The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp is one of my favourite buildings so I was shocked this week to hear the news that it has been damaged by vandals.
This has led to international outrage and controversy. Architectural experts have accused the chapel owners of allowing the building to deteriorate whilst milking it as a commercial ‘cash cow’.
Designed by Le Corbusier the chapel is one of the modern architect’s most important works, a site of pilgrimage for worshippers and art lovers alike.
The desecration resulted in the beautiful, blue moon window by Le Corbusier being smashed into several thousand shards of glass.
Worse still, the window was the only one of the mutli-coloured stained glass windows that bore the architect’s own mark and moniker.
The pane of glass showed a man howling at the moon, something art lovers will be doing after hearing about this mindless act of vandalism.
I remember my visit to the Chapel in 2004 when I was struck by the beauty and spirituality of the building with its multi-coloured windows which shone like bright stars in the night sky.
The smashed window is irreplaceable, of course, and any replica will never do justice to the original work of art.
It seems unbelievable that vandals could break in and breach the three metre thick walls of the chapel.
They also took an empty concrete collection box which they threw away outside. Why do this? It’s hard to fathom.
The vandalism raises serious questions about how we protect buildings like this whilst allowing access to the public.
Conservation versus ‘cash cow’?
Earlier this week the architectural historian William J.R. Curtis launched an attack on the state of the chapel’s maintenance. He claimed that it is being left to rot.
The white facade of pebble-dash is cracked and crumbling away, a state of affairs which he describes as “scandalous” especially with its healthy annual income from 80,000 visitors every year.
I’m shocked by these revelations because I had no idea that this was happening during my visit a decade ago although, even then, there were early signs of decay.
We can only assume that there has been a disgraceful lack of investment in conservation work over the last 10 years.
But there’s also a bigger story surrounding the chapel.
£8 million has been spent on building a monastery tucked into a nearby hillside, designed by architect Renzo Piano (the man behind London’s Shard).
This bigger plan for the area funnels tourists though a new approach to the chapel’s ticket office, designed to boost mass tourism. It’s been described by some critics as “a folly”.
The whole scheme has been criticised as being contrary to Le Corbusier’s original plans which encouraged visitors to arrive in a ritualistic ascent up a hill.
Critic William Curtis says the project has commercialised the chapel, desecrated the landscape and destroyed the aura of spirituality that surrounds it.
Thankfully, I visited the Chapel before this happened and enjoyed the authentic experience. It remains one of the few buildings I’ve been inside which has a true feeling of spirituality and stillness.
Curtis claims that the once-remote site has been turned into a “gated community” with outward signs of prosperity, which some believe might be to blame for the vandalism.
After all, the former mining town where it is located is far from rich and suffers from the recession, which might have provoked such an adverse reaction.
Heritage at what cost?
The Ronchamp chapel was completed by the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier in 1955 as a shrine on an existing pilgrimage site.
There is much to admire about the building which is arguably one of the seven great wonders of the modern architectural world.
On our visit, I remember gasping when we saw the chapel for the first time as we approached it from below.
From the outside it looked like a giant mushroom or glowing white space ship with its curvy roof, thick, white walls, unusual angles and oddly-placed windows.
It had a sculptural quality which transformed it from a mere building into an object of beauty, a place of contemplation.
Once inside, light beamed into the interior from the beautiful stained glass windows which filled the chapel with glowing colours and radiating bands of light.
It was as if a rainbow had taken up permanent residence inside the chapel. Every tourist and visitor stared in quiet admiration and reverence.
But years of decay are threatening the Chapel’s future – the challenge is how to protect this stunning architectural icon for future generations.
It’s the same dilemma that has faced many heritage buildings from Venice’s rotting palaces and France’s faded villas to Britain’s crumbling country houses.
London’s Strawberry Hill House is a brilliant recent example of how a masterpiece of 18th Century Georgian Gothic architecture has been transformed from a ruin into a restored masterpiece
Hopefully, the good folk of Ronchamp can take urgent action to prevent the loss of a wonderful icon in their own back yard.
Visit Le Corbusier’s Chapel
The Chapelle du Notre Dame du Haut is located in Ronchamp , a small town in eastern France. Basel and Dijon are the nearest big cities.
It’s open daily (except 1 January) between 9:00-19:00 (main season) and 10:00-17:00 (winter). Full information can be found on the Chapel of Ronchamp website. Check times given the current damage to the chapel.
If driving, take the autoroute A 36 towards Lyon/Stuttgart (exit 5). Access is N 19 on the Paris/Bâle turn-off. Look out for the Rue de La Chapelle.
I’d recommend visiting the chapel on a bright, sunny day when the sun’s rays shine through the stained glass windows, creating striking patterns.