POST VISIT: LA TOURETTE
The approach to La Tourette is very interesting and different than that of Ronchamp. With Ronchamp, you see the chapel first from far away perched up on the hill. You then loose the sight of it as you approach the train station. You journey up a large hill and don’t get another glimpse of the chapel until your right in front of it. It’s a hard first hit as you get full view of the chapel. So there’s a buildup with the teaser view and process of approach and then it gets strait to the action. La Tourette takes a much different approach. You get no teaser with La Tourette. You get off the train station and begin the long journey uphill. After you pass the original convent complex you begin walking up a road that reminds me of Rice Boulevard with trees lining both sides of the path perfectly. If you understand where you are you notice the sky to the right up ahead is white, pure white. One may realize at this point that it’s not the sky but a very large blank wall. Once you get close enough that the trees clear you get the full on view of La Tourette and your about 100 feet away. It’s very tall but very blank and bland. You may not understand what you are looking at considering you are looking at the most basic exterior façade of the project. But instead of ever getting a better view of the complex you have already arrived at the entrance and its time to go in. This is a very interesting entry sequence and VASTLY different than Ronchamp. With Ronchamp you even have to walk all the way around the chapel to get to the entrance. So you experience the exterior and then the interior. Here you go strait inside.
But this makes sense right? The convent was created in an effort to create a space for internal contemplation and thought. One is to focus on the inside of the convent rather than the external world. After my previous research into the convent I came to the conclusion that everything in the convent was geared around all views to the inside. The walls of roof was the perfect height so that when one is on top of it their view to the outside world is obscured. At the end of each corridor there are “concrete-flowers” to deter ones view of the hillside while allowing light to enter the walkway. The only views to the exterior were to the courtyard on the inside. The only view to the outside was in the friar’s individual cells where they could enjoy the limited framed view in private. But this is somewhat false I believe. On the floor of entry (the levels are somewhat complex for an American who was raised without hills) there is a walkway that wraps around the outside and offers a view of the hillside via the “sugar-lump” slit windows. Reading books and looking at pictures I would have assumed these windows were high up to allow in light but not allowing the friars view as that would break their concentration. But the windows are at perfect eye height and one can stare out at the world freely. And the “concrete flowers” do not work nearly as well as books and critics have claimed as to what their purpose was. From 50 feet away, sure one cannot view the outside world but from 10 feet and closer one can clearly see the external world obliquely past the concrete. They’re not blocking much of anything really. I’m not pointing these facts out to say they are mistakes or negative marks on the part of the architect, but more towards the critics of the project. I didn’t feel at all as though a large part of the design was to obscure the view of the outside world. If it were the hallway wrapping around the library that gives the view to the outside world could have much more gracefully gone to the inside pushing the library to the outside of the walkway facing the hill. This way the library would act in the same manner as the friar cells. But this would be a bad move. Even though I was there during the bitter cold winter months I could see how the hallway facing the hill (the one giving the friars that sinful view) acts as a barrier for the setting French sun. It’s the outside layer of skin that blocks out the direct sun beating down. The windows are operable providing ventilation and one thing that I never read about in books is that the entire place is heavily ventilated. There are a dozen vents that are operable between the hallway and the library allowing cross ventilation through the library from the courtyard to the outside world. And all of this while being protected from the hot sun by the overhanging friar balconies above and that sinful little hallway taking most of the temperature change, and keeping the library a nice temperature. Furthermore the concrete-flowers could have easily been brought inward 2 feet more to prevent any view of the outside while tilting it back to achieve the same light quality. But it wasn’t. And on purpose. I don’t believe this project ever had the intention of completely blocking out the view of the friar to the outside world. I think those critics were wrong.
Having been to dozens (and I mean dozens) or corbusier projects from all over the world I am vastly disappointed in the seating all around this project. One thing I have admired is that from Ronchamp to the Secretariat in Chandigarh to even the Maison de la Culture only an hour away in Firminy, Corbiser has always created very nice benches that are ergonomical and stylish. But here they are all extremely plain and as comfortable as one would imagine sitting on concrete would be I suppose. From the walkway to the church as you look up to the entrance of the convent the boxy bench does seem to fit in aesthetically, but it just doesn’t do. Corbusier must have overlooked all of the seating throughout the complex and so Xenikas has truly disappointed me.
The project also seems to have a real play on scale. It’s interesting. From a distance the convent seems very small. I would almost say it really seams to fit the hillside perfectly. Only I was sort of expecting something that has a more gigantic type of feeling. Something that feels as massive as the concrete being used. When Im standing right up to it, it surely is massive and plays the part well. The living cells and library level is 3 levels alone with about a 12 foot floor to floor and the whole thing is floating in the sky if you stand in a particular corner. But if you turn around and back up to the tree line and then turn back around, it’s a tiny little thing. Walking around the complex you never get a sense for how large it is, until you enter the chapel. Then you look up and realize how massive this project is. The approach to the chapel is also interesting. Instead of “bringing the user down and then un-leashing them into the vastness of God” as almost all churches in Europe seem to do, the walkway approaching the chapel gets taller and taller (well…actually the ceiling height never changes but you walk down a good slope so it seems as though its getting taller) until you pop into the Chapel. It’s still a big shock walking into the big space, but maybe it could have been even more dramatic. The scale of everything is very interesting. Constantly going from an idea of small to large, I don’t think this is something easy to do. As for the chapel itself, there is something truly spectacular about it. When you look up you notice not only the vast space being created but the engineering of all the concrete blocks (at least it seems) that are cliped to the ceiling. It seems as though if a few of the steel clips that are visible give way one of these blocks would come crushing down onto the space. Beyond that there is a light well that seems to be hanging down into the chapel. Looking up you really only notice the light at first but once your eyes adjust you see that this light well is a massive concrete box just hanging down and must weight a ton. It looks sort of not possible. But beyond all of that there is something else. The place is quiet and loud all at the same time. There is an extreme echo that takes place in the space. It makes you walk a little slower and a little quieter. Every movement you make is multiplied exponentially in sound; if you turn a page it is heard in the entire church. To me it was the feeling that it didn’t matter what little thing you did, I was heard, even though no one else was there. It gave the constant impression that someone else was always there. It was a feeling of religion. And I am by no means a religious person (unless you think going to 1 service in 10 years is religious). It was very interesting. Very powerful.
The friar cells seemed very well thought out and everything was extremely efficient. There are vents that are right next to the chair of the desk for comfort and even another vent directly in line with that one from the cell to the corridor for even better ventilation. Once again I was amazed by the ventilation system throughout the project and never read anything about it in all my prior research. I felt as though the framed view off the balcony was very well done in the details of how the tips of the walls were brought in to really discourage leaning over to talk to another friar. It was a good contrast to the idea of the balconies at Bauhaus.
So overall I feel as though it’s a fantastic project and one of the top 4 corbu projects of all time. Ronchamp is bar far number one with the Millowner’s Building, and Assymbly in Chandigarh completing my list.