If ever a setting was naturally perfect, it’s the hilltop location of Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. On a clear day, which I was fortunately enough to have when I visited recently, the views away from the chapel towards the Vosges mountains are fantastic enough in themselves on the climb up before the visitor’s attention is completely captured by the chapel itself.
Having read the withering criticism of Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s new visitor centre on the site I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. Without the benefit of having experienced Corbusier’s original approach before, it’s impossible to make a true comparison but there is no doubt that the visitor centre and in particular the walls that form its approach from the car park loom uncomfortably large. The new building itself is understated and polite, as is the nearby accommodation and chapel for the small number of elderly Poor Clare nuns who live on the site. But it is the rather heavy-handed hard landscaping with its projecting walls and prominent gate that lets the new interventions down as those eager to reach the chapel are funnelled through the entrance and ticketing route before emerging to approach the chapel itself.
Not that I begrudge paying to get in – the chapel after all will need upkeep and inside its walls could certainly do with a touch of paint. What is more concerning is the long-term future – conspiracy theorists fear the development may pave the way for more commercial activities on the site at some point.
But once you actually get near to the chapel, the hullabaloo surrounding the visitor centre seems inconsequential, and is soon forgotten. For it is still the exquisite chapel that dominates, and forms the lasting memories.