Saturday, June 6, 2015

Le Corbusier, Hugo and Pottier

It may be a place of worship, but one still must pay a fee of eight euros if one wishes to lay eyes upon the Le Corbusier chapel on a hill high above the village of Ronchamp on the fringe of the Vosges Mountains in eastern France.  A fence and trees block the view of this celebrated shrine, considered one of the major architectural achievements of the 20th century by one it is premier architects. 

Though Le Corbusier's promince is largely due to his work in the urban sphere, this wildly original,  ultra-modern chapel, that is a dramatic departure from his principles of standardization, ranks among his most distinguished designs and is as much of an architectural attraction as the many notable works of Frank Lloyd Wright scattered across the US.   Signs began appearing for it from miles away up to the final turn across the street from Ronchamp's cathedral and tourist office.

The better than ten per cent grade up the slightly less than mile climb to the marvel was more of a strain than anything I had encountered in the Alps.  The road fed into a large parking lot and continued no further.  I had been anticipating a quiet picnic beside the chapel while I charged my iPad.  Instead I was greeted by a high fence and a visitor center and rules about what one could do on the premises.  At least there was a WC and I could fill my water bottles.

The grounds beyond the fence included a grass-roofed dormitory for pilgrims that originally served as the quarters for the construction crew, a rustic house for the priest, accommodations for the sisters of the chapel, a peace pyramid, a bell tower and the chapel. I thought there might be a barn and silo on the grounds as well, as that was my first impression of the chapel as I climbed the path towards it.

As I circled around it, each view offered a different impression.  There was no discernible front or back.  It might have been a deformed igloo or a military fortress or the laboratory of a mad scientist.  Its isolation and dead quiet made for a perfect retreat.

One side had a cluster of narrow slots that let light in, but could have been used by archers, if the glass were knocked out, to ward off attackers.

The interior was a large cavern with three small alcoves each hosting an open bible on a table illuminated by a candle.  All the light came from candles and the sun.  There was not an electrical socket to be seen in keeping with the original chapel dating to the forth century that stood on this spot that was destroyed in WWII.  Le Corbusier's version was completed in 1955, ten years before his death.  There are concerts and events all summer commemorating its sixtieth anniversary.

Ronchamp hadn't been on my itinerary.  It just happened to be on my way to Ballon d'Alsace, the so-called first climb in the history of The Tour de France in its third editon in 1905.  That wasn't entirely true, at it was only slightly higher and longer than the climb over the Col du Republique in the first two races up from St. Etienne that I passed on my way to Cannes, but Henri Desgrange wished to hype that third Tour with its first foray in a mountain range (the Vosges), wondering if the racers were capable of the eight-mile, 2,000 foot climb up and over the 3,700 foot summit of the range.  It may have been a feat 110 years ago on the one-speed clunkers of the day on an unpaved road, but on this day there was a steady stream of cyclists giving it a ride.  I was the only one with baggage though.  The five and six per cent grade was much easier to handle than the brutally steep climb to Le Corbusier's chapel.

A plaque at the summit commemorates the first rider over the pass, René Pottier, not only that year but the next as well.  He won The Tour in 1906.  In 1907 he became the first of several Tour winners to commit suicide, distraught over the infidelity of his wife.

Another bonus attraction on my way to this plaque was stumblimg upon the birth place of Victor Hugo. It was in Besançon in 1802.  The house he was born in is now a museum.  It is just two blocks from one of the first libraries founded after the Revolution, built nine years after his birth.

I must have had a premonition that Hugo was on my route, as just a couple days before I had downloaded his memoirs from the invaluable Project Gutenberg website.  The book doesn't mention anything of his youth or his hometown or his family or even his writing.  It was published in 1899, fourteen years after his death, and is a collection of remembrances mostly about his time as a legislator during the Rebellion of 1848 when another King was ousted. He was a famous figure by then, and recounts conversations with the King and many of the principals of the time.  He later went into exile but returned to France in 1870.  He was a much beloved figure who campaigned for the poor and universal suffrage and against the death penalty.  His funeral procession from the Arc de Triomph to the Pantéon, where he was buried, attracted over two million people.  Nearly every town in the country has a street or place or library named for him.

What awaits me down the road, as I head further north to connect with The Tour de France route, I know not, other than that there will be more notable sites and that the pedaling will be take me through scenery that never disappoints and pleasing small towns that all have a genuine allure.


Laura Bentz said...

George! What a day. Thank you. I wonder if you can again visit Helsinki and its new Kappeli kirkko, at Kamppi, net the center of town. Would be fascinating to compare the chapels.

Laura Bentz said...

Near, not net...

george christensen said...

Laura: Finland certainly beckons. I would very much like to return to the Midnight Sun Film Festival. It is in two weeks, but unfortunately won't make it this year.