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TO PRESERVE IT IN ASPIC IS TO DENY IT A LIFE

BUILDING STUDY

For years, Le Corbusier's monastery of La Tourette (1953-9), near Lyon, has suffered the effects of time and the weather. Water has penetrated the building and concrete has spalled, while the cold has made it difficult to inhabit in the winter. Now Didier Repellin, Lyon's chief architect of historic monuments, is undertaking the first phase of a renovation that aims to tackle the most pressing problems and upgrade La Tourette for use as a cultural/conference centre. But can the essential qualities of the building survive intact?

La Tourette closed to residents last year, and will not be lived in for some while. Guided visits are possible, but you can no longer eat in the refectory or wander unaccompanied around the building. Just before the closure, some students and teachers of architecture at the University of Dundee made the pilgrimage to La Tourette. They went to study the building, to draw, measure and write, and to spend time understanding those subtle qualities of architectural space not visible through the pages of a textbook.

Because of the imminent renovation, the trip turned out to be more poignant than we could have anticipated. We felt we were witness to a crucial moment in the building's life. We became aware that it might never again be exactly the same as it was at that moment. Changes might be subtle, even unnoticeable - but it will never be quite as it was for us.

'The defects shout at one from all parts of the structure!

Faults are human; they are ourselves, our daily lives. What matters is to go further, to live, to be intense, to aim high, and to be loyal, ' wrote Le Corbusier in his Oeuvre Complète 1946-52. La Tourette is rich and considered in detail, but this is not the polished and machined aesthetic of Corbusier's earlier works.

Perhaps it is this aspect of the building that visitors find most surprisingly beguiling, that quality of the roughly handmade; the touch of man on the building that leaves a trace. In an essay in 1977, Martin Purdy associated this aspect specifically with Le Corbusier's religious structures: 'The man-made image of imperfection appears to be the conscious choice of expression.'

There is evidence that the tight budget available for construction was one of those aspects that attracted Le Corbusier.

He chose to emphasise as a positive those difficulties presented by financial restrictions, seeking to make an architecture that (as Alberto Pérez-Gómez says) 'revealed the potential spirituality of the technological world' through its béton brut approach to materiality. A letter in July 1953 from Father Couturier, the Dominican friar who acted as client for the monastery, states: 'I know, in advance, that in its poverty, it will be one of the purest and most important works of our time.'

We had warned the students that the quality of workmanship and materials used in the building is almost shocking, that it isn't comfortable, clean or polished. Services are not concealed, details are brutal, and few concessions to comfort have been made. The monastery was described by Colin Rowe as 'positive in its negation of compromise? a gymnasium for spiritual athletes' and indeed it is stripped of all superuous decoration beyond the patterns of light and texture. Materials and finishes appear almost defiantly poor. Perhaps our experience was conditioned by the blinding sunlight which highlighted those imperfections and made them appear rich, complex and often beautiful; in driving rain we might not have been so romantic.

This most problematic aspect of La Tourette is possibly also its most fragile - though it might seem strange to describe that massive, brutish concrete as fragile. It is the concrete which demands most attention, in that it's decaying, but it was meant to age and weather over time, which creates a certain beauty. In his text 'The Lamp of Memory', Ruskin says: 'It is in that golden stain of time that we are to look for the real light, and colour, and preciousness of architecture.' Ruskin was no doubt envisaging buildings of far greater age than La Tourette - he describes walls 'long washed by the passing waves of humanity' - but his argument still holds true for this Modern masterpiece.

Both students and staff felt privileged to be at La Tourette: to visit while it retains at least the vestiges of its purpose; to be able to stay in the building and be on our own in some of the most influential architectural spaces created in the post-war period; and to have seen those spaces at precisely the moment we did.

So what will La Tourette be when the renovation is complete? There's certainly a need to redress ad hoc repairs, some surprisingly heavy-handed, which have been carried out over the years. But it will be a major task to bring the building up to the standards required for a residential centre. When we visited, it was thought that one consequence might be the introduction of fire doors into the upper corridor spaces - an intrusion which would destroy the proportions, continuity and character of the spaces.

Happily the argument against that has now been won.

Another suggestion at the time of our visit was that the refectory windows, with their distinctive ondulatoires, might be double-glazed. These windows are perhaps the single most recognisable image of La Tourette, but photographs cannot capture the subtlety of detail, the tactile dimension, and the quality of light and shadow they produce - that 'Xenakis-drawn music of the shadow-strewn ramps', as Steven Holl describes it.

First developed by Le Corbusier and Xenakis at La Tourette, these ondulatoires were subsequently used in later projects in France, North America and Chandigarh. Here in the monastery's refectory they frame the landscape to the west and create a pattern of striped shadows across the space which maps the progress of the day. Single planes of glass are puttied directly between the concrete verticals. The mastic shows the finger marks of those who installed them; the concrete mullions are chipped and polished by the innumerable hands that have touched them.

Double glazing the panels would not be possible without fundamentally changing the character of the space. The concern is not only the precise nature of the relationship between concrete and glass (which would be lost through the introduction of a frame, however slender); it's the unrecordable quality of reflections and shadows which bounce around the space and appear unexpectedly on the wall of the cloister outside. Fortunately Repellin agrees - the glazing in the refectory is being replaced with 6mm safety glass, not double-glazed units.

La Tourette is however, comparable to one huge coldbridge. The Dominicans can no longer afford (financially or ethically) to fire the huge boiler 24 hours a day during the winter; conversely, the spaces on the west of the building become practically unusable in summer. In his 1977 essay, Purdy wrote that La Tourette 'should have been double glazed' and that this omission, together with the poor quality of materials and workmanship, was largely a result of severe budget cuts once construction had begun, going beyond the financial limitations that Corbusier himself revelled in. The building is also in clear need of repair. Water cannot be allowed to continue to seep through the concrete, and areas of the insulation to the undercroft have deteriorated badly .

And attempting to avoid change would be to miss the point. The imminent restoration/renovation became the primary topic of conversation at every meal, with one student pointing out that 'this place teaches you that buildings have a life beyond their creators'. What fascinated him was the process of gradual change, seen both in the relationship between the building and its natural context - the places where it was being subsumed by moss and ivy, the cracks and fissures - and between the building and its inhabitants - the pencilled nameplates on the cell doors, the marks left by the cleaner's cloth. La Tourette is not yet wholly a museum, and to preserve it in aspic is to deny it a life; here I must agree with Pérez-Gómez that 'the building is emphatically not an aesthetic object; it must be used'.

Indeed, the works to the fabric will incorporate changes that the resident monks have themselves requested: a small number of the cells will be joined two-into-one, in order to provide an office as well as a bedroom. This may not be the clear, simple logic of minimal linear space which Le Corbusier initially intended, but future residents will not be young novices studying for a defined period of time.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of restoration, it is clear that this is a building which cannot simply be allowed to crumble to a picturesque ruin. But its quality relies upon its rough, raw imperfections as well as on its proportions. It embodies an attitude to detail which celebrates flaws and delights in scuff-marks and chipped edges. It is not pristine, neat, ordered and tidy; it is a difficult building which has been affected (I would say enhanced) by the evident passing of time. To clean it too much would be to lose an essential element of what makes it La Tourette.

There is a place in the crypt chapel where moisture is leaching through the concrete surrounding the skylights, the so-called 'light cannons'. In the reflected blue light of the crypt, the salt deposits splattering the concrete surface have created a rich pattern of colour and texture.

While the skylight must, of course, be stabilised and repaired, I can't help hoping that the architect chooses to leave this stunning natural Rothko where it is.

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