First look at Renzo Piano's addition to Le Corbusier's Ronchamp masterpiece
Few sites are considered sacrosanct when it comes to expansion. But Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp may be one of them. Designed in 1950-1954, this modernist masterwork, which stands on a hilltop in the Voges Mountains in eastern France, is perhaps the most revered structure designed by Le Corbusier and one of the most significant pilgrimages in the world, architectural and religious, attracting some 100,000 visitors each year. It is against this backdrop that a new addition by Renzo Piano Building Workshop should be evaluated.
While Piano is exceptionally adept at expanding modern masterpieces that many would consider untouchable, like the Kimball Art Museum, the chapel at Ronchamp is a challenge beyond compare, in a category all its own. What makes it so is the sculptural nature of the chapel itself, an object in the landscape that would have its power diluted by subsequent additions. Needless to say, this was the prevailing opinion when word first broke of the complex’s expansion. Heavy hitter architects like Richard Meier, for one, came out against the project as did the Fondation Le Corbusier, which protects the architect’s works.
The $16m project adds a convent and visitor’s centre. But it is the site planning, not the buildings, that is important here. Piano has responded masterfully and appropriately in designing background buildings that are sited downhill from the chapel itself, tucked away from view and strategically burrowed into their hillside setting so that least amount of structure is visible to the eye.
Piano has also removed a 1960s gatehouse addition to the complex that New York Times critic, Michael Kimmleman calls ‘despised’, which obscured views of the chapel from the town below. In this sense, Piano’s work is restorative and indeed an improvement acknowledging as it does the original intentions of Le Corbusier. The buildings are not surprisingly understated and transparent, and for the most part they echo the original material palette of the chapel itself, constructed as they are of concrete, wood and steel, with simple corrugated zinc roofs. The nuns’ living quarters are sparse, consisting of twelve rooms arranged around a courtyard open to the landscape.
In assessing Piano’s addition, Michael Kimmleman said: “Imposing anything on this hill, even half buried buildings impinges on what Le Corbusier saw in the 1950s as the ‘poem’ of the larger site with its interplay of forest and chapel”. I say the work is extremely sensitive, in part restorative, and if someone had to do it, we should all be thankful that Piano was the chosen one. Few architects of his stature know when to stand in the shadow, and this is this project’s finest moment.