I hope you don't mind if I take some time to describe how I ticked off a bucket list item next! However, before I get to that, we spent two days in Epinal, a somewhat mediocre town but well placed to help us move further south in France! The campsite was pleasant, although slightly dated, and well located on the fringes of the town. So, after our first night, which we spent in Iona due to some rather Scottish-esque rainfall, we set off to walk the 20-odd minutes into town and were fortunate enough to wander into the 'town square', which has several quaint bars and cafes that spilt out onto the square. After a quick perusal, we chose one and ordered 'le plate de jour', which turned out to be veal with rice in a cream sauce.
Afterwards, we strolled the adjacent streets and took in the sights, such as they were, before returning to the square just as the locals began to end their working day and took up residence in the various bars and tavernas. We sat with an aperitif and people-watched until the sun settled over the rooftops and then walked back to our campsite for the night.
The following day, we set off for the town of Ronchamp, which probably means very little to you. However, as a young architectural student, the place was seared into my mind as the location of possibly one of the most remarkable modern chapels in Europe.
I first came across the name of La Chapelle de Ronchamp, Notre-Dame du Haut, in my early twenties when I wrote a thesis on a Swiss-born and later French national, christened Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, who the world came to know as Le Corbusier! Among his body of work were several buildings that, as a student, I admired greatly. Three of the top designs for me were Unite d'Habitation (which I visited in Marseille in 2013), the Villa Savoye in Poissy (still on my bucket list!) and Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp!
We had booked a night in a campsite on the outskirts of Ronchamp and tickets to visit the Chapel the following day. However, we arrived in Ronchamp sooner than we expected, so we took a chance and popped in to see if we could look around that afternoon, and lo and behold, they agreed! On top of a hill just north of the town, the site consists of three Le Corbusier buildings: a visitors' retreat, the Chaplain's quarters, and the Chapel. Alongside these are the relatively new entrance building and the Convent for the local nuns, designed by the famous Italian Architect Renzo Piano, (who, along with the English Architect, Richard Rogers, designed The Pompidou Centre in Paris).
Disappointingly, and as 'luck' would have it, we visited during a period of significant renovation, and so the famous elevation (the southeast corner) of the Chaple was obscured by scaffolding! This view gives the building its iconic "nun's hat" look, and sadly, it was somewhat askew on our visit!
Norte-Dame du Haut, South-east corner
Having changed our tickets and listened to the initial guide information, we set off to walk the site. As we started up the hill, I was reminded of the scene at the start of Granada TV's early 1980s adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's magnificent 'Brideshead Revisited', where Lord Sebastian Flyte's family home (Castle Howard in reality) can be glimpsed through the trees and between garden mounds on the journey up the hill towards the house. And so it was that the Chapel showed herself in tantalising snippets as we ascended the hill towards the first of Corbusier's buildings, the visitors' retreat, which we ventured into as a taster for the entree to come! Now, I wish to make clear that, after my initial youthful exhilaration at discovering Le Corbusier, I came to question, in my latter days, the total reverence in which he was held back in the day! His choice of 'raw' concrete was constantly jarring to me, a stark and brutal material, or at least so I always thought! And to see it laid bare under a blazing October sun only confirmed my feelings. However, that is not to detract from the sublime genius of the man when it came to the Chapel!
After the Visitors' retreat, we visited the Renzo Piano's addition, which is used by the local Nuns from Ronchamp, and so we only got to see the outside of the structure. However, I admired how the Architect had lowered the sleek, long design into the site's natural slope, thus ensuring that it did not detract from the A Listed 'actor' on the stage!
We then walked around the Chapel, approaching from the west and viewing the northern elevation before experiencing the majestic east and south elevations, which, despite the scaffolding, did not disappoint! However, the 'piece de la resistance' was still to come, the magnificence of the inside! Now, I have been in several world-famous Cathedrals, including Glasgow Cathedral and the 'late' Notre-Dame in Paris, and they have their speciality, but Notre-Dame du Haut is a small Chapel; it has only eight pews after all, but for me at least, it provided an equal, if not better 'in-take of breath' experience on entering. The sheer brilliance of the thick south-facing wall (where the sun comes from!) with its wonderfully quirky arrangement of different shaped, sized and glazed windows blew me away. On top of this, the curved, brutal concrete roof hovered with a three or four-inch gap between the wall head and roof! Genius!
The south facing wall from inside the Chapel
One thing I was unaware of, and so far have not discovered the reason for, was the floor area to the left of the pews sloped from the rear of the Chapel to the altar. And why was it left without pews? Quirky indeed!
You will have gathered by now that I enjoyed my visit to Le Corbusier's masterpiece in Ronchamp immensely, and so I will seek your indulgence no further. Suffice it to say that it is places like this that 'bucket lists' are made for!
Finally, please check out my photographic efforts to render this magnificent Chapel appealingly under the "Our Trips" tab.
(PS: some of you reading this may have spotted a similarity (albeit, slight!) to St Brides in East Kilbride, designed by Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, which was listed third in the Top 10 Best Modern Churches in Britain back in 2013! St Brides was designed by Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, both tutors of mine when I studied architecture, and who were heavily influenced by Frank Loyd Wright and Le Corbusier!)
Follow our route here: