Thursday 31 May 2012


Our ideas about the construction of Gothic cathedrals remain very schematic and perhaps romantically enhanced. We are told that these wonders were somehow constructed over long periods by itinerant masons and their gangs, in spurts of effort as the funding, energy and interest allowed, with community - volunteer - help. Is it an idealistic vision? Periods of over three hundred years are recorded for the completion of some structures, but even buildings with shorter construction times leave us with a muddled perception and awareness of the processes and thinking involved in their making. Our understandings of this procedure seem happy to skim over and accept matters of very little substance without any questioning, and hold on to them as though they were meaningful. Just how did these complex structures get organised? Was it really such an ad hoc interplay amongst groups and people with various ideas and skills? Was it more than some feeling in the air - some communal love of/commitment to a cause? What individual ideas and decisions made these buildings that we know today? How?

We have a preconception that these structures are organic wholes that flowered into their present state through a spiritual effort, almost mystically. This is the organic vision that confidently lingers, and creates comforting feelings that stifle any searching doubt or further inquiry. The differences with today’s buildings and their possibilities make this ‘something in the air’ idea almost believable. Not only do our thoughts pander politely to this strange possibility, our eyes seem to want to see cathedrals as uniquely wonderful wholes in spite of glaring and blatantly obvious differences like the western towers on Chartres. There is a quality about our perception that is blindly over-positive - almost too heavenly: those were the days! If only . . . ! It is as if we have been charmed into seeing Ruskin’s texts as a reality - but:
"When you examine the cathedral closely, you discover to your immense surprise that the design is not a well controlled and harmonious entity, but a mess. We tend to think of a great work of art like Chartres as having been thought through to the end before it was begun. But Chartres is not like this, not at all. Our vision has been conditioned by the homogenizing eye of the camera, but when we look carefully we see that there are few things at one end of the building that match those at the other.
So what are these structures? How were they made?

Chartres Cathedral took only 57 years to construct – 1193 to 1250; and Notre Dame de Paris took 77 years – 1163 to 1240. Chartres is important as it, unlike Norte Dame, luckily missed out the ‘improvements’ of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Chartres came close to being demolished by the enthusiastic rage of the crowds of the revolution, but luckily it was saved by more rational minds and persuasive argument. John James of Sydney has spent years studying Chartres and its making. He remains a unique source of knowledge and understanding about Chartres and the buildings in the Paris basin. Unfortunately his amazing work remains generally unrecognised even though it knows no peers. Has it been caught up in the reading of cathedrals as anachronisms that are so familiar they have been shoved aside and shelved as dull images in old, dusty books, to be treated with the same disdain that of out-of-date travel guides are given - just an irrelevance to our era that has ‘moved forward’? James has skilfully and meticulously identified the masons, the sequences, and the processes involved in the construction of Chartres through his careful and painstaking study of its details. It is astonishing scholarship. He has published a summary of his work in a small book, The Master Masons of Chartres, and has more detailed studies in other related books.

Looking critically at the cathedral makes one ponder the thinking and processes that started the construction effort and managed to get to the building to become the object we see today. While the grandeur of the whole is overwhelming, with the eye being classically dragged upwards by the gestures of the building’s exterior and interior, the more mundane detailing of the column bases is easily overlooked as just base objects, in spite of their being so close to one. These beautifully worked and detailed stones have been polished by the touch of passersby and those who have chosen to rest on these edges and ledges over the centuries. But it is too easy to admire this primal patina and move on aimlessly, feeling good about being there in such a soaring presence. The bases hold a mystery in their beginnings – questions.

The various complexities of the massive columns held by the bases, with the confidently sculptured details of leaves, scrolls, scotias, toruses and ogees defining these chunky, polished pieces, stimulates one to ask more about the precise making and locating of these assemblages. Where and how did the bases come to be – come to be in that location; come to be in that form; come to be in that detail – at the time of their making? What was the vision? Who decided where, what and how to make and place these pieces to accommodate the vaults that must have been constructed many years later, perhaps by others? The complete set of floor, base, column, vault gives clarity to the sense of the base’s purposefulness that existed before any of the above pieces. What was the process of thinking that organised, made and installed these column bases that we admire today almost as an aside, as the eye continues up distractedly to be astonished by the beauty of the completeness of the towering height that spreads these columns into a spray of interconnected vaulting with their beautifully bossed highlights? Someone must have held the original vision in much more detail than merely some simple rudimentary sketches on tiny pieces of grubby paper that we frequently see published in books on cathedrals as examples of the guiding hand for construction. Consider the likelihood of the final vision being assembled out of a random groping of teams over an unknown span of time. It is rather like hoping for Shakespeare from a monkey and a typewriter - well, a computer these days. Why do we assume this epiphany came about out of the ether of belief? What are the facts? Were there principles, preferred patterns of structure that set the raw diagram that was then adapted and embellished by various minds over time in order to accommodate different temperaments and strategies? And it is not as though all of the bases were made and put in their specific locations, levels and orientations at one time.

Just look at these bases and think:

It would take a miracle for these beautiful parts to be made and located without understanding the implications of some future, no matter how schematic this might be. What height? Size? Mass? Loads? Spans? Thrusts? What materials are needed? Where? Who? Even pondering the purchasing of the materials for these parts leaves one amazed at the scope of the task, let alone the marking, making, shaping and placing process. It may not have been a linear process of progression, nor a logical one, but there seems to have been something more than things being randomly pieced and placed together over time by whoever might be available. What confidence must there have been to size, detail and decorate these base parts when the site would have been close to total chaos. One only has to think of a construction site today, especially at the beginning of a project, and wonder. It is still all about machines, men, management and a dirty, dusty disarray.

John James is the authority on Chartres and its process and parts, but to the more casual observer there is one aspect of the cathedral that seems to show how one vision came to accommodate another, suggesting how the cathedral could be seen as a ‘mess’ by the knowing of the educated eye. The columns hint at the story. Those in the nave are the typical, elegantly clustered variety with a collection of trunks running from the base at floor level, up to cross the vaults in all their continuous glory of vertical thrust and growth. As one moves eastwards towards the ambulatory, the columns become more rudimentary with a core circular or octagonal form having oppositely blocked appendages to give a crucifix section until, as one moves further to the east, the columns become simply a repetition of alternating plain circular and octagonal trunks.

Yet all these varied supports carry similarly detailed vaults. Unlike those on the multi-clustered columns, the ribs on the more basic and rudimentary columns stop at the top the capitals with a unfussy mass shaped simply to accommodate these pointed arched ribs. As the complexity of the columns grows, the result is aesthetically more appealing, but the simple forms manage to hold a quiet comfort and authority, even with their cruder clashes and difference. The bases vary to suit the columns. Just what has happened here? One can assume different masons have brought in and implemented different visions over time. Was this the layering of ideas over a basic, core diagram? The James reference needs to be searched to see the sequence. He records many more differences, including differences in the quality of the workmanship and decorative profiles. Yet, in spite of this, Chartres remains a unique assemblage of amazement. Perhaps it is better because of this diversity – and more modest?

This process has made Chartres a massing of ideas that have been incorporated into the whole, making it a wonderful ‘mess.’ Look at the ingenuity of the stair window, skilfully tucked in behind the attached column so that both work beautifully. This shows thought and planning beyond ordinary and haphazard chance - doing it as one goes – while still allowing for this to have been the larger strategy. It is indeed a hybrid mix of ingenuity that does hold together to give us that unified ‘photographic’ image.

James gives careful attention to understanding the making of the external windows in the stair towers. It is good research and casts a new light on the old, discarded engravings that give cathedral books such a bland, uninteresting appearance, making them just too common.

To get a better sense of the whole one has to read John James. His work is the primary reference. His latest study The Master Carvers Series is available on line as a work in progress – see  This pre-publishing is a good strategy for a researcher/thinker to take. It turns private study into a communal effort by opening the research and thinking up for review instead of having it dumped down as gospel. The openness has a rich and tentative quality and shows humility and a genuine concern for the subject. As in the making of the cathedrals themselves, there are no unique heroes here. I recall how Marion Boyars published Ivan Illich’s work similarly as ‘ideas in progress.’ Illich’s writings make an impressive list: Celebratgion of Awareness; Deschooling Society; Disabling Professions; Energy and Equity; Gender; H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness; In the Mirror of the Past; Limits of Medicine; The Right to Useful Unemployment; Shadow Work; Tools of Convivality; and ABC The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind.

These publications are noted here because they too have become dust collectors beside the old books on cathedrals and should, like many older publications, never be forgotten. Ideas never fade; they become absorbed into our present presence to be a part of us and our futures. It is for this reason that we need to remember them and not neglect them, for they can assist us in knowing ourselves.

One needs to spend time looking more closely at cathedrals and thinking about matters more rigorously. More questions need to be asked. We must forget all that we have come to know or assume about these structures so that we might really learn about them and better understand them. We carry a false familiarity about cathedrals that makes us consider them with a latent contempt - to dismiss them in favour of ‘smarter’ architecture that is not so ‘common.’ This is not a call for any ‘Gothic Revival’ Revival. Clichés need to go, then we might come to really know about Gothic thought. The more we assume and dismiss about architecture of any kind, the lesser we become – and the more arrogant too. Cathedrals did not just make themselves. They did not just appear complete as part of a set of photographic images spread out fashionably on a coffee table. Each part was subjected to the process of planning and making and management – designing, marking out, cutting, detailing, decorating, installation to fit the previous pieces, ready for the next. – and so on. There is an intimacy here, a personal involvement in each step. We gloss over these matters too easily today in order to talk about more general aspects and to goggle at the astonishing morphs.

While the column bases give us a cause to pause and think, wander outside and ponder on the wonders of the beautiful sculptures that cover this building. One just remains stunned by their astonishing elegance and humour, making it easy not to be distracted by the question: how were these managed as part of the construction process? Who? What?

The real surprise with Chartres is that it was built on top of a Romanesque church that remains its crypt, in tact. This crypt alone would have given Chartres the name it holds today, but we have the cathedral on top of it - a twin astonishment and delight anchored by its deep and ancient well. The original church would have established much of the articulation for the cathedral above, but just saying this ignores an awful lot that is full of awe. It is indeed an amazing feat that only raises more and more questions as one peruses its stones. John James’s work helps us know more about these buildings from the viewpoint of the makers’ involvement. His is an approach that can be applied to all architecture. It challenges the power of the glossy image with its delusions, and opens up real issues for us to comprehend. The great danger is that we might remain happy, contented with some misguided interpretation that distorts reality and creates heroes and sagas out of ordinary men doing ordinary things in their everyday. Honest, committed research is able to clarify circumstances and help us come to know those who were involved in the making of these places, not as personalities but as thoughts, processes and activities, and push aside the theories and generalisations that make things lesser – just simplistic diagrams of ideas.

Considering other contexts, one can ask: how were the mosques made? Like cathedrals, we know these as ephemeral wholes – a complete haze of packaged wonder and enchantment: as seen on TV and coffee tables. We need to understand things more rigorously than just enjoying these snappy overviews, for such understandings will not only change perceptions, but change us too. Who knows, we might also become more respectful, tolerant, caring and sympathetic.

Wednesday 30 May 2012


 In the 1960’s, Lutyens was never spoken of other than by some snide reference that mocked his traditional, quaint approach to architecture. He was simply dismissed, laughed at. Everyone else knew better. Lutyens was left as one mired in the past that had been discarded. Modernism had passed him by, believing that he had no idea of what was happening in the real world. It placed him in a cocoon of his own dementia, in a curious dreamland of his own making.

It was Venturi who first spoke of Lutyens’s work in a positive manner, decoding his puns – his complexities and contradictions. So it is difficult to understand this neglect today. Indeed, it is unbelievable. Was it truly so? Do our memories play tricks on us? It was not until this passage on Lutyens in an old Pelican original, Victorian Architecture by Robert Furneaux Jordan, was read that this attitude was recalled. It is clearly expressed in this piece published in 1966, that also records the bold arrogance of those who believed in the International Style.

Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), like so many famous architects, had little formal training. Early in life, through the Lytton family, he married into a charmed circle of wealth and taste. He then created an epilogue to five centuries of country-house building. Those famous dream houses – built around the turn of the century – Munstead Wood, Deanery Garden, Papillon Hall and all the rest – with Gertrude Jekyll’s even more dreamlike gardens, will remain a most curious monument, not to a culture – for they are clean outside their time – but to one man. Like a dream they are unreal, and like a dream they have left not a wrack behind. They were Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House. They were a gesture from a world where there were still impeccable maids in the Servants’ Hall, glossy hunters in those boxes, and Peter Pan in the nursery wing. It was all lily ponds, lavender walks and pot-pourri in a Surrey garden. It was also an architecture where the high-pitched roofs, textured stone and tiny casements served mainly to conceal, ever so charmingly, the whole apparatus of conspicuous waste. It all died, as it should have died, in August 1914. Lutyens himself outlived it: with the Cenotaph, the grand manner of New Delhi and the pretentious nonsense of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral, he declined virtually into being no more than a species of Architect Laureate. He was greater than his contemporaries of the same school, but like them he was a dead-end kid.

Twenty years before Lutyens’s death Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright and Gropius and the founding fathers of the Garden Cities were already doing their best work . . . and he was probably unaware of their existence. Before the end of the Queen’s reign he had made it clear that he was a creative genius . . . of sorts. Then he slowly suffocated himself with old traditions, stifled himself with a refusal to face realities of the twentieth century. He belonged, in fact, neither to the last century nor to this.
Robert Furneaux Jordan, Victorian Architecture, Pelican Books, Harmondsworth, England, 1966, p.p.234 – 237.

Maybe this means that his work was timeless? It has certainly fared better than modernism.

Tuesday 29 May 2012


 It is not too often that one is able to read some good news on an environmental matter of any scale. Usually the claim for any successful accomplishment in matters to do with the environment relates to a building design that has achieved a particularly high ‘star rating,’ or to a special programme that has received funding from the government, with any outcome being based on hope and enthusiasm rather than the actual realization of any aim. The propaganda usually has more to do with public relations than the making of any significant change in the world that might have an impact on people’s lives by improving circumstances for many. So it is that one sees universities boasting and gloating about an energy-efficient new building, or a politician declaring over-enthusiastically, funding for some new, local clean-up programme, with much self-importance.

The BBC story on the Wadi Hanifah scheme is unusually good news for an environmental story as it is a significant project that has achieved a real outcome – and has changed lives: see

Wadi Hanifah: An oasis where Saudi citizens can really relax

The fertile Wadi Hanifah valley running through part of Riyadh was for years a rubbish dump and a public health hazard, but now it's been transformed into a vast park, with lakes that attract cool breezes. It's an oasis so large it's hard to police - making it a place for Saudi citizens to relax, in more senses than one.
 . . . . .
As a village, then a small town, Riyadh grew sustainably with its population. But from the 1970s rapid growth quickly overwhelmed the city's ecosystems.
Construction firms mined Wadi Hanifah for minerals. The valley was blocked by encroaching farmland. Seasonal flooding swept pollutants into residential neighbourhoods and then left stagnant water, jeopardising public health.
Yet today, Wadi Hanifah shows few signs of its polluted past.
At Al Elb, on Riyadh's scorched northern outskirts, I walked along Wadi Hanifah beside high desert bluffs.
Improvements to Wadi Hanifah have given children a new place to play
Palm trees now shade a line of carefully designed picnic pods, each comprising a horseshoe of roughly finished limestone slabs, offering secluded valley views.
More slabs, laid horizontally, create steps down to the valley floor, where children scamper along nature trails and families lounge under the acacias.
"Riyadh has no open space," says engineer Saud Al Ajmi. "Wadi Hanifah has become a place to breathe."
Since 2001 the ArRiyadh Development Authority has been restoring and redeveloping the valley, clearing rubbish, grading the banks, landscaping and replanting native flora.
In other big cities you might head up to high ground for a breath of air. In Riyadh, you head down.
Wadi Hanifah acts like a flue, drawing cool breezes over the city to disperse smog and temper the heat.
It is a very long, very thin oasis.
. . . . .

The scale of this scheme does make one ponder on other possibilities, and raises questions about our efforts in matters environmental. We seem very good at listening to the blurb and believing that we are achieving something useful - enough to praise ourselves and feel good about life - when in fact very little is being achieved. The scale of much of our self-praise frequently outshines the reality of the outcome. One building might be a start, just as local effort to clean out portion of a nearby creek might be useful in a micro manner; but much more needs to happen if we are ever to achieve something like the results reported on the Wadi Hanifah scheme.

Instead of itemised units that get detailed attention, the scale of our approach must change. Planning is involved here as well as environmental science and design. Sadly, the outcomes presently being achieved by planners in the development of our towns, cities and regions does not give one much hope. In spite of this profession having more members than ever before in the history of mankind, things just seem to keep getting worse. Plans are published with such vague parameters that anything seems to be possible with a little ‘negotiation.’ Success is measured by ‘proper’ paperwork rather than any review of the real outcomes. Indeed, results seem to be irrelevant. The core issue appears to be the ticking of all of the required boxes. Whether the proposal and its details as agreed/approved are ever likely to be possible seems to be of no concern to anyone in authority. Even proving to an authority that details of a proposal make no sense and will be unable to be implemented - no matter how wonderful they might sound or look on paper - seems to be of no concern. The core issue is the final approval and the closing of the file - and the politics of the situation. Whether the document one sends in by way of objection gets lost or not is of no concern either. One sometimes feels that others prefer them ‘lost.’ Frequently they might as well end up disappearing, for all the attention they are given.

So how do things change? There has to be a commitment to real outcomes rather than to assessing and approving schemes and proposals as words and illustrations matched against other texts and diagrams. Planning must start taking responsibility for results. Lives are involved, not merely presumptions, policies and preferences. This is not the ‘give us any proposal and we’ll look at it,’ proposition that leaves everything open to chats and cheque books. It is working hard to always determine real impacts and outcomes, and then reviewing these so that feedback can then inform other futures. Once this circular process starts controlling possibilities - real outcomes - then we will find that the parts might start joining together to give us something larger of substance.

The ideal would be to tackle matters on the large scale, but if this is not possible, then the gathering of the parts that are all environmentally sensitive and responsible - and beautifully designed - could give us a larger whole that is truly planned and co-ordinated with ambition and integrity, rather than merely being manipulated to maximize profits and benefits for a few. The failure of the success of the role of persuasive debate and argument in a project application can be seen everywhere in our cities, towns and regions. Planning has to change if we are to make a difference.

There is the possibility of making our own oases only if we make a commitment to outcomes and ensure that these are achieved - and tried and tested. Turning a blind eye has not given us much to be proud of. Producing propaganda and spin has achieved less. We need to start planning places for people and for people’s futures. Environmental outcomes are a core issue that need immediate attention for the health and wellbeing of all. The reported success of the Wadi Hanifah scheme should stimulate our ambitions to do a lot more than we are achieving now.

Monday 28 May 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?

6 APRIL 22


André Wogenscky

In foreword of The Open Hand Essays on Le Corbusier edited by Russell Walden MIT Press, 1982:


It is easy to find nonfunctional forms in his work! I was criticized by him several times when I said to him “it’s more logical” or “it’s more rational.” His creation of architectural forms goes beyond reason and logic. In him, the artist always comes first, before the inventor and the orgsanizer. Le Corbusier can only be grasped within the process of his creating, for it is a continuing process. The organization of form is subjected to all of the functional requirements, but it then goes beyond them in order to attain the plastic and the emotional.

23 MARCH 2023


The monk's cell showing the balcony in its designed context.

The access to the balcony from the cell.

The cell and balcony spaces.

The plan showing the continuity of the balconies across different spaces.

The vertical relationships.

The sketch fades the balconies out before they reach the stair.

The section clearly shows both the accessible and the inaccessible balcony at the stair.