In the December of 1956 issue of the Architectural Review, James Stirling appraised the newest production of the architect he respected the most, Le Corbusier. The piece, Ronchamp: Le Corbusier’s Chapel and the Crisis of Rationalism analyses the 1952 Chapel, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, discerning its atavistic detour and significance from the internationally aligned way of contemporary thinking. The likes of the chapel were not something typical of the Modernist era and Stirling castigated it for being detrimental to the progress of the architectural discipline. Stirling felt strongly about the failure to use technology and its resources in the massive use of concrete resulting in a peculiar visual which will not fall into the category of modern architecture. 1 Stirling also attributes this hesitance to use technology as a very European characteristic as they failed to adapt to change as quickly as the Americans did. Even though Stirling recognizes that the building is a work of art and functions well as a religious building he isn’t convinced that it is a building that should be looked through the eyes of modernism and that for him is one of the biggest setbacks of the Corbusier’s masterpiece.
Even though Stirling was right in a way that Ronchamp wasn’t blatantly modernist in its appeal, he didn’t register the fact that Corbusier was trying to address the issues that were haunting the architectural discipline itself: modernism. Modernism as a style was so isolated from emotions and context that it started resulting in a universal architecture that didn’t know how to progress further. Corbusier’s Ronchamp was a response to Modern Architecture’s lack of belonging to a reminiscent locality. In the form of Ronchamp, Corbusier was offering an immense quality to the architecture, one that Stirling dint recognize: an emotional appeal, the interplay between function and form and beautiful interrelations with the site. What Corbusier had actually done at Ronchamp was start a revolution which was way ahead of its time to alter the track of the architecture’s modernist thinking, evoking a new age of architecture – aptly called Post-Modern by Charles Jencks.
Before writing his critical piece on Ronchamp, Stirling wrote another article for the Architecture review, Garches to Jaoul, Le Corbusier as Domestic Architect in 1927 and 1953 where he compared two of Corbusier’s then-recent works – Villa Stein at the Garches and Maison Jaoul. He praises the villa for incorporating the “machine aesthetic” and “rationalistic principles” in its embodiment to take architecture towards a perfectionist future while participation in propagating technology and its progress in the 20th century.2 Meanwhile, he criticized the Maison for its rationalistic void, its digression from the use of technology and the strong emotions that are stirred by the combined use of unfinished and almost raw materials. He argues that by using the textures of unfinished material like exploded brick, shuttered concrete, and unpainted timber, Corbusier is drawing the viewer away from the intellect into a full-blown experience of emotions. Criticizing Corbusier’s mentality as “art for art’s sake…personal” he explains that Corbusier is focused more on the feelings and sensation rather than the logic of the contemporary scheme of modernism and its ideologies. 3 By arguing that architecture should be embracing the objectivity of intellect rather than the subjectivity of human emotions, Stirling articulates a view similar to his piece on Ronchamp. He stands his ground on the idea that the architectural aesthetics of the modern era should steer away from emotions and move towards intellectual interpretations of theory and progress. This piece was his attempt to combine the ideas of technology and rationality to create an aesthetic which aligns with the modernist way of thought-process.
In his paper, Stirling discusses the division created in the ideologies of the modernist movement by the structure of art and technology and their diverse characteristics.4 Stirling’s view was that without the emotional impact, Ronchamp doesn’t hold any substantial impact to stimulate the viewer’s intellect.5 In contrast, Charles Jencks in his paper The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism applauds Ronchamp for being such a powerhouse of architecture that paves the way for countless imaginations, discoveries and fundamentals.6 Jencks suggests that the Ronchamp cathedral is so abstract and has so many different pointers of significance that it’s a dipping pool for countless variation of theories, interpretations, and ideas. Jencks argues that while the more a building is open to interpretation the greater the use of intellect to understand it and even the tiniest pointers of significance add so much to the excitement of interpretation. He states that architecture should be a balanced mix of culture, context, and technology so that nothing is left out and what comes out is a holistic piece of architecture. Thus, Ronchamp had steered away from the predictable modernist movement and established itself as the first Post – Modernist building of the century. 7
Despite James Stirling point of view that criticizes Ronchamp for its lack of holistic ideas and influence, there were other writers in his time who focused more on the fact that modernism itself was the culprit in the regression of architecture. Modernism had brought architecture to a static state which induced a loss of culture and diversity which were the centerpieces for the definition of place.8 On top of that, the notion that form follows function resulted in a dull, and repetitive narrative in architecture itself. In a more recent piece on Post Functionalism in 2010, Peter Eisenman states that architecture should steer away from the idea that form and function are mutually exclusive.9 Both these entities should rather evolve simultaneously resulting in a more composite piece of architecture, something that Corbusier has managed to do in Ronchamp so beautifully. Even Stirling agrees to the fact that Ronchamp was a very well-designed building that was appropriate for its function.10 It was so masterful the way the windows with their angled cuts moderated the local climate and temperature and used natural light. Even though there wasn’t ample amount of light to entirely light up the place, the windows did let in bouts of fading light which helped in created a darker and more ethereal sense of place inside the chapel. Light has always been something which evokes a person’s inner self, something which is a precursor for religious spaces. Corbusier’s dramatic windows handle light in such a nuanced way that it complements the austerity of the chapel. The chapel is also strong in its acoustics due to its shape and it adds to the experience of the space for the user to contemplate.11 There are practicalities and reasons why the plan of the chapel is so complex – the acoustic parabolas in the spaces reflects the sound in the outside alter for the members who are gathered outside the building. Coming back to Eisenman, he claims that in the race to rationalize industrialization and incorporate it in architecture, function, and site seemed to take a set-back. While this explains why Stirling’s mind worked the way it did when it came to enhancing form and materials it also explains why it wasn’t the right thing to do. He also argues that the theories behind the functionalism cannot be derived from the universal and that it must come from culture and appropriation and thereby validating Corbusier’s idea that modernism must go beyond looking at intellect two-dimensionally.
In his text, Towards a New Critical Regionalism, Kenneth Frampton criticizes the modernist ideology of creating entities so isolated that they lack the sense of belonging to their place itself. Frampton deals with architecture and its elements that surround to and that are in it in a modern moment where it made better sense to go back to history and tradition and site rather than dealing with the monotonous style of mass-produced international styled buildings. This idea counter’s Stirling’s appreciation for Villa Stein at the Garches, a plain white box sitting on a flat green field in suburban Paris. Given that this box can be placed in any corner of the world and it wouldn’t matter, this is against the interpretation of home which needs to have a sense of belonging.
In opposition, he stated that the era of critical regionalism should acknowledge the positive attributes of modern architecture but should do that keeping in mind the context, culture and tradition, something that is so effective in the way Corbusier has dealt with the architecture of Ronchamp. Corbusier adheres to the traditional idea of worship by placing the chapel on top of the hill, synonymous with the Acropolis.12 The slope of the chapel follows the slope of the hill which in turn slopes towards the central altar. Ronchamp which was build twenty years before this article was in fact way ahead of its time in challenging the drawbacks of the modern era and combining the articulations of program and site into architecture.
According to Frampton, in addition to considering the site, Critical Regionalism can also be incorporated by adapting to form, climate, light, society and architectural harmony – all these elements which have been intrinsic to the architecture of the cathedral. Frampton uses the example of Jorn Utzon’s Bagsvaerd Church for explaining the sentient amalgamation of the universal and the culture. This church is the complex coalescence of the rationality of regularizing technique and the irrationality of idiosyncratic form. To create a religious space in addition to evolving according to the site settings and the influences of the culture around.13 At Ronchamp, the chapel is a combination of idiosyncratic form and the characteristics of the rural setting of which it is a part of resulting in nuanced volumes interacting with religion, culture and site.
Both Frampton and Corbusier’s train of thought was on the same note when it came to the idea that the visual and emotional experience was better than alienating the building from any sensory perception at all.14 This supports Corbusier’s use of unfinished materials in the cathedral and raised the status of the construction to art itself, something that Stirling didn’t see as synonymous with architecture. What Stirling calls an “entirely visual appeal and lack of intellectual participation” is inherently a much deeper, sensory architecture that appeals to emotion. The cathedral was a meaningful masterpiece in an era of modernist bleakness. This change was not regressive but necessary for the progression of the discipline and still is today. Corbusier gave architecture an interrelation to its setting, an evolving relationship between form and function, and a conscious connection to all human senses, and therefore emotions—elements the modern movement neglected. For architectural design to remain relevant in contemporary discourse, architects of the present must consider these necessary principles Le Corbusier addressed more than half a century ago in Ronchamp.