ARTLURKER

A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Road Trip to Ronchamp

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Notre Dame du Haut. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

Miami artist George Sanchez-Calderon and his buddy Shelter Serra just returned form Basel. On their way back to the States they visited the Notre Dame du Haut (chapel of our lady of the height), by Le Corbusier that was built between 1950 and 1954. Sited atop a hillside in Ronchamp, a commune in the Haute-Saône department in the region of Franche-Comté in eastern France, the building, nestled between the Vosges and the Jura mountains with the horizon visible on all four sides, is among the more tremendous examples of Le Corbusier’s later style that despite this example taking inspiration for the roof from the engineering of airfoils characteristically departed from his principles of standardization and the machine aesthetic as outlined in Vers un architecture.

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Notre Dame du Haut. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

Responding site specifically Le Corbusier’s design for the chapel, a shrine for a Catholic Church looking to prolong its relevancy, is on the whole quite simple—an oblong nave, two side entrances, an axial main altar, and three chapels beneath towers—as is its structure, with rough masonry walls faced with whitewashed Gunite (sprayed concrete) and a roof of contrasting béton brut (unfinished concrete). Formally and symbolically, however, this small building, which is accessible from the south, is immensely powerful and complex.1 On the morning before their departure back to Miami via Zurich and New York, a few hours prior to its opening and after a night of excess, Sanchez-Calderon and Serra gained access to the chapel “illegally” through a chink in a chain-link fence surrounding the construction site of its new visitor center. Here follows a first hand account by Sanchez-Calderon of the pair’s experience:

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Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

The last person you speak to is usually the one that can convince you to stay. We anticipated making Kunsthalle our departure point, God alone knowing whom we could run into. It’s an environment that embraces the visceral and that night I met an angel who elevated me simply by taking me onto the dance floor.  Her arm glazed over my shoulder as she led the way, parting the ocean with the subtlety of her sway, God bless her. As the witching hour struck at 4:30 a.m., she spat me out and I stepped outside to find Shelter deep in conversation.

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On route. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

Driving with a friend is good and bad, you disagree, get lost, and finally you find the place. Driving through Ronchamp / Champagne was charming and idyllic, but on reaching the top of the hill upon which the Notre Dame du Haut stood at 6:30 a.m. in the morning we were shocked to realize the church was fenced in, not visible and closed until 10:00 a.m..

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The Pilgrim’s Path. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

In the parking lot there was our Euro-car and a camper trailer with a crew of three or four people dead asleep inside of it. Our options were simply wait or take a walk. Opting for the latter we headed slightly down the embankment where we found a small path – which after a few steps we realized was the pilgrim’s path – that led us over the newly excavated Piano site, (Renzo Piano has designed a new visitor center which should open in 2011) and back up to a small ledge where we found an opening in a second, much taller fence.

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On the grounds of the Notre Dame du Haut. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

Shelter stepped in and I thought of the countless people jumping fences to skate pools, visit girlfriends, or just escape. It happens, and it happened that day, in the eastern region of France. Two Americans snuck a peak, laid back, sketched and were humbled.

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Notre Dame du Haut. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

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Notre Dame du Haut. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

We stayed about an hour and a half, left the same way we came in, didn’t speak a word on the way back to Zurich / NY / Miami, actually we didn’t speak for a couple of days, no need to.

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George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra. Image courtesy of George Sanchez-Calderon and Shelter Serra.

A slideshow featuring more images like those above with a soundtrack of Going Hobo, 2009 from the “In Your Hands Album” by Charlie Winston is available to view on YouTube.

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For more information please visit: www.ronchamp.fr and our Writers page.

1. Marvin Trachtenberg and Isabelle Hyman. Architecture: from Prehistory to Post-Modernism. p542-4.

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2 Comments

  • Mr. Arrow

    I made a similar pilgrimage to Chandigarh, India to see Le Corbusier’s failed attempt at modernist city planning.

    From Wikipedia:
    Commissioned by Nehru to reflect the new nation’s modern, progressive outlook, Nehru famously proclaimed Chandigarh to be “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.” Several buildings and layouts in Chandigarh were designed by the French (born Swiss) architect and urban planner, Le Corbusier, in the 1950s. Le Corbusier was in fact the second architect of the city, after the initial master plan was prepared by the American architect-planner Albert Mayer who was working with the Poland-born architect Matthew Nowicki. It was only after Nowicki’s untimely death in 1950 that Le Corbusier was pulled into the project.

    There are so few people living in Chandigarh because Le Corbusier had little to no understanding as to how the common Indian person lives. Cows and herders wander the large empty boulevards, traffic circles that once had fountains now contain pill boxes and security forces with machine guns.

    Chandighar is like failed lunar space colony in the 25th century.

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Road Trip to Ronchamp