Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut above the village of Ronchamp in France holds an astonishing power that is still much loved and respected by many. After over fifty years since its’ completion in 1954, the chapel holds a special place in world architecture while other contemporary buildings are merely considered to be ‘of their era.’ Why? What is its’ pull? What is its’ attraction? Does this wonder arise merely from an ‘aesthetic’, sculptural experience?
Can it be symbolism that gives meaning to this place? Does Corb’s chapel hang on anaxis mundi - the symbolic link between heaven and earth - like a windsock flying from a pole? Its’ iconic presence sweeps up to the top of the vertical edge of the southeastern wall, to the highest point of the roof, meeting it and gesturing further into beyond. This periphery makes one of the few exposed, straight and vertical parts of this building. It defines a point in space that can be seen as the top of the pole that stretches down into the earth as a stark perpendicular anchor. Is this the universal axis? Is it referencing the vertical element of the cross? Another Frenchman, René Guénon, in his Symbolism of the Cross, speaks of this form and its’ symbolism, where the horizontal element is the ground plane, marking above and below, and the meeting of all directions. Here, it is difficult to identify an axis as a physical post, pole or any other separately substantial centred form. Perhaps the edge marks the presence of a phantom axis in the void? Maybe this verge just suggests a centre, as the centreline of the centrepiece?
This reading of the chapel interprets the mass of the building as a windsock, an element flapping in the wind, curving and bending with the breeze from one fixed vertical location. The roof mass flows from a point, into a chaos of flip-flop windows exhibited in the patchwork openings of waving walls and the random addresses of the hooded skylights. These tower forms on the opposite side of the building, that allude to hooded nuns, look this way and that - none in the same direction - as if they were tails scattered by the breeze, here seen searching, like sentinels seeking?
Seek and ye shall find. Matthew 7:7.
The sweep of the walls away from this precise, ‘axial’ knife-edge of the building, creates voids on each side of this terminus, reciprocally, as flapping might, with one side accommodating a scattering of openings in a twisting wall, shaping the space for entrance – for welcome; the other side, defining the space for congregation, for the outdoor mass, dominated by the Virgin Mary window box – for worship. This latter eastern recess repeats the iconic ‘edge’ form in miniature, as if it were rippling along the deformed ‘windsock’ as a folded wave might. Here it marks the priest's private exit from / entrance to the sanctuary: a sacred doorway.
The bulk of void on the south terminates with a light tower adjacent to the main entrance doorway. This is factually the tallest part of the whole building. On the east, the concave space closes with a matching curved, half-tower-form, a store that enfolds a column and opens out to the multilevel, ‘helter-skelter’ perforated - as if wind-blown - northern wall. In turn this patterned surface becomes a light tower that is mirrored to make the secondary entrance of the chapel with another repetition, a tumbled reversal, that reminds one of the parting of the waters for man’s thoroughfare?
Beyond these tower forms on each side of the chapel, the walls curve into the broad sweep of the closed western façade that swells to accommodate confessionals and dips to deposit water onto the splashing shapes in the well below. The concrete spout marks the lowest part of the building mass. It is like the extended tail of the windsock flapping in the breeze, discharging water and, metaphorically, sky or heaven - perhaps spirit - in a gesture of sanctification, over other miniature axes, those of the pyramid and cylinder in the well. Are these man and woman? Is this the sacred and the profane; the concurrence of things esoteric and exoteric?
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. Revelation 21:6.
There is much movement in these forms - a bending, curving, twisting, turning. The one stable point is the extremity of the vertical ‘axis,’ that unique edge that is also the thinnest, tapered, ‘tallest’ part of the whole - even though it is not. Its’ presence only makes it feel so with its’ visual extension into the voids of infinity and its’ secured certainty. Is it defining the phantom axis of the spirit - the precise, mystical centre? Here space divides, dominates, and gathers, determining the memorable image of the chapel, like the priest with handsparted for the benediction. This is the chapel’s most-photographed angle and aspect. Just a glimpse of its’ top tells one of identity, place and location. Even from the distance it declares, silently yet vigorously. It holds a commanding, quiet energy.
The perforated walls are memorable, but these are seen throughout the older buildings of France with an equal delight and charm. The light towers do likewise. There are many towers in this European country that entrance. It is the ‘axis’ - the thin, fine and vertical element - that is singular, unique. Is the ancient, fundamental symbol of presence embodied in this cutting edge: termination and determination? When envisaged in this manner, the chapel spreads from this location as if in response to a gentle wind. Perhaps it can be seen as a response to the subtle movement of the spirit that embodies and encloses stillness, shaping and forming place and space?
The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Genisis 1:2.
The ‘windsock’ should flap and flutter noisily, frantically, but its’ transformation into a solid, white- rendered mass of concrete and masonry enforces a still silence that makes it a wonderful, hushed response to anxious air movements. It is mute, and, by analogy, becomes the shaping of the movement of the spirit; holding a necessary peace and calm as a powerful quiet amongst agitation.
The inner void - the interior of the chapel - opens up to a dim light glaring with highlights. It is a disorientated world with sloping floors, curved walls, and a dark, sloping, warped ceiling enveloping being - the visitor/worshipper. Is this discomfiture something like the ‘drunkenness’ of the Sufi intoxicated with the spirit? This, the interior of the ‘windsock,’ can be seen to embody the external movements made by the ‘spirit.’ Even the rendered finish is repeated inside. The whole is anchored symbolically and visually by the ‘axis mundi’ - that stable core and centre of the universe that shapes pagodas, cathedrals and pyramids. Here it is seen as an external line, clearly exposed rather than being physically concealed and central, yet still seminal.
The Virgin Mary, represented in the form of an aged, painted sculpture, stands on an edge in an inside-outside glazed enclosure that exposes her to the tapering wall of the building and its’ axial extremity – its’ outer limit - as if she were the mediator between things mysteriously universal and man. She is surrounded by walled patches of tiny, starry lights on the east, with the grand colours and text spelling out the Angelic Salutation, Ave Maria - ‘Hail Mary, full of grace . . Mother of . . .’ - in the funnelled patches of light in the adjacent, sunny south wall. The interior light, too, is modified by the ‘axis.’ Each aspect has its’ own unique quality of dark and light that is defined and held by the anchor: that edge that can be seen to hold everything in its’ palm, calling to the universe to converse.
It may sound passionately romantic and naively gullible, but something unique is happening at Ronchamp. Is it merely Corb’s genius? Is symbolism involved too? Intuitively? He may have not associated himself with any particular church, but his frequently-sketched diagram of the movement of the sun through the day and night - the sine curve - illustrates the reciprocal cycle of life as changes of light. This is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin - the female principle. It is also a chapel that engages spirit and light universally. Le Corbusier knew about these matters. There is something ‘raw’ at Ronchamp: ancient and fundamental - perhaps Jungian?
Is this its’ latent power - a space anchored by the axis mundi, here unusually located at an exterior edge, with forms shaped by the movement of the spirit, ennobled by ‘the correct and magnificent play of light on forms,’ with experience being fundamentally transformed by light falling onto and filtered by this flutter of figuration?
It is interesting to see how Renzo Piano chose to build beside the chapel. Le Corbusier placed his surrounding supporting structures above the ground, tucked in under turf roofs to extend the vista of green. These buildings still show a self-consciousness and managed confidence that delights without apology. Indeed, they have their own special surprises. Renzo Piano could only ‘pull his head in’ and build underground - well, into it - and cover his work with masses of terraced vegetation. It is one way to show respect - by bowing - but it does suggest a weakness too. Is it a lack of confidence? What might have been possible? Do we no longer understand?
What is of interest is that the one element that Piano did copy repeatedly in the little chapel of this development, is the tapered edge - the wall that comes to the finest of lines possible in an insitu concrete pour. Has Piano recognised, perhaps subconsciously, something special about this detail on le Corbusier’s chapel – the power of an axis mundi and the flow of the spirit?
The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, columna cerului, center of the world), in religion or mythology, is the world center and/or the connection between Heaven and Earth. As the celestial pole and geographic pole, it expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms. Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all. The spot functions as the omphalos (navel), the world's point of beginning.
The image is mostly viewed as feminine, as it relates to center of the earth (perhaps like an umbilical providing nourishment). It may have the form of a natural object (a mountain, a tree, a vine, a stalkk, a column of smoke or fire) or a product of human manufacture (a staff, a tower, a ladder, a staircase, a maypole, a cross, a steeple, a rope, a totem pole, a pillar, a spire). Its’ proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (pagoda, temple mount, minaret, church) or secular (obelisk, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper). The image appears in religious and secular contexts. The axis mundi symbol may be found in cultures utilizing shamanic practices or animist belief systems, in major world religions, and in technologically advanced "urban centers". In Mircea Eliade's opinion, "Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all."http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Axis_mundi