Though Le Corbusier's iconic Notre-Dame du Haut (1950 - 1954), a church so often lauded and photographed as a pinnacle of 20th-century modern architecture, is slightly more than an hour's drive from Basel, it's often described as a corner of the so-called expressionist triangle, the other points of which are formed by Frank Gehry's 1989 Vitra Design Museum, the Austrian esoteric philosopher and architect Rudolf Steiner's Goetheanum, constructed between 1925 and 1928, which has gone down in architectural history as one of the first structures to be built entirely of concrete.
As one approaches the little French town of Ronchamp the chapel on the hill shines forth sunlit and white at a great distance. There was a church here before Le Corbusier entered the picture, but it was nearly entirely destroyed by the Second World War. A small section of stone was utilized in the current edifice, however. The thick, curving walls with there small, irregular stained glass windows and the oddly shaped roof that seems to perch on the walls without touching them (the latter inspired by a crab Le Corbusier had picked up on the beach) make a visit to this shrine of modernism an adventure suffused with poetic emotions. The views of the chapel from different angles are indeed radically different, and there seem to be two altars - one within and one on the outside. The bell tower seems to be firmly fixed to the earth, in flesh and blood, whilst the roof reminds of a bird at the edge of its nest, about to take flight. Unlike in a traditional house of worship, the door is not where you might expect to find it - to enter, you need to circumambulate the chapel. Light flows through the little irregular windows, rather scant - the atmosphere is created by the play of light and shadow on the walls. The acoustics are unique, too. Songs here sound like shivers, and with the dance of the coloured light upon the walls create a spiritual sensation that seems otherworldly, or at least outside the confines of any established religion. The simple and the complex, stone, glass and concrete - everything comes together in a mysterious harmony that cannot be fully grasped. Though the cracks of time are visible in the facade in bright sunlight, they somehow merely add to the mystical aura - as if the timeless beauty set under the clear blue sky amid green grass had a human skin worn with age.
If you don't return to Basel along the straightest path but take roads leading through the forested foothills of the Vosges range, the ancient forests casting shadows on the pastures and the clouds lingering at the summits, you might experience a similar sensation - unlike in the chapel, the feeling is the work of nature and not the mind and hand of man.
Keywords: Ronchamp, France, chapel, architecture