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A sense of the sublime

The Architect

Unusual, yet awe-inspiring, the Ronchamp chapel has to been seen to be believed

I must confess that I am slightly privileged by the fact that, working constantly with architects, I am occasionally offered trips to see buildings of interest, whether here in the UK or abroad. One such occasion was when our company worked with Make Architects in London, who decided to celebrate a planning permission they received in Fitzrovia with a grand trip. The proposal was to visit the city of Basle and Vitra furniture headquarters in Switzerland, make our way to the Vitra Design Museum in Germany, and then finally onto Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, a chapel in Ronchamp, France. What a fantastic opportunity! My colleagues at Derwent and I wasted no time in accepting, and I knew I was in for a rather special architectural treat.

The story of the Ronchamp chapel started in 1950, when Corbusier was commissioned to design a new Catholic church to replace one that had been destroyed during the second world war.

The Church wanted a pure space, void of extravagant detail or ornate religious figures, and therefore unlike its predecessors; Corbusier wanted the space to be both meditative and reflective in purpose.

When our group first approached the building, it evoked a sense of incredulity amongst us. Despite having seen many pictures of the chapel, we were not prepared for the feeling provoked upon seeing the building first-hand for the very first time. I suppose it was the power of sublime architecture that was at hand.

Firstly, the building is comprised of such an unusual, organic shape, but it is the roof that instantly grabbed my attention. It seemed to defy the logic of geometrics, and yet it was so graceful and serene – like an oversized cloud attaching itself onto the main structure.

The Ronchamp chapel sits among a wooden terrain, secluded from the rest of the community. On arrival, we walked around the outside of the building surveying its irregular sculptural form, even viewing it from above due to its location within a hilly enclave. This enabled us to first appreciate its beauty before entering. Now I am not a particularly spiritual individual, but upon entering the chapel for the first time, I felt a euphoric wave of tranquillity envelope me. It was the quality of light as much as anything that influenced these feelings. One of the interesting aspects of Corbusier’s design is the sporadic window placement on the walls. Amplifying the light within the chapel, these small, puncturing apertures were implemented on the façade by tapering the window wells within the cavity of the walls. Consequently, each wall becomes illuminated by these varying window frames, which then give the walls these luminous qualities. Such light defines the chapel, giving it an experiential meaning.

Built in 1955, it has become one of the finest examples of Corbusier’s work, attracting as many as 80,000 visitors each year. The structure is made mostly of concrete and stone and is comparatively small. Some have described Ronchamp chapel as the first post-modern building, others, the first of Expressionist architecture after World War II.

The Architect

About Simon Silver

Simon Silver

Simon Silver is a main board Director of Derwent London Plc. One of the Co-founders of Derwent Valley Holdings, Simon has overseen the design strategy for the group’s development and regeneration programme for over 30 years. He has overall responsibility for the commissioning of Architects on all Derwent projects. This has covered many notable schemes, including the TEA building in Shoreditch, the Angel building in Islington, Turnmill in Clerkenwell and most recently the White Collar Factory on Old Street roundabout. Simon is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Articles by Simon Silver

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