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Jamais vu – Divine concrete intervention by Donald McCrory

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

Religious buildings play with our perspective; they’re large, old or both. Through their use of classical language and scale they recalibrate us in space or time; you walk in and feel tiny.  On our visit to the La Tourette monastery, our expectations, raised at both altars to religion – as altar boys – and later, to modernism – as architects, feel ratified. Yet, as our path turned to dirt, and a ‘multi-story car-park’ peers from over the trees, it is instantly recognisable and somehow unfamiliar.

In 1952, Father A-M. Couturier asked Le Corbusier to build a new convent outside the village of Eveux par l’Arbresle, which could host a hundred brothers.  Built between 1953 and 1960, it is the last major work of Le Corbusier in France.  Even modernism is history now, listed a historical monument in 1979 and later chosen by French architects as the second most important modern architectural project in the country, our senses feel manipulated by the image presented amongst the sounds of gentile wildlife.

A concrete monolith, erupting throughthe terraqueous Beaujolaiscountryside. The dominating concrete materiality of the structure appears cold, dull, brutal and uninviting.   Standing as an austere, quiet modernist figure, I imagine a gritty life inside.

Following a study of the daily life of the monks, Le Corbusier arranged the building in the form of a quadrangle.  Inspired by the Certosa del Galluzzo monastery, outside Florence, described by le Corbusier as ‘the town on top of the hill’, it’s no surprise La Tourette sits at the summit of the slope.

He divided the convent in three areas: individual life, common life and spiritual life.  The church is placed on the North with the accommodation on the other three sides.   The building carries all the mannerisms associated with its famous designer, but it is in the church where he changes his design etiquette.

John Ruskin, in The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849,stated ‘It is not church we want, but the sacrifice’, buildings and architecture are two separate things, one functional whilst the other has meaning.  The church occupies a special place in closed monastery life, it is open to all.  

At 7pm we enter for Vespers, the evening prayer at sunset, descending a long slope into darkness, monitoring my strides, revealing an enormous bronze clad pivoting door. Its unique splendor denotes the change of tone, whilst a wide empty space, a separation, formed between church and the main building, confirms the higher status.

The patented Modular dimensioning system is used throughout the building until now. The scale is immediately and significantly elevated with a 50 ft. ceiling height, this space is sacred.  It is the religious and emotional core and it instantly draws our gaze up towards the heavens alerting our nervous systems.

A concrete box, severe, enclosed like a bunker, the openings can only be seen from the inside.  Unlike in communal spaces, where glass is used with total freedom, floor to ceiling, allowing views to their maker’s creation, here it is controlled.  The church is orientated traditionally east to west with a high vertical slit to allow the light of the rising sun and a wide horizontal slot for the light of the setting sun.

Roof lights, deliberately placed over the crypt and sacristy, are carefully designed to concentrate and position changes of sunlight.  Low-level screened horizontal strip windows behind the pews, on both sides, hold no stain glass windows, their slots simply painted with bright colours, with no exterior views to the outside.  The only artificial light comes from candles.

Through the use of massive concrete walls, selective focused fenestration, and minimalism, he creates a space that isolates the individual from the external world, of the secular, while exposing them to their relationship with the sublime.  Modernism was about blurring the boundaries between the inside and out, freedom, here I feel deliberately confined.  I am left with scotopic vision,intensified concentration; my other senses are heightened as the space demands devotion. 

The building had to be constructed on a low budget, comparable with post war low-cost housing.  Close inspection reveals a relatively low standard of finish.  There was no French equivalent of the William Morris group or arts and crafts movement.  However, its in this malleable and tactile form making, I begin to see signs of humanity, hard lines are softened.

The bare, raw walls welcome board marks as a painter does brush strokes on canvas; the treatment feels harmonious with direct and simple monastic life, inviting me to touch.  I can smell the thick concrete, conjuring memories from my youth, not of the church but the warehouse where my father worked.  In the library we viewed old photos of le Corbusier with the monks peering over plans and arranging formwork on-site. Utilising the community’s atmosphere of collaboration and knowledge-sharing, he later wrote ‘I think you have been made a beautiful convent’.  The timber grains of the rough slatted formwork from the images are still imprinted on the structure; they are the artisans’ sensual scars. 

The prayers are rhythmic and deep, spoken in French.  Collaboration with the musician Iannis Xenakis, he followed le Corbusier’s intention to create architecture in harmony with people’s needs and belief.   Sounds dance and reverberate up the unbroken clear spanning walls, the harmonic echoing similar to Gregorian chanting. The overall effect is spine tingling.

The concrete floor, in contrast to the tactile walls and matt flooring elsewhere, is smooth and polished, allowing the soft light from above to gently ripple.  The total effect is one of a very highly developed integration of form, light and function, producing a timeless quality.

Conversely conceived from the rest of the structure in terms of scale, light and sound, the church is united through this singular use of concrete.  It runs through the entire structure, as stone is used at Le Thronet Abbey, another of le Corbusier’s inspirations. 

Brother D. Belaud described the choice of Le Corbuiser ‘necessary to show that prayer and religious life are not related to conventional forms.’  It stands as a paradox of formalism and functional planning with integration between space, structure and natural lighting, all developed from a study of the pattern of monastic life.

As the burnt sunset illuminates the inner rough formwork walls, in a world increasingly polarised by religion, le Corbusier has successfully constructed a space for ‘what men today need most: silence and peace’.


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