© Image courtesy of Fernando Schapochnik:
When I was about 14 I had a volume of the Larousse encyclopedia of modern art, in which there was a small black and white picture of Le Corbusier’s Sainte Marie de La Tourette, a Dominican monastery in the Beaujolais region of the Rhône valley.
I find Le Corbusier’s work fascinating and unsettling. Since seeing that little picture I have had a feeling about this particular building which is difficult to describe. Is it a sense of stillness? Disquiet? Curiosity? An emptiness? Oppressiveness? Austerity? I don’t really know which words to use. It is interesting that I sensed at least something of it’s unspoken language.
© Image courtesy of Fernando Schapochnik
Academics have visited and written about this site exhaustively. It seems Le Corbusier got a bad rap in later years for his idealistic vision-turned-dystopian-nightmare architecture and town planning of the banlieues. But that unsettling mix of dissonance and attraction I had as a boy still persists. In part it seems to reflect my own spiritual journey, my own encounters and retreats. (And Sainte Marie de La Tourette was built precisely as a place of encounter – with silence, with an unseen God, a search for peace, stillness, prayer, meditation, study – and a retreat from the world, the bustle of the marketplace).
K. C. Britton writes in Concern for the Spirit: A history of modern church architecture,
“For many of the founders of modern architecture, the church building was not so much a distinctive presence outside of industrial society but an integral expression of it.”
Is this what is so disquieting, this expression of the industrial within the sacred space? I read somewhere that Le Corbusier was not a Christian in any conventional sense of the word, and that when the Dominicans commissioned him they understood this, and never regarded it as an impediment. The architect appears to have had masonic influences (should this be a problem?) and, to quote Flora Samuel in Le Corbusier and the 0ccult,
“Ultimately… Le Corbusier wanted to believe, felt it important to believe, did believe, but also understood the futility of belief.”
© Image courtesy of Fernando Schapochnik
So there is a sense in which this sacred space emerged from a secular zeitgeist and the architect’s own hermetic beliefs. Does this form part of the contradiction one senses in this building? Is this futility of belief ‘encoded’ in the architecture?
“(For) some architects… contemplation of the human spirit in the face of modernization played a stronger role as a derivative source for thinking about architecture. It has been persuasively argued, for example, that the origin of Mies van der Rohe’s concern for “the building art” as a spatial expression of spiritual decisions was informed by the Catholic Reform Movement in Germany during the Weimar Republic.”
This is an intriguing idea, “a spatial expression of spiritual decisions”. The building itself represents a decision – of withdrawal, asceticism, contemplation. It seems to have turned away from the outside, and indeed Le Corbusier conceived of it thus, the inside is the place of stillness and contemplation.
© Image courtesy of Galinsky.com
In The Guardian, Sean Thomas writes (Saturday 21 May 2005)
“The monastery is inhabited by 20 Dominican monks, down from the original 90 who assumed control of the monastery in the 1950s, once Corbusier had finished his work. This attrition is apparently a result of the building itself: many of the original brothers found the concrete construction too oppressive.”
His article captures the paradox I felt on seeing the photograph so long ago: right there in the Guardian article is mention of that oppressive quality which the monks themselves could not endure. He describes the monks’ cells as
“…seriously claustrophobic. The beds are narrow, as are the windows. Moreover, due to some quirk in the concrete fabric, every sound in La Tourette is massively amplified”.
And yet conversely he describes standing on the roof garden staring at the surrounding vineyards and forests as
“a bit like being in a garden unexpectedly close to God.”
How can a sacred place also be an oppressive place? How do we explain this paradox? Many images online depict a brooding, gloomy edifice, and one senses the photographers may be complicit in perpetuating that narrative. Others manage to capture it’s strange beauty – if the word “beauty” is not out of place here. And there is another remarkable aspect to La Tourette which perhaps requires a little more patience and sensitivity to appreciate:
“Le Corbusier’s light techniques emerge as a multifaceted language to consecrate his sacred buildings. His dynamic layers of light transcend the static building volumes – a cosmic cycle that changes with the course of the day, year and with a clear or overcast sky. His structural elements range from tiny stellar openings to large tubes, but even small interventions are used to generate remarkable light patterns that reflect cosmic power.”¹
Where some find only concrete, others find the beauty of light playing on surfaces and illuminating spaces.
As a novice in matters architectural, I find something almost sci-fi about La Tourette – that gritty, post-apocalypse sci-fi genre where a strange brooding fortress-like structure is stumbled upon by some wayfarer seeking refuge from a world of zombies and violence. And of course, inside are the requisite monks in cassocks. But I think this is to cheapen and diminish the austere beauty of this sacred place and profound architectural statement.
The abject, finally, causes us to disengage. But there is a mysterious something about this building that demands we engage with it.
One day, I will make my own pilgrimage – religious or secular (and perhaps both) – to Sainte Marie de La Tourette.
To see more professional architectural images of La Tourette, visit http://www.fernandoschapo.com/ and http://www.ecomanta.com/2009/11/le-corbusiers-sainte-marie-de-la.html?m=1
UTOPIA DECONSTRUCTED: LE CORBUSIER AND THE BANLIEUE by BY DANIELLA SHREIR CULTURE, POLITICS APRIL 27, 2014
(1) Cosmos of Light: The Sacred Architecture of Le Corbusier by Henry Plummer