Villa Savoy

The Beauty of Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel


When I was in high school, while aspiring to be an architect as well as an artist, I and my closest friend admired the architectural work of Le Corbusier. Among the attributes of his work that we held high were these: attention to human proportion and scale; a sensitivity to architectural ideals while mindful of the needs for human community, both domestic and commercial; and an equal sensitivity to providing ‘beauty’ for those in financially marginalized and especially in urban contexts.

With my long-term love for the architecture of the American ‘Prairie School,’ and especially that of Frank Lloyd Wright, appreciating Le Corbusier’s very European modernist style, rather linear and grid-like, was something of a stretch. Perhaps a parallel might be how an admirer of Monet’s water lily paintings or of Whistler’s nocturnes might be surprised by a new delight in seeing some geometric abstract paintings by Piet Mondrian.

But then, after admiring Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoy, and his Marseilles Block (a combined apartment and business building), I discovered his Ronchamp Chapel (completed 1954). Though I have yet to see and walk through it, I have long sensed that this is a masterpiece, precisely because it is so counter-intuitive to the main body of Le Corbusier’s work. Whereas much of his architecture is analytic, geometric, and mathematically precise in his approach to it, Ronchamp provides an example of a lyrical and semi-mystical appreciation for form and space, as well as for light and color. And whereas much of Le Corbusier’s work can be seen as the fruit of a meditation upon classical antecedents, both Greek and Roman, Ronchamp Chapel seems to bear the spiritual imprint of the culture that we associate with the medieval centuries.

For me, the best examples of that latter point are the immensely thick side walls in certain parts of the chapel, where the light intrudes through very dense materials. This, of course, is a beautiful metaphor for my life and yours.

‘Glimpses of a deeper soul’ ~ this is a phrase that has come to me, time and again, when reflecting upon the lives of persons we become acquainted with in Scripture and Christian history, in secular fiction, as well as in daily church and public life. Especially in North America, we tend to chart our lives forward, in planned linear paths of progression, each step building upon the prior one toward a calculated and hoped-for end. And yet, despite all our planning, we may be open to, or unexpectedly experience, dreams and visions of something other, more amorphous. In such moments, we perceive to our surprise unanticipated images of what may be an attainable beauty, a beauty that none of us would have imagined in the ordinary run of things. For human creativity reflects divine creativity.

To Le Corbusier, perhaps his vision and design for the Ronchamp Chapel came as just such an unexpected surprise. For me, the wonder is that he allowed himself to let his imagination bear fruit in this remarkable plan and building. Despite his avowed atheistic concept of reality, his chapel centers on the transcendent and mystical, while also touching upon and embracing the local and material aspects of our lives.