No.8 / Top 10 lighting experiences: The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp

April 06 2011 — by Jonathan Speirs
One of the Le Corbusier masterpieces, the chapel is located in the east of France on the crown of a hill that has fantastic views across the landscape. Studying this building at architecture school is as with most great buildings - a waste of time unless you visit it. My first visit was in February 1988. It was a cold but sunny day and I was fortunate to be the only person there. I slowly walked around the building three times before I felt ready to advance inside. As I reached the front door I saw a big sign in English, “NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED”. There I was clutching my SLR and instantly had a downer!

The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp

The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp

That instantly disappeared when I went inside. It is quite simply remarkable. The slit of glass where the big curvilinear roof settles on the thick walls appears to make the roof float. The deep irregular shafts with the coloured glass and Corbusier-painted graphics cast wonderful patterns on the walls of the shafts. The light that drifts down from the top of the three towers into the small chapels is soft and shows the texture of the walls emphasising the vertiginous towers.

Just as I thought I could risk snapping some shots a keeper came in to tend to some flowers and also turned on, heaven forbid taped music. Normally this would make me cringe but the sound of orchestral voices washing around the space in waves made me feel as if I was floating a foot off the floor with David Blaine nowhere in sight! He left and so I got my shots! I am not at all religious but I love religious buildings and this for me was a powerful experience.

On my second visit, this time in the summer with my long suffering wife who has been dragged round more architectural buildings than she would care to remember, was a different experience altogether. Sharing the space with bus parties of tourists was horrible and I couldn’t wait to leave. As I was leaving a bloke opened the door for me and as I was passing him he said “Do you remember me?” I had to profess to not. His next question was “Do you know why I am here?” This wasn’t helping me until he reminded me that several years earlier I had tutored his year at the Edinburgh College of Art and I had strongly insisted they had to visit Ronchamp! “That’s why I am here, you told me to come!” he said. He had travelled across Europe doing his own grand tour and I love the coincidence of us meeting up there.

My advice: go out of season and during the week – but go.

Jonathan Speirs