A famous modern church gets an addition


It’s considered by many a masterpiece — though that may be a matter of taste — but this celebrated and much-visited church in France has just gotten a new convent and visitor’s center.  The New York Times architecture critic dropped by for a visit:

Completed in 1955, Le Corbusier’s hilltop chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in this hardscrabble patch of eastern France attracts some 100,000 supplicants each year, architectural and religious. If critics still sometimes blame Le Corbusier for inspiring generations of soulless, cookie-cutter housing projects and office parks, he remains the high priest of Modernism for singular works like this.

So it was predictable that a firestorm broke several years ago after plans circulated for a convent and new visitors’ center at the site of the chapel. Renzo Piano was the designer. Big-name colleagues like Richard Meier, Rafael Moneo and Cesar Pelli signed an online petition denouncing the $16 million project. The Fondation Le Corbusier, keeper of the architect’s flame, fumed.

Now the buildings have opened, with some landscaping (by Atelier Corajoud, a Paris firm) and a bit of tinkering yet to come. I took a train from Paris recently and found the chapel empty on a bright, crisp spring morning (a godsend), then visited the nuns. They are not quite a dozen elderly Poor Clares, lately moved from their home of 800 years at Besançon, 60 miles to the south, which they had sold to help pay for the new place. Cheerful in their light gray habits, the sisters were finishing lunch in the refectory around a handsome glazed courtyard open to a cloudless sky.

A few minor acoustic problems with the nuns’ concrete quarters aside, Mr. Piano and his team (Paul Vincent was the partner in charge at Renzo Piano Building Workshop) have created remarkably light and peaceful spaces that are virtually invisible from the chapel and gracefully connected to nature. Competing with Le Corbusier’s masterwork would have been a fool’s game and an affront, Mr. Piano clearly realized; spoiling it, a cinch. Doing neither, the additions insert new life onto the hill, and in the process remove a despised 1960s gatehouse that had obscured sight of the chapel from the town below.

Humility is a virtue. That’s the obvious lesson, but doing anything, even constructing a few self-effacing buildings at Ronchamp, is a big deal. Mr. Piano solved the riddle of adding to a site without appearing conspicuously to do so by burrowing into the brow of the hill, below the chapel, and inserting the convent and visitors’ center into the cuts, half buried, with zinc-and-glass facades to let in light. He placed the visitors’ center beside the old pilgrims’ path, which winds through woods from the valley all the way up the hill, and adjacent to a parking lot, which has been usefully trimmed.

Read more. And below is an image of one of the cells in the new convent, painted a bright orange.


  1. Joanne K McPortland says:

    I have always heard that orange as a room color provokes schizoid thought patterns, but I guess if you’re an 80-year-old Poor Clare transplanted from your 800-year-old monastery to a Renzo Piano cell next to a Corbusier church you don’t need much provoking. :) God bless the ladies.

  2. A masterpiece? That is hideous. That thing on top looks more like a turban than a church spire. What was that archtect thinking?

    And I would go schizoid in that orange room. I can understand giving up suffering for the Lord, but living in that room is cruel and unusual punishment. ;)

  3. Joanne K McPortland says:

    I actually like the church. But the orange ceiling is pushing it . . .

  4. Well, as Montgomery Burns says, “I don’t know a lot about art. But I know what I hate.”

    My own aesthetic leanings aside, I might piggy-back on Joanne’s post above. Did they not do a study that concluded that orange is a heart attack color? That if you spend much of your time in an orange colored room, that you raise your risk of having a heart attack?

    My piano teacher had a heart attack when I was in high school, and the doctors pleaded with her to change her shag orange carpet to something softer. It was also suggested to her by the doctors that she take down her brown and orange wall paper.

    But yes: God bless the ladies.

  5. midwestlady says:

    It’s a mushroom. With a silo. Wonder where the cows are? Or Chefs? Or something. It’s awful.

    Say, did you hear? Andrea Tornielli for La Stampa: Lefebvrists: the positive response has arrived 17.09.2012 (1900 GMT – 2100 Rome)

  6. Elizabeth Scalia says:

    The nuns cell….is about as penitential as it gets. Man, that’s uggo.

  7. The church is interesting; you can find shots of the interior if you Google it. Kind of a monastic simplicity. But the cell? (aptly named; French modern meets state penn). That’s taking the vow of poverty a little far. If the nuns are elderly at least give them a decent bed. That one looks like a camp cot.

  8. But Manny:

    See http://crystal-cure.com/orange.html

    “Orange is a power color. It is one of the healing colors. It is said to increase the craving for food.” (Making fasting more of sacrifice?)

    “It also stimulates enthusiasm and creativity. Orange means vitality with endurance. People who like orange are usually thoughtful and sincere. Lady luck’s color is orange. I have been told that if a change of any kind is need in life, just burn an orange candle for 7 nights.”

    Hmm… I might just buy some orange candles.

  9. A building is supposed to keep you dry when it’s raining and warm when it’s cold. Everything else is gravy. But, man, sometimes that warm and dry is really ugly. I know it costs $$$ to tear stuff down and start over, but you gotta wonder, have some of these monstrosities amortized their construction costs yet?

  10. I hear it only has one signature, Fellay’s…

  11. Making someone live in that orange room is cruel.

  12. Ditto! You read my mind!

  13. I think that there has to be a reason for the choice of this color – a the color of a sunrise, perhaps?

  14. Wow, the room looks like a 1970′s Orange Julius mall joint. How can you meditate and be peaceful with that ceiling?

  15. I wonder how my wife might react if I propose painting our bedroom that orange color. I better propose it gently or I might get a broom stick across my head. :-P

  16. This looks like it came off of the blog Unhappy Hipsters

  17. pagansister says:

    Funny how most everyone above has already commented on the orange room! When I looked at it I had the same thought—never considered orange as a relaxing color at all. Maybe those that inhabit those “cells” (and that is just what they look like) aren’t supposed to relax. :o)

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