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Ronchamp: Renzo Piano meets Le Corbusier

Ronchamp: Renzo Piano meets Le Corbusier

Philippe Bourget - 2012-04-17

Designed by Le Corbusier and built between 1950 and 1955, the famous Notre-Dame-du-Haut chapel in Ronchamp, eastern France, got a new lease of life in autumn 2011 thanks to the Ronchamp Demain project. Among new additions are a visitors’ centre, La Porterie, and a convent, both designed by modern architecture luminary Renzo Piano.

What brings one to Ronchamp? Faith, an interest in architecture, or both? Whatever the motivation, everyone is bound to benefit from the energy invested by the AONDH - the Association Œuvre Notre-Dame-du-Haut - which watches over the chapel. Thanks to their Ronchamp Demain (Ronchamp Tomorrow) project, the site, now with two new structures attached, was inaugurated last 8-11 September.
The project’s goal? Nothing less than transforming the hill crowned by the famous chapel designed by Le Corbusier into a modern, environmentally friendly tourist destination and a ‘global’ place of worship. The idea was born during the chapel’s 60th anniversary in 2005. Its advocates thought to build a convent which, they imagined, might be designed by Renzo Piano, one of the world’s star architects and an ‘artist’ of construction materials. The Italian architect’s work was much appreciated by the association, who imagined that a convent designed by Piano would measure up to French icon Le Corbusier’s chapel. ‘Why not?’ he reportedly replied when contacted by AONDH president Jean-François Mathey. ‘But I have too much work; you’ll have to wait eight years,’
That was before he met Sister Brigitte, abbess of the Poor Clares order, who was expected to move to Ronchamp with the six other nuns who were living in the old (soon to be reorganised) convent of Besançon. ‘Sister Brigitte won Renzo Piano over,’ Mathey explains. ‘And naturally he was flattered by the idea of working “side by side” with Le Corbusier.’
Buildings dug into the hill
Once the deal was sealed, Piano’s talent did the rest. The architect, who has signed a great many significant world projects (Bern’s Paul Klee Centre; Amsterdam’s NEMO Science Centre; and Nouméa, New Caledonia’s Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre among them), has managed the difficult task of discreetly placing the monastic building in the western slope of the hill. The convent holds twelve small nuns’ residences (with a garden for contemplation), an oratory and several rooms for short-term spiritual retreats.
Piano also built La Porterie, Notre-Dame-du-Haut’s new visitors’ centre. The stylish, graceful building has been built into the hill as well. Perfectly integrated into the landscape, it holds the ticket booth, a restaurant and a research centre focused on Le Corbusier’s opus. The surroundings have been re-designed by the firm of landscape architect Michel Corajoud; work is nearly finished. The Ronchamp Demain project as a whole has required an investment of nearly ten million euros; funds were provided by local and regional government, Europe, the dioceses and donors.
It was the price to be paid in order to revive the magic of Corbusier’s remarkable chapel, a site that attracts nearly 80,000 visitors each year.           
Website of the Association Œuvre Notre-Dame-du-Haut:
Although the site is in French, an English press pack is available by clicking on ‘dossiers de presse’.

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