Hubert Scharnagl (Austria):
The Le Corbusier nomination is a difficult case, it is pending since 2009 and even fans of modern architecture would admit that the list of proposed sites is too long and that the individual buildings are highly different in their quality and importance. The recent dossier, deferred in 2011, comprises 19 sites in six countries, 12 from France. I agree with Ian, that the four sites he listed in his review below are Corbusier’s most important and influential works. And ICOMOS obviously shares this view, as they recommended Villa Savoye, Notre-Dame-du-Haute de Ronchamp and Unité d'Habitation in Marseille for future inscription (Chandigarh was not included in the 2011 nomination).
So far, I have visited five of the French sites. My visits of the Villa Savoye and in Ronchamp were more than ten years ago. Both are exceptional buildings and an inscription would be justified even as individual sites. The Villa Savoye is described in detail in Ian’s review below, there is nothing I could add. Thus my review will focus on my recent visits (in June 2013) of Sainte Marie de La Tourette in Éveux, Firminy-Vert, and the Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, and a short report on Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Ronchamp.
Ronchamp is a small village, about 60 kilometers east of Mulhouse, Notre-Dame-du-Haut is just outside the village on a steep hill. The pilgrimage chapel has an asymmetrical floor plan and the outer walls are different in shape and design. From every perspective it looks different. The most striking component is the roof construction, it reminded me of the cap of a porcini mushroom. The interior is plain and simple, but atmospheric, mainly due to the stained glass windows of different size. Thus, I would recommend to visit the chapel on a sunny day. In 2011, a new building by Renzo Piano was opened, a Poor Clares monastery and a visitor center. The project was highly controversial, though it has been reported that it is almost completely hidden in the hill and not visible from the chapel. Well, a good reason for a re-visit to form my own opinion.
Sainte-Marie de la Tourette is a Dominican monastery in Éveux, close to Lyon. We took a regional train from Gare Lyon-St Paul to L'Arbresle (40 min), then a walk slightly uphill through the village of Éveux to the monastery (30 min). In June, there were guided tours only on Sunday afternoon (at 2.30 and 4 pm, in July/August every day). We arrived early enough, so that we had enough time to explore the building from the outside. The monastery was built on a sloping hillside. It is U-shaped, and the church completes the monastery building at the open end to a four-winged complex. There are typical structures, that can be seen in many of Corbusier's works: massive pilotis supporting the structure at the downhill side, long window strips, grassed rooftops. We were surprised to find about 60 people waiting at the entrance, so that the guided tour had to be split. The tour started in front of the building, where the floor plan of a monks' cell is shown with wooden slats. The cells can not be visited, but the model gives a good idea of the narrowness of a cell (the size is designed according to the golden ratio). We entered the building on the middle level, and came into a small entrance hall, followed by the lobby of the library and a small, but tall chapel. The interior of the monastery is rather austere, but there are also atmospheric elements like coloured furniture and light slits (in the typical Corbusier colours yellow, green and red), and high windows. As an example, the refectory has a window front from floor to ceiling and offers a beautiful view over the valley. Narrow, long corridors with horizontal window strips connect the various parts of the building. Finally we reached a spacious foyer with a ramp down to the entrance of the church. The church is a rectangular box with a high ceiling, its interior is simple and plain with coloured horizontal slits and round openings for natural light (the photo shows the crypt).
The Tourette monastery is a late work of Le Corbusier, his architectural principles obviously fit very well to the needs of the monks for spirituality, studying and contemplation. Maybe it is not as iconic as the sites mentioned above, but I think it would be justified to include Sainte-Marie de la Tourette in the nomination.
Firminy-Vert is the second project of urban planning by Le Corbusier, after Chandigarh. Firminy is about one hour by car southwest of Lyon, half way to Le Puy-en-Velay (Santiago de Compostela WHS). The site consists of four parts: the Maison de la Culture, a stadium, the St Pierre church and a swimming pool. There is also a Unité d'Habitation which is not part of the nomination. ICOMOS had major concerns about the authenticity of the site, the Maison de la Culture is the only part that was mainly built by Le Corbusier. The St Pierre church was completed in 2006, 41(!) years after his death. We bought a ticket (6 Euro) at the Maison de la Culture, which houses an auditorium and various rooms for cultural events. However, only the lobby and an exhibition with plans and models of the buildings are accessible for individual visitors. The building is more than 100 meters long and stretches along the stadium. We descended the exterior staircase and walked around the stadium to the concrete tribune at the opposite side. The stadium is not striking and not very different from similar structures. The St Pierre church with its conic form is the most interesting part. Fortunately, we arrived at noon and the sun was shining. The sunlight falls through three dozen fist-sized holes (positioned in the constellation of Orion) on the sloped eastern wall and produce nice lighting effects inside the church.
Finally we visited the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, the first (of five) and most famous of these 'vertical villages'. It is one of Le Corbusier's most influential works, often regarded as an early example of Brutalism. However, the Unité does not look crude or austere, despite the size it appears elegant and harmonious. This might be due to the constructional principle: the dimensions are based on the golden ratio. The most striking features are the façade with a regular pattern of different sized balconies and the piloti that create a free space in place of a compact ground floor.
We reached the site from the SNCF Gare Marseille with metro 2 to station "Rond Point du Prado", then bus 21 or 22 to the stop “Le Corbusier”. You have to sign a guestbook at the porter's lodge, then you have access to the public area. The 7th and 8th floor are 'shopping streets': a boutique, a restaurant, a patisserie, a bookstore etc, but most of the shops seem to be used as offices. Unfortunately, it is not possible to visit an apartment. The highlight of the visit was the roof terrace with the striking ventilation chutes. As it is the highest building in the area you have an unobstructed view of Marseille and the Mediterranean, you feel really like on the upper deck of an ocean liner.
It has been announced that a re-submission is in preparation (for 2016?), but there is no information which sites will be included. That's probably a tricky problem: a reduction of the number of proposed sites would not only mean to withdraw individual sites, but also to exclude one or more member states. Hopefully they will find a reasonable compromise, because Le Corbusier is one of the most important architects of the 20th Century and his most important works should be represented on the WH list.
Date posted: February 2014 Ian Cade (England):
When looking at this proposal I said I would only count it once I had visited one of the four major works of le Corbusier, for me these were: Villa Savoye in Poissy-sur-Seine, Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, Chappelle Notre Dame du Haute in Ronchamp (all in France) and the Government Buildings in Chandigarh (India). I finally got to visit one in early 2011 when I made the short hop out from central Paris to the Vila Savoye.
The Villa is one of the most iconic pieces of modernist architecture, and to my eye it is exceedingly beautiful. I was a little worried that visiting may not live up to my high estimation as it is very hard for something that looks so measured and perfect to actually seem so when you poke around. However I am happy to report that it seems to be in a pretty good state of repair, especially in comparison to other modernist sites I have visited such as the Tugendhat Villa.
The Villa Savoye is regarded as one of the master works of modernist architecture, especially because it demonstrates the 5 principles which le Corbusier laid out in his seminal work Vers une architecture, these are:
Pilotis, supporting columns which elevate the bulk of the building allowing a smooth transition from garden to building.
Roof Garden, which again help to marry the internal and external spaces, I really enjoyed this mixture during my visit, the ramp that runs the whole way through the house does an excellent job of linking the inside and outside.
Free Plan, the use of reinforced concrete and pilotis means that internal walls are not needed to support the building so it can be open plan; this has had a massive impact on architecture of all forms since its introduction.
Horizontal Windows, again the fact that walls do not support the whole building mean that these vast horizontal stripes of windows can be installed, here they really are a bold sculptural part of the building and allow large amounts of light into the interior.
Free Façade, the walls of the building are now essentially just a skin freeing it up to be used in a much more playful way.
For some this may just seem like a bit of an academic game, but these ideas really did bring about huge changes in architecture and nowhere demonstrates them quite as well as the Villa Savoye. I really loved the incredible lightness of the building, both in terms of the bright light that penetrated all corners of the house and the fact that the structure looked dainty despite being 3 stories high. This allowed the space to be opened up and the internal and external features to mix easily.
The Villa is located in Poissy a short journey out from Paris on the RER, from the station there is a twice hourly bus that runs to the Villa or it would be about a 25 minute walk. It is closed on Mondays but it is covered by the Paris Museum pass, there is a useful leaflet in a few languages which has a good little tour so be sure to pick that up, or you can look at the good architectural over view on the always great Galinsky website.
Le Corbusier is arguably the most important architect of the 20th century, but I must admit he was always someone whose works I had admired rather than loved, however my visit to the Villa Savoye really could not have been better. This global nomination of his major works really will bring a treasure to the World Heritage list which will hopefully be joined by the equally influential Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings in the near future.
[Site 9: Experience 7]
Date posted: May 2011
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