When Le Corbusier died in August 1965, he left behind him several unrealised projects, among them the Church of St Pierre, to stand in the new town of Firminy-Vert, not far from Saint-Etienne in the south-east of France. He had already designed three other buildings for Firminy, a Unité d'Habitation on a hillside with long views over the landscape, and a sports stadium and cultural centre in a central valley of the town where a quarry was once situated. All three were built in the course of time, but only now, some 40 years later, is the church on the point of completion, under the guidance of Le Corbusier's former associate José Oubrerie.
The Church of St Pierre stands close to the stadium and has evidently been conceived as a focal point in the geography of Firminy and as a vertical counterpoint to Le Corbusier's other buildings. From a distance, the church looks like a sloping, concrete funnel with the top sliced off at an angle, so as to tilt towards the south and the path of the sun. Its monumental form remains enigmatic and suggests many analogies: an industrial stack; a truncated, volcanic cone; an enlarged astronomical instrument;
even an oversized piece of modern sculpture.
On closer inspection, the geometry of the church begins to reveal its complexity. The main tower rises from a square base originally intended to house parish offices and the priest's residence, but now containing a sequence of interconnected spaces for civic and cultural use. As the building ascends, it achieves the transition from square to curved geometry by means of sloped surfaces affording different profiles on each of the four sides.
When Le Corbusier designed this building, he was preoccupied with the projection and intersection of forms such as cones, cylinders and hyperbolic parabaloids. The square base of the building is almost aligned to the main cardinal points, while the top seems to lunge and twist towards the heavens.
The tower is punctured here and there by angled skylights, while the dynamic approach of the access ramp is dramatised by the spiralling geometry of downpipes and gutters attached to the main structure. Rainwater descending around the tower in a swirling movement is one of the main themes of the building.
The church at Firminy is an unapologetically concrete building, although it could be argued that its real materials are light, shade, space, proportion and movement. The ascending ramp introduces a note of ritual, and one penetrates the interior at a point several floors above the ground. For the moment, though, there is just enough missing from the main space for it to be difficult to assess the architectural quality of the final result.
Le Corbusier was intending to create a meditative, yet majestic space, which would expand dramatically upwards after the tightness of the entrance. When the building was designed it was envisaged as a major church in the diocese, replete with bishop's seat, a somewhat grandiose altar and pulpit, and an appropriate sense of monumentality. Countering any effect of pomposity was the theme (as at the monastery of La Tourette) of a 'noble poverty', of stern concrete surfaces without any extraneous decoration.
Possibly Le Corbusier hoped to combine the secular and the sacred in a single edifice: the section of the Church of St Pierre reveals the idea of a continuous floor as a folding plane, a social theatre of sorts, in harmony with the inclined seats of the stadium outside and with an unbuilt proposal for an outdoor theatre with steps cut into the rock. Much has been written about Le Corbusier's interest in cosmological symbolism, but at Firminy he seems also to have aspired towards a republican, civic monumentality.
Light is brought into the interior of the church in several different ways. There are directed skylights on top and to the west, meant to drop a ray onto the main altar around Easter-time. To the east, the wall of the sloping concrete shell is perforated by holes corresponding to the constellation of Orion. Around the base of the main room there are lateral slots which admit a subdued, coloured light reflected off angled concrete planes. A similar device is used to greater effect in the main church at La Tourette, where it adds to the sense that the severe mass of the building is floating on slots of light. At Firminy, the reading is more confused.
In fact, it needs saying that St Pierre does not seem to possess the same gravitas and magical power as Ronchamp and La Tourette. Perhaps things will change when every single element is in place? But I suspect that the problem is more basic, and that it stems in part from the diminution of height that was forced upon Le Corbusier's design in July 1964 to reduce costs. Perhaps, too, the church at Firminy suffers from a slight self-consciousness, as if the artist was doomed to repeat formulae bearing his own signature.
The furniture of the church is mostly fashioned from concrete of a lighter colour than that used in the walls. The space is 'punctuated' by free-standing objects, such as the main and secondary altars and the pulpit and ambo. Of course Le Corbusier was fully aware of ancient precedents in this regard, such as the Church of San Clemente in Rome, whose interiors were amply illustrated in Vers une Architecture (1923), but he also drew upon his own experiences of designing religious buildings.
As at La Tourette, he was guided by enlightened members of the clergy - such as the curé, Roger Tardy - who were influenced by the review L'Art Sacré, which promoted the idea of a renewal of church art combining the abstraction of Modernism with a return to its roots. In this case, the altar follows liturgical prescriptions by descending through several levels of the building so that it touches the ground. The result is an impressive pillar recalling other vertical elements in the building, such as the downpipes on the outside or the attached spiral stair. The Corbusian 'free plan' is reinterpreted in terms of a series of dramatic events and focal points. The interior space has a vaguely theatrical quality, not unlike a stage with different symbolic elements - a cross, a side-altar - disposed here and there and perceived in sequences and juxtapositions.
Le Corbusier received the commission to design the church in Firminy in 1960 and was supported by both church and state in this endeavour. The mayor of Firminy was none other than Eugène Claudius-Petit, the former minister of reconstruction who had already employed Le Corbusier to design the Unité at Marseille. The architect's earliest ideas recalled his unbuilt church project of 1929 for Le Tremblay, in which a rectangular shaft rose from a lower platform cut through and surrounded by an ascending ramp. Le Corbusier often transformed earlier concepts in this manner when confronted by a new problem.
He also had a memory well stocked with historical examples, which he metamorphosed in his own way through lateral leaps of imagination. He may not have been religious in an official sense, but he did have a sense of the sacred and a deep interest in the architecture of the past. In turn, in his world view, 'nature' was seen as a source of mythical meanings. Le Corbusier was particularly interested in the transcendent possibilities of light.
Probably the cluster of ideas guiding the Firminy church project was also influenced by recent realisations, such as the extraordinary Assembly in Chandigarh (1951-65), with its top-lit chamber in a form recalling a modern cooling tower, and the cosmological symbolism of both ancient Indian temples and the Pantheon in Rome. In that case, too, there was the transformation of the 18th-century Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur, which Le Corbusier believed 're-linked man to the cosmos'.
At Firminy, Le Corbusier was clearly interested in planetary symbolism related to the sun, moon and stars. On the east facade, a parabolic hood protects the openings, while also evoking the path of the planets and the crescent of the moon.
In the case of Firminy, the architect seems to have fused some of his own precedents with the idea of a sort of sacred mountain or sliced-off cone linking the earth to the heavenly sphere. From the beginning he was also obsessed with the fall of light, and there are even sketches examining the rays penetrating the floating cupola of Hagia Sophia. However, Le Corbusier, working with his associate, José Oubrerie, was eventually obliged to compromise his ideal intentions for this project not just once, but several times.
As a result, the final scheme signed off by Le Corbusier and dated July 1964 was considerably lower and more squat than originally intended. Apart from a decrease in elegance, there may also have been a loss of diffusion in the lighting of the interior surfaces.
While written documents were prepared to allow a calculation of costs, the scheme itself was portrayed in drawings at a scale of 1:100. As a result, when Le Corbusier died a year later, there was little visual documentation giving a clear idea of precisely what he intended for a multitude of details, including incisions and joints in surfaces, windows and doors and even the colour and texture of the concrete itself.
When Oubrerie took the project on, he had to rely on his knowledge of Le Corbusier's architectural language in making an interpretation of the detail. For the rest, he followed as closely as possible the last signed drawings. The project ran up against numerous difficulties, though by the mid-1970s the lower floors were up as far as the base of the superstructure. But then things ground to a halt for more than 20 years. The church stood there like a truncated pyramid (some spoke of a concrete bunker), visited by intrepid Corbusian pilgrims, and was eventually bricked up.
This is not the place to go into the complex history of the revival of the project, which included classification as a monument historique in the mid-1990s and a fundraising drive by the L'Association Le Corbusier pour l'Église de Firminy-Vert in the same period. The fact is that Oubrerie and his French associates were able to recommence construction at the end of 2003, with the results that one sees today. There were some changes in the programme, as the idea of having a priest living downstairs was abandoned, to be replaced by vague ideas about exhibition spaces and places for cultural events. The Catholic religion itself has changed, and there are even those who find Le Corbusier's yearnings for the sublime inappropriate to modern liturgy. But what has been built corresponds as closely as possible in overall form to the plans of 1964.
Sceptics will naturally pose the question: so what exactly is being built today in Firminy? Is it truly a Le Corbusier building in all respects? Or is it a Corbusian project reinterpreted in crucial ways by another architect? For one speaks of 'details' as if they were mere details, but it was Le Corbusier himself who claimed that 'there are no details' in a fully resolved work of architecture, meaning perhaps that detail is the final resolution of the underlying ideas and intentions of an artistic creation.
Here, Oubrerie and his associates are courting some risk, for how can they be sure what Le Corbusier would have done if he had lived to see the building through a detailed design phase and actual construction? Apart from anything else, he was notoriously capable of changing his mind once the building was on the way up. He was even capable of coming up with ingenious last-minute solutions to unforeseen problems, as we know from, for example, the design of the nearly contemporary Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard.
Perhaps there are broader issues here to do with changes in the way that buildings are made. For the palette of materials and techniques available at any particular place and time puts limits on what it is possible to build. When Le Corbusier drew 1:100 drawings, he probably had a good idea about the eventual material reality of what he drew. But how much of the culture of construction which he was taking for granted 40 years ago still exists today? 2006 is not 1964 when it comes to the construction industry in France or anywhere else for that matter.
Without a doubt, Oubrerie has gained from structural progress in the construction of concrete shells, but the question here is in the realm of architectural and material expression, not just the world of building technology. Does the building nearing completion in Firminy in fact materialise Le Corbusier's intentions in all respects, including the texture and colour of the concrete; the placement of grooves and lines; the jointing of windows and walls;
the sense of visual weight? Does it bring the concepts alive in forms and materials with an appropriate spiritual and physical presence?
Is it possible to keep the soul of an architectural idea alive in such conditions? If Le Corbusier were suddenly to return to earth, one wonders what he would say.
Credits Client Saint-Etienne Metropole Architect (design) Le Corbusier Architect (realisation) José Oubrerie, Yves Perret and Aline Duverger, assisted by Romain Chazalon Engineers Andre Accetta; Bet Rabeisen Chief Architect, Historic Monuments of the Loire Jean Francois Grange Chavanis