La Tourette & Ronchamp

Darkness Punctured by Light.

On our summer vacation, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit both La Tourette and Notre Dame du Haut, by Le Corbusier. The former holds a very special place for me, for two reasons. My contact with architecture, pre-university, had been largely through visits to historic buildings with my parents.  Arriving at Edinburgh University in 1973, I found myself mixing with architecture students, with whom I appeared to have some affinity. Reading a book on le Corbusier, I was particularly struck by the effect of the coloured light canons in the chapel at La Tourette. That was one reason.

The other was a long involvement with St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross. I first visited it as an architecture student c.1975, and my memory is of a building that had been vacated, most of whose windows were complete, but where water was penetrating the ceilings, some of which were starting to collapse. In my role at the Heritage Lottery Fund, I had close involvement with the St Peter’s restoration project. The connection with La Tourette was obvious.

The monastery still accommodates a dozen brothers, but also runs as a hotel. The accommodation is spartan but comfortable, with a pile of clean laundry provided for you to make your own bed. I was up early and, having filled my breakfast tray in the refectory, I took a seat beside a man sitting on his own. I asked if he had been before. “Seventeen times” he replied. “What do you come for?” I asked. “A week’s silence” was the response.

La Tourette is a complex building, built around an open court, but to which there is no real access. One side accommodates the chapel, two the accommodation (it was built for 100 friars), and the fourth the refectory and meeting rooms. On leaving the refectory, I heard singing from the chapel, so sat in on mass. The acoustics of the chapel are beautiful, with the voices of six brothers easily filling the large volume.  A tall, dark space of bare concrete, with horizontal slits of coloured light just above head height along the long sides, and daylight spilling in thorough a tall vertical slit in one corner and through a single roof light. In the side chapel, three substantial light canons spread blue, red and white light into the black and yellow painted interior. It is all very simple, but nonetheless stunning. I spent the morning with my camera, finding an endless sequence of interesting angles.

We then drove north to Notre Dame du Haut.  There has been criticism of Renzo Piano’s visitor centre, in that it interferes with the pilgrims’ route up the hill to the Chapel, but, not having experienced that original route, I thought the new centre suitably elegant and discreet.

If La Tourette is the epitome of techtonic architecture, Notre Dame is perfectly plastic. There are straight lines, but they are few and far between, and the billowing sail of the roof dominates the external composition. The chapel is dark inside, like La Tourette, and like its southern cousin, has light spilling in through slits and coloured glass. The southern wall is hypnotisingly beautiful. The stained glass windows are individually simple, but the whole is inspirational. It was not as peaceful as La Tourette, as we arrived just after one musical performance and there were many people still milling about.

These are two buildings that will not disappoint anyone who visits. They are about complexity of form. For me, it is the chapel interiors that impress the most: darkness punctured by light

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland.