Journalists, officials, and curious locals gathered last week at Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, to celebrate the opening of a quiet new visitors’ center and convent designed by Renzo Piano—a project that incited fierce debate when it was first announced in 2008. Opponents feared the addition would distract from the power of Corbusier's sculptural masterpiece.
Piano, who attended the inauguration ceremony, which stretched from September 8–11, told RECORD that he has enhanced the 4.9-acre property by creating facilities that support the chapel’s original purpose: religious worship. “It’s not just tourism,” he says. “There are also nuns living there, which brings life and energy” to the site.
The $16 million project was commissioned by the Association Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut, the same organization that hired Corbusier to design the chapel, completed in 1954. So as not to detract from Corbusier’s building, Piano inserted the visitors’ center and convent into the side of a grassy slope leading up to chapel. The convent includes residences for 12 Poor Clare nuns and a small oratory.
“We made three cuts in the hill, at a certain distance from the chapel, so that when you stand by the chapel you don’t see anything,” explains Piano. The closest structure, about 300 feet west of the chapel, holds the oratory and totals roughly 9,700 square feet. Below it, a second structure, also about 9,700 square feet, contains cube-shaped concrete-and-glass dwellings with small gardens. The third building, located near the site’s parking lot, is a new 4,800-square-foot visitors’ center. The former rose-colored visitors’ center, which sat at the parking lot’s edge, was demolished.
Because the new structures are dug into the earth, Piano warns that “the job is not completely finished, because 50 percent is about landscaping.” By May 2012, the landscaping—designed by Michel Corajoud—should be finished, and visitors will be able to see the full intention of Piano’s design.
“Fundamentally, I think the entire hill has gained a lot,” says Piano. “It’s cleaner, simpler, and clearer, and you don’t have the interference of that rose house [the visitors’ center], which was a disaster there.” Piano says the center was highly visible when driving up to the site and hindered views of the chapel. “That house is gone now. This is one of the most important things,” he says.
When the “Ronchamp Tomorrow” project was originally announced, it inspired two competing petitions signed by many high-profile architects. The petition against the project, addressed to France’s minister of culture, listed Rafael Moneo, Richard Meier, and Cesar Pelli, among others. An online petition in support of the project included Massimiliano Fuksas, David Adjaye, Tadao Ando, John Pawson, and more.
Piano is no stranger to designing for sensitive sites and understands why critics of the project were concerned. “I love Le Corbusier’s building,” he says. “For me, it’s a masterpiece. He made one of the most beautiful places of meditation in the world.” If a different architect had been hired for the job, he says, “I would probably be worried, so I can understand.”