Pavement, Piety, and Prophetic Art – By Karla Cavarra Britton

Karla Cavarra Britton on Flora Samuel and Inge Linder-Gaillard’s Sacred Concrete

Flora Samuel and Inge Linder-Gaillard, Sacred Concrete: The Churches of Le Corbusier, Birkhäuser, 2013, 230pp., $85
Flora Samuel and Inge Linder-Gaillard, Sacred Concrete: The Churches of Le Corbusier, Birkhäuser, 2013, 230pp., $85

Le Corbusier, the Franco-Swiss architect, artist, graphic designer, writer, polemicist and mystic, died 50 years ago this August. Since his death, scholars and architects have engaged in a continuous and meticulous effort to explore the often impervious character of his vast production, and the approach of this anniversary has encouraged a number of new investigations, — e.g., William Curtis, Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms (2015) — supported especially by the work of the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris (including the 2013 retrospective “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” at the Museum of Modern Art). The extent of his creative output stimulates a great curiosity to understand his particular way of seeing and interpreting the world. Indeed, perhaps one of the most striking elements of his legacy is the complexity of his relationship to a wide array of subject matters, places, individuals and institutions — from landscapes and geographies, to technology and politics; from photography and the plastic arts, to philosophy and literature.

It is not surprising, therefore, that focused attention has recently been given to Le Corbusier’s relationship to religion — filling a relative lacuna in previous scholarship — for this is an arena which especially lends itself to an exploration of the full extent of his intellectual engagements. Flora Samuel and Inge Linder-Gaillard’s Sacred Concrete: The Churches of Le Corbusier is a welcome contribution to this effort to reclaim the significance of his religious works, although it leaves open ample room for further and deeper investigation. The opening chapters, entitled “Modernity and the Catholic Church” and “Le Corbusier and Religion,” describe the architect’s “intense interest in issues of religion and faith.” The body of the book is then given over to readings of Le Corbusier’s major religious works: the proposed Basilica at La Sainte Baume (1946-60); the pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp (1950-54); the Monastery of Sainte-Marie de la Tourette (1956-60); and the Parish Church of Saint-Pierre, Firminy-Vert (completed only in 2006). Such a study is significant not just because these buildings are exemplary of the master’s late career and continue to be important sites of pilgrimage today for architects across the globe; they are also expressions of a particular understanding of religious thought and desire for spiritual reform that emerged following the Second World War.

The most well-known of Le Corbusier’s religious buildings is the chapel of Ronchamp on a hilltop a few miles north-west of Belfort (where Renzo Piano recently added a controversial convent and new visitor’s center), which startled many of his contemporaries by seeming to deconstruct systematically the functionalist machine metaphor that had long seemed to dominate his thinking. Through the chapel’s dramatic play with light and shadow, solid and void, and attention to cardinal points, it reveals deeply personal and symbiotic elements that speak of Le Corbusier’s understanding of architecture’s power to inform human experience and emotion. Picking up on this emotive dimension, his own book on the project, Livre de Ronchamp (1961), not only includes documents related to the building itself, but also a celebration of the experience of the pious pilgrims whose processional rituals were so influential in the architect’s understanding of the importance of the chapel’s ancient hilltop site.

Le Corbusier’s unanticipated turn late in his career toward a focus on religious architecture is in fact characterized by a convergence of several factors, especially his own abiding concern for the mystical nature of things, in combination with the wider cultural emergence in the post-war period of a number of French clergy who were intellectually committed to reform — including a long-awaited reconsideration of the nature of religious art. While these clergy were establishing contacts with modern artists such as Marc Chagall, Fernand Léger, and Georges Braque, Le Corbusier too was making inroads into a radical rethinking of the nature of sacred space. In particular, he turned his attention to the concept of ineffable space, “l’espace indicible,” conceptualized in part as a counterweight to his rational instincts.

The figure of the Dominican father Marie-Alain Couturier was crucial to this endeavor — and the implications of his relationship with Le Corbusier becomes a central theme of Sacred Concrete. In many ways, Couturier was the one who spotted Le Corbusier’s potential as a modern religious architect, and empowered his efforts in that direction. Early in the 1950s, for example, it was Couturier who suggested that Le Corbusier be the architect for the new Ronchamp pilgrimage chapel. Couturier’s name was inextricably linked with the journal, L’Art Sacré. While the journal’s nominal subject was modern liturgical arts, Couturier used it to penetrate deeply into the concept of the spiritual in relation to the work of modern artists, and to explore a concern for the potential of aesthetic abstraction and “primitivism” as a primal and universal expression of human interactions with the divine. L’Art Sacré became the vehicle for his belief in the power of modern art to deepen concepts of faith in relation to modernization.

This determination to rejuvenate religious art was the backdrop against which Le Corbusier was shaping his own thinking on ineffable space, first in a text published in L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui in January 1946, and then translated into English in 1948 as the opening of New World of Space. The tract presents a condensed philosophical argument for the living being’s foundational need to control space and the “aesthetic emotion” that is the potential outcome of such control. The occupation of space, Le Corbusier argues, is a proof of existence, and a fundamental manifestation of the human search for “equilibrium and duration.” Architecture, sculpture, and painting, he asserts, are those disciplines bound up with a fuller understanding of this fundamental need for spatial control. When perfected, the “action of the work” of the architect, sculptor, or painter produces a “phenomenon of concordance” in space as exact as mathematics. Close to Cubist spatial experiments, Le Corbusier’s understanding of ineffable space often seemed to reflect concepts of a mathematical “fourth dimension,” capable of providing the phenomenon of a unique human experience extending beyond real space and time.

The concept of ineffable space is descriptive of Le Corbusier’s understanding of humanity’s placement in the world through the occupation of space, and the potentiality of the work of an artist when it is created with a focused exactitude — space itself can become a thing of unspeakable beauty, an experience of limitless escape. Le Corbusier’s poetic principle of ineffable space thus reflects his evolution away from the machine as a controlling metaphor, towards an exploration of architecture’s potential for emotion. Yet a concern on Le Corbusier’s part for the poetic and the nature of the sublime and allegorical had already appeared as early as the 1920s with the principles of Purism; then later in his philosophy of Le Modulor; and then again through the poetic and allegorical themes of Le Poème de l’angle droit (1947-53), which explored the dark forces of the human spirit. Moreover, the idea of ineffable space carries within it a Nietzschean overtone as expressed in The Gay Science, moving beyond the “churchly purpose” of religious buildings in favor of creating space as a locus of “sublimity, of thoughtfulness” where, as Nietzsche says, it is possible “to walk in ourselves.”

Despite the prominence of these mystical leanings, Le Corbusier also had Calvinist origins in his native Switzerland, and had lived through the violent political turmoil that Europe suffered between 1914-1945. This background perhaps informed his mode of thinking, which Kenneth Frampton — Le Corbusier (2001) — has described in relation to a dialogical habit of mind, whose ultimate origin was an Albigensian dualism, since the Cathars (from the Greek, meaning “purified”) gave equal weight to the forces of good and evil. No doubt this concern with dualisms — sacred and profane, good and evil — was also informed by his reading of Nietzsche, both early in life and later in his career.

Le Corbusier’s encounter with architecture as a spiritual force began early when the young architect — then known by his given name, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret — travelled in 1911 to Greece as part of what he later recorded in his Voyage d’Orient. There he experienced intense spiritual encounters both at the Acropolis and Mount Athos. At the monastery of Iviron, for instance, he found the Orthodox liturgy to be both mystical as well as death-like. And when confronted by the Parthenon, he experienced an equally powerful set of conflicted emotions. Having read Ernest Renan’s Prayer on the Acropolis (1894), Le Corbusier wrote in his account that at the Erechtheion, “The moment was reached when nothing more might be taken away, when nothing would be left but these closely knit and violent elements.” In the ancient ruins of the Acropolis, he saw human emotions irrevocably linked to ancient forms. For the rest of his career this encounter would stand for him as a lesson of the potential of mechanical invention and abstraction combined with the spiritual experience of built form. Yet it would also serve in his words as “admiration, adoration, and then annihilation . . . It is a prophetic art from which one cannot escape. As insentient as an immense and unalterable truth.”

Two core issues raised in Sacred Concrete are first what the authors argue is his attention to the feminine, and secondly his interest in the tradition of Orphic philosophy. The book is especially helpful for its exploration of the manner in which these themes influenced Le Corbusier’s plan for the proposed Basilica at La Sainte Baume in Provence. The project was done in partnership with Édouard Trouin, who had a vision for an elaborate underground basilica whose heart was a grotto dedicated to Mary Magdalene. This project was an opportunity to encapsulate the power of the synchronistic Orphic tradition in many forms, conveying something of the complex layering of meanings that inform Le Corbusier’s concepts of the spiritual in relation to the arts. Indeed, the project is a fascinating demonstration of the ways in which Le Corbusier’s concept of the spirit is anything but hermetic (an amplitude not fully recognized by Samuel and Linder-Gaillard), but is rather a holding in tension of dialogical oppositions, where emotions and the imagination remain in integral conversation with the rational.

Just as Couturier was an important stimulus for Le Corbusier — Couturier for example was the one who encouraged Le Corbusier to visit the Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet as inspiration for La Tourette — so too was the photographer Lucien Hervé, who through his own work represented the final product to the world at large. Hervé was trusted by Le Corbusier to photograph the buildings according to his own interpretive sense of their meaning. Beginning in 1949 with the Unité d’habitation in Marseilles, Hervé documented every project that Le Corbusier designed until the architect’s death. In particular, Hervé was able to capture a Modernist understanding of the aesthetics of religious architecture: a lack of figurative ornamentation, with any hint of ornamentation being achieved only through the play of form in light and the richness of texture.

As the title of Sacred Concrete implies, at the core of Le Corbusier’s concept of the spiritual lies the medium of béton brut, or reinforced concrete — a material that Hervé was especially fascinated with in his photography for its ability to convey surface texture, and planes of light and dark. The focus on this particular material demonstrates Le Corbusier’s considerable indebtedness to his older colleague, Auguste Perret, and especially Perret’s iconic contribution to the French Modern Movement in his Church of Notre Dame du Raincy (1923), which deployed exposed concrete as a carefully crafted and ennobled material rather than simply a medium of industrial construction. In turn, Le Corbusier so deliberately employed this new material, especially in his churches, that it calls to mind a question asked by the historian Adrian Forty in Concrete and Culture (2012) — whether concrete, to borrow a term from nineteenth century ecclesiology, has a “sacramentality” derived from its base associations that gives it a liturgical and iconographic advantage over other materials? In retrospect, one wonders why the authors of Sacred Concrete actually give relatively little attention to these concerns for materiality, given the direction their title suggests.

In 1954, having finished the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, Le Corbusier asserted in the ceremony of handing over the key to the Archbishop of Besancon, “Your Excellency, when I built this chapel, I wanted to create a place of silence, of prayer, of peace and inner joy.” He went on to add, “Some things are spiritual and others are not, whether or not they are religious.” Le Corbusier’s investigation into the theory and practice of the spiritual — as opposed to the religious — places him among a genre of individuals in the immediate post-war period who gave particular attention to the concept of the sacred. While the historian of religion Mircea Eliade and his colleagues at Eranos, for instance, brought a foundational focus to the universal language of symbols and archetypes for the sacred, it was Le Corbusier who provided a language paradigm of comparable influence for the relationship between the spiritual nature of human experience and aesthetic emotion. As a result, his contribution to a late-modernist understanding of the spiritual — even as the concept of the sacred has become more problematized — continues to fascinate and inform. Le Corbusier’s religious buildings make the case for the lofty vision the philosopher Karsten Harries has expressed (“Untimely Meditations on the Need for Sacred Architecture,” in Karla Britton, ed., Constructing the Ineffable) for why the sacred needs architecture, and why architecture needs the sacred: because in the final analysis, it is architecture that can give meaning to the world in which we live.