I have been excited for this day for a very long time. Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp. I said goodbye to Jean Noël and set out ready to run. The run was a nice distance, and I could just cruise without worrying about going well over my planned daily mileage. I got into the town of Ronchamp around 11, and spent some time wandering around and finding some drink before heading up the very long hill to the chapel, arriving just in time for the 12 o'clock bells. I wrote a paper on the chapel a couple years ago, and I have been intrigued by it since then. I basically ran for a week through towns I had never heard of to get there (ended up being worth it even without the chapel), and I grinned widely as I saw its little shark fin tower rising above the tree line as I approached. As I rounded the corner ready for my first view of the entire building, I saw a tour bus and a woman who stopped me to ask if I had paid my entry.
"But...it is a church?!"
"It is private."
"Do they still have mass here?"
"And I have to pay?!"
"Fine, take these three Euros and use them for upkeep."
Renzo Piano is building the new tour center...it isn't cheap. So much for a magical first full view.
After getting past a pretty ugly hedge, I got the view, and spent the next couple hours wandering in and around the chapel, noticing the details that I missed in the textbook photos. The execution of Ronchamp is much better than that of Villa Savoye...which is probably a combination of it being much later in Le Corbusier's career, the purpose of the building and its proximity to the German and Swiss borders. I wrote my 'perceptions' paper on the relationship between nature and technology in Ronchamp. In summary, architecture from the beginning has been used to protect man from harsh natural forces (rain, sun, cold, etc.). However, as technology and architecture become increasingly prominent, we often forget about the power of the elements. Instead of escaping nature with architecture, we find the need to escape the city (and architecture) to find nature. As environmental consciousness progresses, technology becomes the oppressor and we try to create more nature instead. To me, Ronchamp is a reminder of the weakness of architecture and technology and the eventual and continuing powers of nature. On the inside, I felt the light piercing through windows and lifting off the ceiling, gravity pressing in on the ceiling above and the earth mounding upwards from beneath. The clumsy hand of the architect was there, but the site was its master. As it thundered outside, I appreciated my temporary shelter...but I had to go out into the elements and find some man made shelter of my own.
I returned to the main building and started asking some questions, many of which I already knew the answers to.
"What is that other building in front of the Chapel?"
"It was made by Le Corbusier and is designated to house pilgrims who pass by."
"Oh, really? Does it still function?"
"Yes, of course...Le Corbusier wanted it to be so."
"Funny, because I am kind of a pilgrim. Can I sleep there?"
I left feeling kind of ripped off. I walked back down to the town, hopping a fence into an abandoned mine building on the way to check out a potential sleeping spot. After finding something to eat at the grocery store, I wandered out towards a campground to see if I could find a shower. If I slept outside, at least I would be clean. On the way, I found a little lake and went for a swim. It was after 6, and I had already given up on feeling stressed about being homeless. After my swim, I wandered into the campground to use a toilet, but before I could get to it I was stopped by a young man.
"Can I help you?"
"I hope you can."
After some talking, I got introduced to his boss Oliver at Les Ballastièrs, the campground outside of Ronchamp. It wasn't long before Oliver lent me a tent and gave me a spot to set it up. As I swam in the campground pool after closing hours I listened to the Amélie Poulain soundtrack playing over the stereo and thought to myself,
"Life really is that magical."
03 July 2009