Notre Dame Du Haut is a religious space designed by architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, in the 1950’s. The chapel is located in Ronchamp, France. This style of architecture is known as the International Style, Brutalism, Sculptural Style, as well as Expressionist Modern. Notre Dame Du Haut replaced the previous structure that was destroyed by bombs in 1944.

Physical Characteristics:

  • Simplicity
  • Oblong nave
  • Two side entrances
  • Axial main alter
  • Three chapels
  • Three towers
  • 4 ft to 12 ft thick, whitewashed, sprayed concrete walls (known as Gunite or Gunnire)
  • Beton brut roof
  • Southern facing wall of windows
  • Exterior alter
  • Sculpture of the Virgin Mary

How the Physical Characteristics Enhance the Religious Function:


The chapel appears completely organic both in form and in materials. Notre Dame Du Haut lacks any obvious attempts at accentuating geometry. The materials are left in the raw and allowed to age naturally. The simplicity of form gives the chapel the feel of sculpture.

Lack of ornate detail allows the building to completely exist as a religious space without any distractions to pilgrims and worshippers. Lacking mass-produced materials the structure is pure and simple exemplifying the desired way of life for those who came to the chapel.

Oblong Nave-

The word nave was derived from the nave of a ship. Le Corbusier created a nave for the chapel that appeared similar to the nave of a ship. This line of thinking brings us back to simplicity. Le Corbusier was breaking down all the elements of the structure to the basic forms and intentions so as not to distract from the true function of the building as a religious space.

Beton Brut Roof-

The roof is dark brown contrasting greatly with the whitewashed walls, constructed with two reinforced concrete membranes. The roof softly curves upward toward the sky. There is a small gap between the walls and the roof making it appear to be floating above the rest of the chapel. From the interior of the building one can see a line of light entering the structure through this gap. It is said that the smooth curve of the roof is symbolic of praying hands.

South Facing Wall of Windows-

This wall is also known as the ‘wall of light’. The windows vary in size and are placed in no certain pattern in the wall. Even though the walls are thick and heavy the interior is filled with a surprising degree of light thanks to these windows. The windows contain elements of stained glass adding color to the otherwise achromatic structure. The windows also enhance the steep slope of the wall.

Light has been a long time symbol of religion. Gothic Architecture took this concept to the extreme considering light one of the most important elements of any religious structure. Light gives the space an ethereal quality.

Exterior Alter-

The hill on which Notre Dame Du Haut is located has been a site for pilgrimages since the thirteenth century C.E. The alter on the exterior of the chapel is a place where these weary travelers can come and worship. During important pilgrimage days, such as feast days, the outdoor chapel can house every visitor. The exterior alter is one of three chapels located beneath three towers. The main chapel can only hold up to 50 people. The small main chapel allows for more personal prayer.

Sculpture of the Virgin Mary-

This wooden sculpture is placed in a high niche. Le Corbusier was raised protestant so he therefore researched the Catholic religion before beginning to design the building. While learning about the religion he noticed a reoccurring mother and child relationship. He placed the sculpture up high so that the Virgin Mary could look over her children. The Virgin Mary can be seen from both the interior and exterior of the chapel. This way she can look over both alters.

Sources and Images:

Situated on a hill in the countryside town of Ronchamp, France, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut chapel is a strange and beautiful anomaly in the history of characteristically modern architecture, specifically the International Style, of the mid-twentieth century. Its organic, gestural form, use of abstract shapes, and incorporation of color, texture, light, and sound has strong ties to the modern art of the period. Meanwhile, its personal, intimate scale, so different from the mechanized housing projects the architect championed a few years earlier, suggests a desire to retreat from the harsh realities of a modern world, and the destruction of World War Two.

In his housing projects, such as his opus, the 1947 Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, he designed the space to be as space and cost efficient as possible, making the home into a “machine for living.” His aim was to make an architecture that was mass producible, and to render this efficiency and simplicity beautiful. Le Corbusier could look at an austere concrete structure and see aesthetic beauty. With a strict social agenda and mechanized style in place, the chapel at Ronchamp came as something of a shock to the architects of the time.

In 1950, the parish of Ronchamp, France commissioned Le Corbusier to design a new Notre Dame en Haut chapel, after the previous chapel was lost in World War Two. That structure, too, was a replacement; the original chapel was destroyed in a lightning fire in 1910. The actual site, however, had been a popular destination for pilgrims since the 13th century. The parish was small, with a population of 200, but on holy days pilgrims numbering into the ten thousands would flood the chapel and the surrounding hill.

Unlike Le Corbusier’s previous structures, the chapel has an organic feel, and responds to the natural environment. This move is more in line with his original purism philosophy in that it responds to nature. The building itself is sloped to fit each of the four horizons: a plain opposite hills and two valleys on the remaining sides.

The texture of the surfaces also reflects the chapel’s natural environment. The chapel is made of rough sprayed concrete, or béton brut, covered by a layer of whitewashed plaster. Large wooden beams provide support for the walls and roof, and also form the benches within the chapel. Le Corbusier chose concrete not just for its sculptural potential, but also because it was the most practical material for constructing a building on a hill in a remote town, a truly purist choice. The rough texture of the chapel provides a parallel to abstract expressionism: as the medium of the building, earth, is honest and conspicuous, just as modern painters focused on the medium of their canvases and paint. In addition, the organic, natural materials of the chapel stand in sharp contrast to the glass and steel that show up in the earlier works of Le Corbusier and his International Style colleagues.

The incorporation of the natural environment with the composition of the building continues with the shape. The chapel, on the outside, has a sweeping line, coming to a peak point billowing towards the sky. The entrance to the chapel is nothing more than a slit in the folds of concrete, creating the feeling of an intimate, cave-like enclosure on the inside. The structure feels and sounds cave-like, with its intimate scale and thick walls surrounding dark, hollow space.

Within the chapel, the building follows a traditional layout. In the front is a large altar with a sacristy to the left. A large choir space lines northern edge of the main chapel space, and wooden pews fill the south edge. The main south entrance is situated behind the pews. Several colored windows puncture the thick south wall creating beams of light that burst through the thick material.

The windows, and more broadly the use of light and darkness in the space is one of the most breathtaking features of the structure. The windows, positioned all over the dark wall of the south side of the church, and appearing as holes on the outside, display different shades of primary colors, and inscribed on the panes are excerpts from Marian prayers. The excerpts are simple phrases, such as “étoile du matin,” “pleine de grâce,” and “je vous salue, marie.” These small phrases suggest Le Corbusier’s interest in the poetic and lyrical elements of the spiritual.

The roof of the chapel is a large, curved slab of concrete, underlaid with aluminum. Le Corbusier says that his inspiration for the roof came from a crab shell, though critics have interpreted the sloping curve as shapes diverse as a nun's habit or a boat. 1 The roof appears to hover over the chapel, as a 10 cm band of light pierces through where the seam between walls and roof should be, “to amaze,” as Le Corbusier explains. This gesture reflects earlier themes in Le Corbusier’s work: often, thin stilts supported a large housing block, leaving the ground floor hollow and open. Robert Coombes describes this dramatic feature:

"Le Corbusier raises the roof for symbolic reasons relating to the Assumption. Levitation is astonishing because it denies the laws of gravity. Thus, by denying our expectations—that roofs remain attached to buildings—Le Corbusier signals Ronchamp’s visitors that they are present at a miraculous supernatural event."

It feels strange to mention the supernatural in talking about the calculated and rational Le Corbusier. It is apparent that a shift has occurred, or, perhaps something about the architect’s intentions are, for the first time, being revealed.

Initially, Le Corbusier hesitated to take on the Ronchamp project. He was raised a Protestant, and was understandably wary to accept a project from the Roman Catholic Church. Robert Coombes explains that Le Corbusier undoubtedly offended his colleagues by accepting a commission from the Church. “To the Modernist establishment, Roman Catholicism was anachronistic and reactionary force in the brave new world of scientific rationalism and progress.”

The chapel at Ronchamp is an honest reaction to the philosophical and physical turbulence of modern times. It seeks refuge in the intimate, the curios of mysticism, the lyrical and poetic, the traditional, the religious, and the transcendental. At the same time, it retreats from the front lines of the true avant-garde.

1. Bell, Eugenia and Ezra Stoller. The Chapel at Ronchamp. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.
2. Coomes, Robert. Mystical Themes in Le Corbusier’s Architecture in The Chapel Notre-Dame-Du-Haut at Ronchamp: The Ronchamp Riddle. New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.
3. Le Corbusier. The Chapel at Ronchamp. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1957.

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