Sunday, May 27, 2012


The Monastery of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette at Eveux, France by Le Corbusier that was completed 1960, is one of the great works of twentieth century architecture. Father Marie-Alain Couturier offered up this prayer, almost as a brief, to Le Corbusier whom he regarded as ‘the greatest living architect’:
“Create a silent dwelling for one hundred bodies and one hundred hearts”.

Before starting work on the project, Le Corbusier was encouraged to visit Le Thoronet abbey, a former Cistercian abbey built in the late twelfth and early thirteenth century. The abbey is now restored as a museum.

Thoronet Abbey had a significant influence upon the Swiss architect Le Corbusier Following the Second World War, Father Couturier, a Dominican priest and artist, who had contacts with contemporary artists Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, invited Le Corbusier to design a convent at La Tourette, close to Lyon. Father Coutourier wrote to Le Corbusier in 1953: "I hope that you can go to Le Thoronet, and that you will like that place. It seems to me that there you will find the essence of what a monastery must have been like at the time it was built; a place where men lived by a vow of silence, devoted themselves to reflection and meditation and a communal life which has not changed very much over time." Le Corbusier visited Thoronet, and wrote an article about his visit, including the observation, "the light and the shadow are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth." The convent that he eventually built has a number of features inspired by Thoronet, including the tower and the simple volumes, and the alternating full and empty spaces created by bright light falling on the walls.

Corbusier’s monastery at La Tourette owes much to Thoronet. A quick look at the plans can confirm this, as will a review of the photographs of each building complex. There is a matching feel in these monasteries, in their parts. But more than Thoronet, La Tourette exhibits a stronger ‘elementalism’ – that fragmentation in expression of the parts that separately reflect the various basic functions, gathered together by aggregation and juxtaposition to create the complex we know today. La Tourette gets this concept not only from Thoronet, but also from modernism where the parts of a building are seen as being shaped by and expressing their true functions rather than any preconceived ambition of form or image, or appearance. There is a purity and clarity in this elemental expression that shapes the building parts, determines their relationships and makes the whole, to enable it to be read transparently – to be clearly understood for what it is.

There is no trickery here - no disguise or any possible misconception. All is truth. Honesty is seen as one of the characteristics of this approach that mocks the Victorian concept of decoratively-assumed identities irrespective of the actual facts, their functions and their required forms, so as to make a faked fiction of the new. Lingering behind this push for purity and honesty was the dream of the wholeness, the holiness, of a healthy body that delighted in fresh air, light, ventilation and prosperity for all: a new democracy. Modernism expresses what it is, embodying Sullivan’s maxim: form follows function. Well, one part of it, because Sullivan went on to add: function follows form. Mental health is involved too. The idea, the identity, the image and the form all developed from the very being of the original question and its parameters - nothing else. There was an almost religious fervour: I am what I am - with a religious commitment to the ideal that was most persuasive.

At La Tourette, one is able to see the various parts of the building in much the same manner as the various intestines of an animal can be separately recognised in the whole organic bulk. The chapel and the side chapel in the crypt have their own clear identities, as do the sacristy and the oratory; and even the porter’s lodge. The monks’ separate rooms can all be clearly seen above the refectory, the kitchen, the library, the lecture, study and common rooms, with the circular stair connecting these standing proudly in the courtyard dominated by the oratory’s pyramid, surrounded by the passages and the cloisters. This attention to each part and its expression carries through into the details of the openings. Window baffles are seen as window baffles - even though ‘inventive.’ Vents in walls are detailed for ventilation; other openings for light. Flue exhausts are flue exhausts; steps are steps - all separately and singularly. Services are clearly services - rawly exposed and ‘honest.’ Differences in forms are articulated by gaps and slots to empasise their separate presences. Likewise, skylights - canons of light - are seen as pure ‘canons.’ Concrete is seen as concrete, complete with its imperfections. Putty in the glazing is putty. Even the management of water on the tops of the concrete balustrades is made self-evident, as is the installation of the rope for the ringing of the chapel bell. It is indeed all clearly expressed. The monastery is a masterful representation of this approach that, in the hands of this master, becomes a magnificent sculpture.

Rope for bell ringing

Drain on top of balustrade

The interiors of the cells for the monks carry much the same basic honesty. The cupboard is made of simple pine framing and plywood. The vents are identified as separate adjustable panels, highlighted with colour. Even the portion of the door likely to be touched is identified in black. A tiny balcony is accessible from each room – a private outdoor zone that becomes the external, repetitive expression of the monks' cells in the conglomerate whole, each complete with its ‘mystic’ recess on the wall - almost an altar - and waffle balustrade. The textured render on the wall changes to a panel of smooth render near the balcony door, and to glazed tiling at the hand basin. There is no cheating or guile here. Things happen as they need to because of the rigour of the philosophy of functionalism and its response to the ‘one hundred bodies and the one hundred hearts.’ The understanding was that functions can indeed follow forms, if forms followed functions.

Private cell balcony

Or so it seems. Enter a bathroom area, say the space near the main stair on the upper level, and one will see a tight and awkwardly planned area that squeezes the necessary parts together with a stepped floor to accommodate drainage pipes. Toilets and showers are set out to fit without any other apparent rationale. Why is this so? There is that old adage that suggests that one can tell the quality of a building by the detailing in the bathrooms, and in other back-room’ zones that are ‘not on show.’ What is happening here? It is not until one moves across and around to the basins through the maze of cubicles, that it becomes obvious that the bathroom has been squeezed into the standard plan of the monks cellullar setout – its’ repetition. One bathroom uses two cell units, complete with the external balconies! Why are balconies needed for the bathrooms? Even the ‘mystic’ recess that holds a power that relates to one individual only - personally - is repeated. Gosh! The bathroom area has the identical balcony detailing - door, window and vent - that each separate room has been given when it has no particular need for being there at all. Strange. It gives these spaces an ad hoc feeling of having just been shoved in after the planning had been completed.

Then, as one moves through the building with a more critical eye, the question is again asked as one moves down one of the main set of stairs: why are these so steep? Then: what is that inaccessible balcony doing above the half-landing? Both of these questions can be given the same answer as that for the bathrooms. A quick look at the plans show that the stairs have been squeezed into the standard cell layout module - two per stair. The standard balcony detailing in all of its completeness has again been maintained even though it cannot be reached or will never be used. Worse, a new detail to address the stair well space has been invented. Why is this so when everything else in this monastery is working so hard to be singularly expressive of its unique and separate identity - honestly?

Inaccessible stair balcony

Typical stair 'private' balconies

Stair balcony

The exterior gives the answer. Once one calculates where the bathrooms and the stairs are, one can see that the decision has been made to ignore their being there in favour of the continuous expression of the monks cells, as if the balconies were required as an aesthetic screen that wraps around the upper levels of the stepped massing. There seems to have been a preference to maintain this continuity in spite of everything, to give this particular reading in the whole. The sculptural expression of the building has taken over as defining the required - preferred - image, leaving the expression of the bathrooms and stairs buried behind the repetition of the fully-detailed balconies as insignificant asides - indeed, probably as worse: as inconveniences that will disturb the desired image.

Balconies at stair - entry on right

So they are ignored, left lost behind what really are fake balconies. It is as if the monastery was being considered as a Renaissance building might have been, with the formality of the façade becoming the most important factor in the whole. Stairs, service spaces, grand spaces and private rooms all had no bearing of the external expression. And Le Corbusier did this too? Indeed he has, in spite of the rigour in other parts of the building that declare another strategy. Note the tiny slots that separate the chapel in the crypt from the walls of the main chapel so that the identity of its curving mass can be declared.

Come to think of it, the toilets and stairs of La Tourette are rarely, if ever, photographed or published in the magazines or books. The stair lights have been because they exhibit their beautiful concept of a tubular bulb bridging a concrete gap very clearly. The phantom balconies remain ignored, just as any clear expression of the stairs and the bathrooms on the exteriors has been forgotten – in favour of other preferences. Even the small toilet area on the southern side of the middle level of the monastery is squeezed in beside the stair and behind the same grand façade of the adjacent lecture rooms, and the refectory, without any recognition of its being there other than the installation of some small pieces of obscure glazing. The much discussed 'musical' repetition of the modular proportions is not disturbed by this functional requirement.

One wonders why this approach has been taken when the impression of the overall building suggests that things are otherwise – honestly expressive. One knows that the question should not be answered, let alone raised, because the final result is indeed so magnificent. The inconsistency in the proposition that the strategy for the building presents as a whole, seems to be ignored in these particular aspects of its expression. It is very odd that this is so. Why has it not been identified before? Has it? Is one so over-awed by this building and Le Corbusier’s reputation that one can forgive this seeming indiscretion - all for the poetry? It is very strange indeed, for even the tiniest of details - look at the painted patch of black floor under the dripping candle in the oratory - carries through the philosophy of identity and presence - pure honesty in expression of all of the parts - while these other service and circulation spaces have just been jammed in to fit the preferred exterior appearance - and module - as desired by the sculptor. It is in this sense that one can truly see Le Corbusier as a 'Renaissance' man.

One can understand how a module can be used for various similar uses that are defined by naming - see the sick room, novices, lay brothers, and the like – but on the matter concerning the clashes and confusion caused by the adaptation of the cells for stair and toilet areas, one is left pondering: Is this the exception that proves the rule? Why have rules? Maybe we need to understand architecture as exceptional - a place for exceptions: difference and complexity. Is purity the problem? Honesty? Has the problem become an insistence on an impossible rigour when life is otherwise - irrational? Was this the failure of modernism? Do all rules outgrow the logic of their making? Or is it simply that poetry has no rules; no descriptions; no prescriptions; no necessary consistency: that the real problem lies in rational analysis and theoretical propositions, and the expectations that they generate in hindsight for “. . . . .  a silent dwelling for one hundred bodies and one hundred hearts”?

'Renaissance' stair

These questions puzzle just as much as the mystery of the niche does - see Is this notch a self-conscious imperfection to placate the wrath of the Gods?

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