An architect’s pilgrimage – Le Corbusier and The World Expo
Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Posted by: April Becerra
by Thang Do, AIA
My architect friends would surely agree that experiencing cities and buildings is essential to being an architect, bringing us inspiration and new ways to think about design. Recently, I had a chance to make a mini-architectural pilgrimage. For seven days in July, I traced several of Le Corbusier’s work, starting with the iconic Chapel Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, then several of his earlier houses in Switzerland. I ended up at the World Expo in Milan, where 145 countries showcased their best in creative and technological prowess.
With 4 small children, traveling to see architectural work like this is certainly not easy. When I mentioned to my wife about how I wish I could visit this World Expo like I did 5 years ago in Shanghai, she encouraged me to leave the kids at home with her and go alone. It took a bit of convincing to overcome my reluctance but in the end, it was too big a chance for me to pass up. As I mapped out my itinerary, it dawned on me that this was also the chance to correct my serious deficiency of never having visited Ronchamp in my past travels.
I arrived in this sleepy town in the early evening. The first glimpse I got of the chapel was rather magical. Walking through the town after dinner and about to cross a small river I noticed the steeple of the town’s church on the other side. I raised my phone to take a photograph. From the corner of my eye, I caught something bright at the top of the hill. I looked up, and there was the chapel among the dark silhouette of the trees, majestically lit against a deep blue sky.
I headed toward the chapel by climbing along a narrow and completely empty country road, which meandered through a wooded area, with several seemingly abandoned houses on both sides. The walk was longer than I had anticipated and when I got to the top, I discovered that the chapel was fenced off and could only be viewed from afar. Lit from below, the curved concrete roof structure was bathed in a warm yellow hue, while the tower to the left was cast in a bright white light. As I was trying to decide whether to jump the fence, lightning violently tore up the dark sky followed by loud thunder. I took that as a kind of divine warning, and turned around to go back down the hill. Halfway down, I got caught in a heavy rain and was drenched by the way I arrived back at the hotel.
In the morning I went up the hill again, but this time by car. I checked into the visitor center, a structure designed by Renzo Piano as part of a larger project which also includes a convent. This addition was self-effacing, appropriately so to avoid competing with the masterpiece situated above. Piano essentially buried his structures into the hill to make them largely invisible from above. The architectural language is similar to what has been found in his other projects: metal, glass, minimalist, rational, and almost devoid of drama.
The image I had always had in my mind of Le Corbusier’s chapel up until then was in black and white, probably because that’s how it had been portrayed in many architectural history books. Without colors, the building had seemed stark and solemn, but seeing the building on a blue sky summer morning, the roughly textured white walls, capped by a gray-brown curvy roof in raw concrete projected a primitive yet approachable feel. The famous south wall was what visitors would see first and the colorful hand painted glass apertures and mural gave the building an unexpected playfulness. The real drama of course, lay inside the belly of the structure.
There was a timeless quality about the building, and if you didn’t know its background, it would be difficult to identify the precise architectural historical period. Yes, it was obviously modern, but it defied the International Style machine for living metaphor. It seemed organic: the curved roof had been compared to a nun’s coif, or according to Le Corbusier himself its inspiration came from a sea shell he had found. To me it resembled a white and brown mushroom, although the heavy cap appears to float above a horizontal narrow sliver of glass. Le Corbusier designed the building late in his career, after testing his various theories about architecture. Perhaps he felt comfortable enough to ignore them all here: no pilotis, no roof garden, no free façade and no ribbon windows. Yes, the floor plan is open, but this is not at all unusual in churches.
I walked around the tower to see the west façade, which was perhaps the least photographed side of this building. There was a basin to collect rain water from a projecting concrete scupper at the roof. A minimalist stairs with cantilevered concrete steps protected by a simple steel handrail, without vertical protective bars (obviously French plan checkers were more lenient than our counterparts here). I continued along the north wall to a ziggurat in the middle of the green grass field to the east of the chapel. I read the plaque to understand that this was a memorial for those who perished in several wars that have ravaged this region. As it was not yet hot, I chose the top of the ziggurat to be my sketching base. I sat there trying to capture the building on paper, an activity I found challenging not only because of its geometric complexity but also because I was out of practice.
When it started to get hot, I returned to the building and entered through the door in the north wall. It was indeed a climactic moment seeing this interior for the first time. The light apertures on the south wall flared wide on the inside, resembling movie projectors lighting up a stage. The three light wells that were seen as towers on the outside softly painted the nooks under them with diffused light that seemed otherworldly. In that mostly monochrome environment, dashes of colors on the interior of the light wells and the glass panes, some hand painted by Le Corbusier himself, made a nice contrast with the generally muted tone. The floor sloped gently toward the altar, celebrated by streams of morning light piercing from behind. This was the most spatially complex room I had ever been in and I could see the architect’s hand in each detail. While I was immersed in contemplation, a group of elderly nuns came in and shuffled toward a side chapel. They took their seats and almost immediately began chanting in this marvelous voice as though to demonstrate the acoustic resonance of the chapel. It was quite a fitting culmination for this first and most important leg of my pilgrimage.
(For a much better reflection on the building, I suggest reading an article by James Stirling at http://www.arranz.net/web.arch-mag.com/5/recy/recy1t.html)
I left the chapel at almost noon and drove south toward the Swiss border heading for La Chaux de Fonds. This provincial city in the Jura range was the hometown of Le Corbusier, where he studied art and architecture and later taught at the same school. I was interested in the houses he had designed there very early in his career. I think that with many architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, you can see glimpses of an extraordinary vision even in their early work, no matter that they may be lacking in maturity and refinement. It was interesting that Le Corbusier never claimed credit for these earlier projects except one – Villa Schwob. One could reasonably speculate that he felt they did not live up to the standard he expected of himself and wanted to protect the brand that he represented.
So it was this villa (also called Turkish Villa) that I visited first. It’s in an upscale residential area slightly up the hill. The watchmaker client Anatole Schwob commissioned Le Corbusier when the architect was only 25 years old, having just returned to his hometown after several years of working and traveling throughout Europe. The house was later purchased by a company for corporate use. When I came, it was closed but a caretaker let me in the garden to look around.
Le Corbusier employed design elements of residential architecture he saw in Turkey in this villa, which was the reason the house got its nickname. I couldn’t tell exactly where these elements were, but certain motifs of the house such as the oval windows, the tile work and exaggerated cornice did project a vague oriental sense. The villa was organized symmetrically and the interior spaces that I could peek at through the glass doors were spacious and flowing and had a restrained elegance. There were a few odd moments: where windows should have existed for the sake of symmetry but were not functionally possible, the architect simply pretended as if the windows were there and put trim all around. Extended to the sidewalk, the villa seemed rather jumbled when viewed from the street.
What I noticed most was the treatment of landscape. Like many modernists, Le Corbusier was accused of ignoring landscape, as International Style buildings were supposed to transcend terrain, climate or culture. But here, I saw a very clear attempt to make the grounds an integral part of the design. The garden was carefully crafted, working with the natural slope of the ground to offer a rather pleasant stroll down the gravel ramps and steps to a lower lawn terrace.
From here, I drove up the hill to see Villa Jeanneret-Perret, the architect’s first independent project whose clients were his own parents. Also called Maison Blanche (White House), the house is sited on a steep slope overlooking the city. Again, it was closed when I arrived, but I simply unlatched the gate to enter the garden. In some ways, I thought that this house was more elegant than Villa Schwob in its relatively clean lines and lack of fussiness. However, the design was more conventional and from certain angles, simply ordinary.
Maison Blanche nearly bankrupted Le Corbusier’s parents as it was too large for them to take care, so they sold it a few years after completion and moved to Lake Leman. The architect managed to design another house for them several years later, this time much more modest. This small house had only about 700 square feet in floor area, but employed several of Le Corbusier’s well-known strategies: the roof garden, an open floor plan and ribbon windows. Charged with finding a site, Le Corbusier chose a wide but shallow lakefront lot in the town of Corseaux. Supposedly, the plan had been designed before the site was chosen, which supported a criticism leveled at the architect for disregarding the uniqueness of place. From the street, there was not much to see as the house was hidden by a tall enclosure. Visible through an entrance gate was a rather unremarkable wall with concrete blocks, finished in a fluted glaze. The view was impressive with Lake Leman lapping at the edge of the garden and the snow caps of the Alps rising on the other side.
Compared to the string of Le Corbusier’s projects, the World Expo in Milan turned out to be somewhat of a letdown. The theme of this international exhibition was Feeding The Planet / Energy For Life and a few country pavilions responded to this challenge in interesting ways. The UK pavilion mimicked a bee hive with the idea that bees played an important role in our ecosystem by cross-pollinating plants. The hidden message was of course that the UK was a hotbed of creativity where culture and technology thrive. Brazil featured an open structure covered with a steel net that people could walk on to view the display of plants below. China was represented by an impressive structure housing several large scaled LED light shows depicting various scenes of Chinese life. The United States emphasized the future of urban gardening with a captivating planted wall that rotates to follow sun angle. But some of the main exhibitions were over-the-top, such as the Zero Pavilion sponsored by the UN, which greeted visitors right upon entering. Inside were different rooms featuring extravagant displays such as the wooden replica of a renaissance library. The written explanation was that through collective human memory, somehow we could eliminate world hunger. I didn’t quite get this rationale, but there were 145 pavilions waiting to be seen, so I didn’t bother to understand.
I saw both the past and the future on this trip. It accomplished for me exactly what was intended: I came back recharged and re-inspired to resume focusing on projects, AIA business and community activism. It’s time to start planning for next year’s travel!