Beginning with the ‘purpose unknown’ for this building by Le Corbusier and trying to decipher meanings for the same, one understands the vision conceived by the creator.
The location in context becomes serene rather than the site itself. The placement of the chapel seemed just ‘perfect’, sitting on top of the cliff above a town; it creates an anticipation in the eye of a viewer. The chapel builds up a curiosity to reach where a white spot is set in the forefront of a lush green backdrop. As one walks further up, the white spot tends to grow larger and starts achieving clarity. This clarity takes a form into the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut.
The view is two way here. The hilltop gives a 3600 view to the town below in addition to the tranquil and green atmosphere around. On reaching the chapel, two welcoming concaved walls stand tall. The concave surfaces used here could be questioned. The possibilities could be various one such could be psychological, where a concave surface seems more inviting and greeting as known for its convergence of perspective. On the other hand a convex surface appears to push or force back the seeker, also divergent in nature. Emphasis on minute details played an important part, ‘actions’ triggered ‘reactions’ and more.
The official leaflet speaks “From an inspired first rough sketch, uniting inner lyricism with mathematical exactitude, Le Corbusier set up the chapel allowing the four horizons to remain open and visible, thereby inscribing it in its sacred space”. The implicit meaning could be far deeper and beyond but explicitly attempting to componentize the entire chapel, only three primary walls are deduced. Three walls taking different forms as they rise up and this variation can be seen through the thickness, the geometry, the abstraction, the openings, the contribution i.e. part to whole importance etc. The definition changes on all the four sides. The south wall, bulky ‘yet’ hollow, has a triangular section that allows opening of varied sizes. Even though the thickness of the wall makes it massive, the combinations of openings make the appearance lighter. The north wall contains two chapel towers which hold the secondary entrance to the sanctuary. The east wall dictates the exterior congregation space and on contrary the western wall is a blind facade where the roof seems to take a dip to the lowest point. A spout allows the rainwater to collect in a pool which contains three pyramids and a cylinder, all in béton brut—a sculptural composition. Even though independent in nature all the walls come together to add meaning to the interior space and make the experience richer.
The chapel of Notre Dame du Haut appears to be a white spot in the midst of the lush greenery.
The circulation happens through central spine which also divides the chapel into two congregation spaces of varying sizes. This chapel contradicted the stereo type axial Christian churches or the multi directional Basilicas and was considered abstract as well as cubist. Some pioneers saw this as a beginning of the post-modernist movement as it overcame the simplistic nature of modern building and justified that ‘less is not more’.
“Light and things belong together. When the sun strikes a thing, the light becomes aware of itself, and the thing gains its presence. Thus day and night, earth and sky come into being, and we comprehend the meaning of the first words, “Let there be light.”1
One needs to understand the ‘perception’ of the form through visualization and this visualization is achieved through ‘light’. The interplay of light that comes through the openings of the walls and through the chapel and the gap left between the roof and the wall, all comes together to give it a definition. The manifestation of light may be intentional yet the changing perception with time which gives in an inner meaning to the interior. When light streams through small apertures, the wall becomes dark at corners and edges; whereas the light reaching through the chapel is still soft and subdued. The purpose here is to bring out importance of specific elements while keeping the rest in gloom.
Interplay of light in Plan
Chapel behaving like ‘Periscopes’
In 1950’s-60’s Le Corbusier was known to be inspired by surrealism. The dictionary defines ‘surrealism’ as a movement that laid emphasis on imaginative powers of the subconscious. And the interpretations of which were seen in the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut. The Roof that seemed like a solid and bulky mass from the outside appeared to float in the air on the inside due to a deliberate 6 inches gap. The duality in meaning realized here is also mentioned by Robert Venturi in his book ‘Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture’.
The master quotes ‘Light and illumination are inseparable components of form, space and light. These are the things that create ambiance and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure that houses the functions within it and around it. Light renders texture, illuminates surface, and provides sparkle and life.’ This chapel, more than most, may be referred to as a lens from which to observe the path of sun throughout the day. Utmost detail has been given to the façade as a tool by which to sculpt the given light of day in effort to heighten our awareness of our existence as related to the daily life of the light. Words might fall short or less justifying nonetheless science and poetry are amalgamated in right enormities to bring out an ‘everlasting impact’.
- Henry Plummer, Poetics of Light, Architecture and Urbanism Publishing Co., LTD., Tokyo, Japan, 1987, 1987, p. 9.