Notre Dame du Haut had always been something of a mystery to me. In architecture school, it is always touted as one of the greatest buildings of modern architecture and/or the 20th century. Every history book has a photograph(s) and description of the building, sometimes lengthy, sometimes succinct. The building and its associations to quality design are so well known in architecture, it's virtually a symbol for the realization of great ideas (a fact Form-Z used in a recent advertising campaign using a 3D model of the building to showcase the program's capabilities). I had read several articles and publications, understood them and knew why the building was so intriguing from a historical or intellectual viewpoint. Still, I didn't quite follow what all the hoopla was about. Then I enrolled in Kenneth Frampton's course on LeCorbusier. One of my goals was to understand this building at Ronchamp. Again, I just didn't quite grasp it.
The course ended in the fall and I graduated the following spring. For the class, I built a model of another LeCorbusier building. In a letter I wrote during the summer, I asked Prof. Frampton if he intended to keep the model. He did not so I went to pick it up.
Since it was a weekday, I brought the model back to the office. As I walked in, Mr. Pokorny saw what was in my hands and asked, "What is that?"
"It's a model of one of LeCorbusier's unbuilt projects: the Bat'a Pavilion of 1935."
Mr. Pokorny obviously wasn't very taken with the building or my model-making skills so I went upstairs and put the model on my desk. Later in the afternoon, he came upstairs for a closer look. I explained a little more about it to him and Jane. Mr. Pokorny stood on my side of the desk, Jane sat across from me.
Mr. Pokorny spoke, "You know, I was never really a big fan Corbusier. . . but have you ever been to Ronchamp?"
Jane and I looked at each other, paused, then simultaneously shook our heads.
". . . very impressive."
That phrase seemed to hang in the air for quite a while; it lodged in my mind for several days. It was then that I decided to make the journey to see the building firsthand.
It was a cool December day when I finally arrived. A busload of visitors (architecture students, of course) were just leaving the site. Over the course of the afternoon, a few local residents of the nearby town came the building to pray. Otherwise my girlfriend and I seemed to have the place to ourselves, shared with a couple from Australia, a married couple from Japan (the man did a fine watercolor while his wife patiently held an umbrella to protect his work) and another lone student, also from Japan.
For photography, the light was just right for the chapel. A layer of clouds covered the sky, thin enough to give the light some direction but heavy enough to soften the sun's rays and prevent extreme contrasts between the light and dark tones of the chapel. After walking around the building three or four times and shooting seven or eight rolls of film, I finally began to grasp the beauty of the place.
The time and effort to understand the building were worthwhile. The place is truly astounding.