 1950, he too, like Renzo Piano 55 years later, was hardly delighted to receive the commission: he had already had negative experience of working for the Catholic Church, and was moreover an agnostic (although inclined to mysticism).
Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut by Le Corbusier at Ronchamp. 1955 © Roland Halbe
Convent for the Community of Poor Clares. Façade of the domestic units © Michel Denancé
Convent for the Community of Poor Clares. Chapel © Michel Denancé
Main image: © Michel Denancé