Light in Architecture, part 4

Post written by Paul de Vries and Simon Droog. Follow them on Twitter.

Fig.1 Apse in the Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut at Ronchamps, Le Corbusier 1954.

This is part 4 of our Light in Architecture series. If you missed the previous parts, you can find them here:

  1. Without light, no architecture?
  2. Light – City Hall Gothenburg
  3. Light – Dutch Canal Houses

In this part we’ll talk about one of the famous projects by Le Corbusier – The Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut.

“Light and shadow reveal form.” (1)
– LE CORBUSIER (1965) Textes et dessin pour Ronchamp

The Chapel of Notre-Dame-du-Haut, one of Le Corbusier’s later works, is in big contrast with his earlier buildings with daylight flooded rooms. He created a church interior which had “the emotional appeal that is based on the shadowed dimness of indirect lighting, in which form is only vaguely revealed.” (2)

Fig. 2 Interior

At the time of its completion in 1954, the Chapel at Ronchamp shocked the critics who went to see it. Pevsner complained of a retreat into “irrationality”, thus betraying his prejudice that Le Corbusier’s earlier works had been somehow “rational”. (3) Le Corbusier himself wrote to the client: “I have not experienced the miracle of faith but I have often known the miracle of inexpressible space, the apotheosis of plastic emotion”. (4) Later, he wrote that he was interested in “the effect of architectural forms and the spirit of architecture in the construction of a vessel of intense concentration and meditation” and in what he called “an acoustic component in the domain of form”. In other words, he sought to evoke spiritual emotions through the play of form, space and light, and without recourse to any obvious church typology. (5)

Fig. 3 Exterior

From a distance you can see the white tower sticking out of the woods and the more you climb up the hill the more of the white walls of the church will be revealed. This route is probably influenced by the procession to the Parthenon. As you come nearer you discover that there is not one plane surface, the entire building curves and swells into an extraordinary composition. You need to walk around to grasp a bit of its complex form and to find the entrance. Entering the building the first thing that strikes you is that it is very dark. After your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, you will discover the beautiful mystic light. Light coming through deep piercings of unequal size in the thick right wall. From the outside these piercings seemed to be only tiny windows, but inside they open up into large white embrasures that cast a great deal of reflected light into the dim room. Some of the small windows are painted and bring some coloured light in the chapel. Between the white walls and the grey concrete ceiling is a very narrow opening which admits just the right amount of light to show texture of the casted concrete ceiling. The towers appear in the interior as apses, recessed enlargements of the room. These white painted apses are lighted with indirect light from above shed magic light over the curved walls. The light creates the effect of enclosed space, like a campfire does in the darkness.

“Light and shadow reveal form.” (1)
– LE CORBUSIER (1965) Textes et dessin pour Ronchamp

Light alone can already create the effect of enclosed space.

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  1. PEVSNER, N. (1966) Nikolaus Pevsner on the Anti-Pioneers
  2. STIRLING, J. (1956) Ronchamp; Le Corbusier’s Chapel and the Crisis of Rationalism
  3. CURTIS, W.J.R. (1996) Modern Architecture Since 1900 (p. 419)
  4. LE CORBUSIER (1954) Le Modulor and Modulor 2 [ENGLISH EDITION] (p. 32)
  5. LE CORBUSIER (1953) Le Corbusier – Oeuvre complete, Vol. 5: 1946-1952 (French, English and German Edition) (p.88)

2 thoughts on “Light – Church in Ronchamp

  1. dear sirs , i love photography and architecture . please if you like give a little of your precious time to watch :

    i spent passion and love to make it . many thanks , regards mario caruso

    1. We have just seen your beautiful film of the Ronchamp chapel – thank you; we have sent the link to others.
      You have done a wonderful job. The music is perfect.

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