What is good architecture? More than two thousand years ago, Vitruvius would have answered that good architecture is that which contemplates three basic principles: firmitas (firmness), utilitas (utility), and venustas (beauty), as he described in his treatise De Architectura, and probably no one would have questioned it. Today, this broad question is capable of eliciting hundreds of answers, all personal and subjective, which have to do with the experience of each person.
One view of good architecture is that which seeks to arouse emotions in the user, which seeks to create unique and unforgettable experiences, related to the typology and context of the work. Architecture that becomes poetry, that generates sensations that cannot be described or translated into words: ineffable spaces.
It was precisely these concepts that Le Corbusier pursued with the design and construction of the Notre Dame du Haut Chapel in Ronchamp, France. With this project, Le Corbusier moved away from the machinist and even rationalist approaches of his early period to try out a new formal experience. He went from promoting a universal character in his projects, with standardized principles, to giving himself over to a fully individual response that would lead him to create a timeless and enigmatic work.
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There is an anonymous anecdote in Spain about two Spanish-speaking architects of some international renown who were visiting their office in the Rue de Sèvres in Paris in the 1950s. The story goes that the two architects, who were younger than the master, were taken to a waiting area of the studio in a former Jesuit monastery, where a long, narrow corridor was lined with boards, benches, chairs, easels, and all kinds of drawing materials.
A small door separated the hustle and bustle of daily work, which was often set to music by Bach or Gregorian chants from a nearby monastic church, from the private space reserved for the architect's personal and intimate work.
After an ample waiting time, Le Corbusier made his entrance and greeted them with a direct question: Do you know why God is so important? The two young men were speechless and, in response to their reaction, the architect continued: Because you can't see him. After which, and without giving any more room for conversation, he said goodbye to his perplexed visitors.
This story, besides supporting Le Corbusier's uncertain religious character, his possible beliefs, and disbeliefs, provides more questions than answers. Le Corbusier did not practice any particular religion, yet he was not without a certain sense of the higher things. To a question about his beliefs in relation to the Ronchamp Chapel, he replied that he was unaware of the miracle of faith, but that he often saw the miracle of ineffable space.
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Without words to explain it, we can come close to feeling or experiencing the sacred space of this project, the most disconcerting in the professional history of the architect and even of the 20th century. We can approach it from an understanding of the architect's ability to create sublime spaces, and emotional spaces, an architect who believes in architecture as a true total work of art.
The following is a photo essay describing the experience, or rather "an experience", of this work, which is considered, at least by some, to be good architecture.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 27, 2022