Piano's Plans for Corbu Landmark Incite Fierce Debate
June 17, 2008
Construction plans for the site of Le Corbusier¹s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut (1954) in Ronchamp, France, have ignited a vigorous debate, pitting leading architects against each other, and sparking disagreement between organizations seeking to preserve Le Corbusier¹s legacy.
Designed by Renzo Piano, the project was commissioned by the Association Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut, the same organization that commissioned the chapel by Le Corbusier, widely regarded as a 20th-century architectural masterpiece. The plan calls for the replacement of an existing visitor’s center and asphalt parking lot with a new visitor center dug into the hillside and a landscaped parking lot. It also features a new facility to host 12 Poor Clare nuns and their visitors. The convent—to be located primarily underground, about 300 feet west of the chapel—would contain small, independent residential units and an oratory open to pilgrims. According to the association, the overall goal of the project is to rehabilitate the site and ensure it remains a place of worship.
Although most of the new construction wouldn’t be visible from the chapel, the plan has come under harsh criticism by the Fondation Le Corbusier. “The problem is not Renzo Piano’s design; it’s the location of the building for the convent, which is too close to the chapel,” says Michel Richard, the foundation’s director.
An anonymous petition has been circulating online, addressed to France’s minister of culture, asking that she block the project. Piano says the petition was written by “some” members of the Fondation Le Corbusier; Richard says the foundation didn’t create it. The petition states that the plan “may permanently jeopardize the harmony and cohesion of the entire site.” Electronic signatures include the names of Rafael Moneo, Richard Meier, Phyllis Lambert, and Cesar Pelli.
“I quite agree that the architecture must be defended, especially when you talk about the architecture of Le Corbusier and such beautiful and great places,” says Piano. “The problem is that, in this case, the petition didn’t tell the truth,” he says, noting that it didn’t mention who was responsible for the project, nor provide details of the design. “I don’t understand the reason of all this resistance—except maybe some religious intolerance.”
Jean François Mathy, president of the Association Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut, fired back with a second online petition in support of the project. Names on that document include Massimiliano Fuksas, David Adjaye, Cecil Balmond, Tadao Ando, John Pawson, and Nicholas Grimshaw. Piano’s design also has the support of Dominique Claudius Petit, president of the Association des amis de Le Corbusier, and a committee member of the Fondation Le Corbusier.
The conflict over the $13 million project is doing little to deter Piano. “The reason I accepted was, first, because I love the place, and second, because the people who asked me are the same people who built the chapel in the ’50s with Le Corbusier,” says Piano, adding, “I’m not new to this sort of battle.”