Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Monastery of Sainte-Marie de La Tourette

“Concrete is a material that does not cheat; it replaces, it cuts out the need for that trickster – coating. Béton Bruts says: I am concrete.” -Le Corbusier 

Oh, what dramatic words Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris!

It is not surprising that Le Corbusier, should have designed a monastery. After all, Modernists have often claimed precedents in the great Cistercian abbeys of the Middle Ages such as Fontaine, whose bleak, unfinished walls and stubborn austerity reflect the strict self-denial of its order. Perhaps more similarities have been found between this genre of architecture and modernism than actually exist if we were to understand the underlying principals of Christianity and those of a historicist ideology, nonetheless, La Tourette is a place where this exercise in concrete manages to at least not insult its function and role. (I'm still thinking about that last statement.

The Dominican monastery of La Tourette is located above the town of L’Arbresle about 25 kilometers outside of Lyon. This was Le Corbusier’s last major building and was begun in 1953. Though a staunch atheist, Le Corbusier designed several religious buildings. One can only ask why he was hired to do them, as his entire theory of architecture was diametrically opposed to religion. Regardless, the monastery still stands as a bleak monument to the dubious architectural innovations of the 20th century, and as a Mecca for aging modernist architects.

The form of the building is that of a large rectangle supported on piers, and located on a sloping hill such that the back of the building is at ground level and the front is some 25 feet above the field it looms over. The plan is laid out as a simple rectangle surrounding an open courtyard, yet upon entering the building, the complicated and intricate fluidity of the promenade, circulation and seemingly randomly placed structures is difficult to make sense of. Essentially, it is a U-shaped cell block for the monks closed off by the more solid chapel structure. The U shape puts the monk’s cells on the outside with circulation running around the inside and almost entirely open to the inside space through the use of large windows which use concrete in patterns which Le Corbusier designed after the music of the monk’s daily services.
The building is approached from the North by its least eloquent side and at the top – the wrong way round as it were. In the words of the modernists "the imposing wall of the church suddenly rises up against the sunlight, recalling (alluding to?) images of ancient walled abbeys."
From here we gain a view of the interior of the “cloister" and the cell block’s interior with its many windows. Indeed, the structure is imposing with its brutal concrete seeming to the viewer like a bunker or massive bridge pier.
The building is constructed almost entirely of reinforced concrete, used both structurally, and as venire structure supported from large “pilotis” as Le Corbusier called them, or central columns which raised the building off the ground and freed the walls of the façade for long strip windows. These pilotis unlock glimpses of the "central void" containing the enclosed cloister whose form bears none of the features of traditional cloisters; instead, one follows an internal “promenade intricately interwoven with diverse components contrasting sharply with the underlying simplicity of the plan."
What makes this a good example of the use of concrete is that it uses concrete as a finish material. Nowhere in this structure is there a use of a finish material or coating for the concrete that is the structure. From the “pilotis” that support the building to the walls and even windows, concrete is used in its raw unfinished form.
Béton bruts is a concrete finish that is achieved by using wooden planks as the form for the concrete. This leaves the concrete with a rough finish with the direct imprint of the sawn wood. Often this can be so convincing that if painted it can look just like weatherboarding or panels. This was not the intent of le Corbusier. He sought a sincerity in an architecture that did not “lie.” Throughout La Tourette béton bruts is used to give the concrete as rough a texture as possible in an effort to not only let us know it is concrete, but to never let us forget it. Because the concrete used these forms to get the rough finish, it was necessarily poured in place concrete. Depending on the forms that the concrete was to take it was smoothed to greater or lesser degrees. Here is an example of béton brut where we can see how the final finish reflects the formwork of the concrete.

While parts of the building retain the strict form of the rectangle, others break free of straight lines and achieve strange contours and curves, such as these light passages in ceilings of the side chapels.
The concrete is used right up to the details, formed up even to hold the paines of glass to be found in most of the windows.
Overall, the use of concrete in this building is not so amazing simply in its structural qualities. The “pilotis” system had been used many times by Le Corbusier. Rather, it was its combination of structure and aesthetics into a single unmasked entity: the building itself. The very austerity and starkness of the building was seen as beautiful and appropriate to its function as a place of self denial and meditation.

Here is a watercolour I did of La Tourette quand j'avais six ans!