Le Corbusier Symposium 2/3 ARTNET

Date: Monday 1 January 1968
Time: 18:00
Running time: 60 mins

Russell Walden: ‘Ronchamp Reconsidered’

Debate after von Moos’s lecture. Russell Walden is presented, he will give a talk under the title ‘Ronchamp Reconsidered.’ He is from New Zealand, teaches in Birmingham; he is an editor and a contributing author of the book ‘The Open Hand: Essays on Le Corbusier,” (not yet published at the moment of the symposium) by the MIT Press.

Russell Walden has chosen to talk about Ronchamp, a good reason to move away from the period of the 1920s, chosen by many of the other speakers. The architecture of Le Corbusier seems to possess mysterious, allusive qualities. For example, Stan von Moos, in writing about Ronchamp, reminds us about the influence of nature upon Le Corbusier, other author ventures the explanation that it is a creative inspiration which cannot be understood by the clinically minded. Vincent Scully has explained it in terms of the sculptural quality of Greek sculpture. André Wogenscky, Le Corbusier’s chief assistant, who worked with him for around 20 years, said that Ronchamp was the beginning of the decline in Corbusier’s work. For Russell, Ronchamp is a personal expression, a paradox between christian ideas, pilgrimage on one hand, and the values of nature on the other. The problem of Le Corbusier, seems to have been to express these two schools of thought. Obviously, there is a tension between the two sets of values: the richness of expression of Ronchamp is due entirely to this tension. Russell aims to explain the level of consciousness, the multiplicity of intentions and hidden meanings, brought and fused together in the design of this pilgrimage chapel. Deeply embedded in the theoretical foundation of Ronchamp is Le Corbusier’s approach to design. To develop this, we will consider how Le Corbusier wrote about design. In one of his unpublished sketchbooks, he wrote: “When a task is assigned to me, I usually put it aside in my memory, which means not to tolerate myself any sketch for months. The human head is so formed, as to posses certain independence; there is an area, where the elements of a problem can be left to work themselves out, they are left to wider, to ferment. One day, the spontaneous subconscious initiative, which is where inspiration comes, makes you take a pencil, a carbon, some coloured pencils, and you let it flow, out onto the paper. The idea comes, as a child comes, it is brought into the world: it is born.” From this insight into Le Corbusier’s creative process, we can see that it is possible that his intellectual intentions could have been set alight by anything, from the writers of philosophers, to the formal structure of a shell. This could be described as a symphony of language, one that contains many levels of meanings, which are open to us to see and appreciate. If we place the paradox brought in the beginning in the frame of this approach to design, the conclusion is clearly that Corbusier's thinking is dualistic, in the sense that he places his creativity upon resolving opposing principles, dichotomies which continuously play against one another, which are expressed on various points in this architecture. As a designer, he claimed to refuse to accept dichotomies, in the search for an expression of unity. Contradictions, from Corb’s point of view are resolved. He took these contradictions to the point where they were no longer opposed but began to become convergent, where unity is formed and realized. When he moved from La Chaux de Fonds to Paris, such a process took stronger senses, as Charles Jencks has often pointed out, that Le Corbusier has a highly emotional man. With such a complex emotional personality, it is not a surprising to find him related to Cervantes’s hero, Don Quixote. Let us consider for a moment the open hand: this was a key idea on the design methodology, which wished to express the idea of giving and receiving: a disembodied image, and isolated from the earth. More than just a hand, it is also a bird, a symbol of the spiritual as opposed to the material world. Perhaps Corb’s notion of the spiritual wasn’t the traditional christina point of view, as no doubt, he thought spirituality as outside religious institutions. As Sterling said a few months after Ronchamp was finished, “the sensational impact of the chapel, on the visitor, is significantly not sustained on the appeal to the intellect.” It would be interesting to know whether if he continues to argue so, as Giedion pointed out, there is a need for historical perspective in order to make a final assessment of Le Corbusier’s work. From theological points of view, the interior reveals a paradox: if for the pilgrim, the heart of the christian mystery, because here the feast of the liturgy is celebrated and enjoyed, then the spatial resolution of the altar, cross and intercessory Virgin, should reflect this theological understanding. Quite clearly, he had some difficulty in resolving these elements and it took him two years to take the resolution of leaving the chapel unused. From this point of view, the chapel of La Tourette is a great deal more convincing. Scientifically speaking, Ronchamp acoustically is a great deal better than La Tourette. Russell suggests that visual considerations in La Tourette have been prioritized over acoustical and functional regards. Russell analyzes the plan of Ronchamp, in particular the relation of interior and exterior in the East wall, and the influence of the form of the plan in many other chapels. Considered as a volume, the place of the liturgy, he argues, is perhaps less convincing. In Le Corbusier’s emphasis on echoing the four horizons, he seems to have lost the drama of the Christian feast, in favour of the drama of nature. From what he wrote about the chapel, Corb’s romanticism is clearly expressed by the words “the key is light and light illuminates shapes, and shapes have emotional power.” Again, the paradox, confirmed by his writings. Rudolf Schwarz, almost certainly, Russell argues, would have said, “the key is the mass, the mass illuminates the spiritual life and the spiritual life has ultimate power.” He goes on questioning whether if Le Corbusier had been too indulgent, if he had played this game too often. André Wogenscky quite clearly had a point in signaling Ronchamp as the beginning of Corb’s decline. The village of Ronchamp at the time was composed by only 3500 people. There was money from the war damages commission to rebuild the chapel: the new one cost 50 000, even after the reduction of the original design. Without aiming to stress the practical problems of buildings that Corb designed, Russell points out that there were plenty of them, meaning that the study of Le Corbusier today requires an open mind. One cannot escape the conclusion, he argues that this building was designed outside in. To support this, he shows some sketches. If one searches the history of architecture for parallels, one has to go all the way back to the romanesque period to find images of similar power and vitality. One could say that the chapel of Ronchamp is Le Corbusier’s most popular building. He put a lifetime of experience in this building. It expresses a great deal of hope for the salvation of contemporary man. Ronchamp, a Christian chapel of pilgrimage, Russell concludes, seeks to express the intangible, seeks to express the sense of the sacred.

“Reflections on the opposition between architecture and building”

Kenneth Frampton is introduced, he has written about Le Corbusier in various journals and in one anthology by Peter Sereni. He wrote a very interesting article called “The City of Dialectic,” a book review about “The Radiant City” that was later converted into an article. Also, in AD, he wrote an article on “The Humanist and Utilitarian Ideals,” on two of the proposals for the League of Nations of 1928: one by Le Corbusier and other by Hannes Meyer. He will speak about the weekend house.

Kenneth Frampton starts, mentioning a book: “A Continuing Experiment: Teaching at the AA” edited by James Gowan: the essence of what he is about to say is in some way contained in it. For him, the weekend house of Le corbusier is an evidence of the opposition between architecture and building. Although he respects Stanislaus von Moos’s reservations about the loose use of terms in relation to cultural objects, nevertheless, he feels that in making interpretations of Le Corbusier, we are correct in not underestimating the synthetic quality and the experience of the people who make these terms. Of Le Corbusier, it is true that one should never underestimate his consciousness, which involves that mysterious period that he is supposed to have spent in the Bibliotheque Nationale, while working in the atelier of Auguste Perret in Paris. A period of intense self education, apart from that that he received in La Chaux De Fonds. He shows a drawing of a weekend house of 1930 that anticipates the house of 1935, which acquires an importance as it points out to a later problem in the whole of Le Corbusier’s career, and one of the problems that we all inherit, that of the distinction architecture and building. A crucial one to the evolution of twentieth century architecture, that has to be pushed back to around 1750. He considers that it is a distinction that has to be made and that Le Corbusier was aware of it, as a problem. He points out several innovations in the design of the weekend house, never seen before in Le Corbusier’s architecture (considering his ‘mature’ period, that is from 1917 on), such as a rubble stone base, the use of undressed timber etc. He points those elements mentioned as brought from vernacular construction. Kenneth Frampton goes on to his argument, that architecture and building are different words with different etymological roots, finally indicating different cultural intentions. Architecture, inherent of the Western classical tradition, with its sort of double threshold, first in the Renaissance and with Vitruvius in the time of Augustus. The word architecture, in Western tradition, cannot be pushed any further than that, it doesn’t exist. It is inseparable, he argues, form a certain kind of historicism the argument that even Vitruvius was aware of the need to create an instant culture with which to celebrate the Roman empire. That conscious attempt to over determine a cultural status of the society is recapitulated, with many different connotations, in the Renaissance and architecture enters, much later, the Western enlightenment, if one wants to date it, in 1750. It is indeed an inseparable part of the Western enlightenment, almost the ideological barrier of the enlightenment, he argues. That dimension is consciously present in Le Corbusier’s work after 1917, after the Villa Schwob, in full force up until 1930. Frampton believes that after that date, there is an inner loss of confidence in the mission of the enlightenment, and then, the houses that embrace the vernacular appear. He refers to Martin Heidegger’s argument about the etymological roots of the term building: that ‘bauen’ contains within it relations to the archaic form in German of the verb ‘to be,’ and also to the German word for ‘cultivate.’ So building has to it a much more organic existentialism implied by the word and something much more rooted. The whole of the argument since Pugin, since the beginning of the Gothic revival in this country, has been one long hassle, between whether or not the expression should be that of building or that of architecture. That is: whether or not our commitment is with the product of the Enlightenment. One must remember that Le Corbusier has a formation period, totally under the influence of the arts and crafts movement, whose dominance at that time in Europe and elsewhere was enormous, to the point that we cannot understand anything of American Modern architecture without seeing its roots in English Arts and Crafts movement; that in La Chaux De Fonds, Charles L’Eplattenier is obsessed with Owen Jones; that the Villa Jaquemet in La Chaux de Fonds is absolutely straight in the arts and crafts tradition. One sees that he is already aware of the argument about building in that moment of rejecting L’Eplattenier and embracing the German and French Enlightenment. The knowledge of Fourier is present in this change. (Continues in 3/3).

Transcription by María José Orihuela, Architect, MA HCT at the Architectural Association.

All lectures are open to members of the public, staff and students unless otherwise stated.

February 2020
Su M Tu W Th F Sa


AA Photo Library has DVD copies of Public Programme lectures dating back to 1974


Online Lectures
Lecture Archive



For any issues with video playback please contact
AA Digital Platforms

The Architectural Association, Inc. is incorporated as a company limited by guarantee (No.171402) and registered as a charity (No. 311083). Registered office: 36 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3ES, 020 7887 4000

Click here to read the AA’s latest review report.

Click here to read the AA’s latest action plan.



The Architectural Association receives Taught Degree Awarding Powers by the Lords of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council.

The Architectural Association (AA), the oldest independent school of architecture in the United Kingdom, is pleased to announce that it has been granted the power to award its own degrees. As of 1 October 2019, the AA has the right to establish new academic programmes and degree awards and is working to create some of the world’s most pioneering courses in architecture to shape and build the future.

Taught Degree Awarding Powers (TDAP) give UK higher education institutions the right to award bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Prospective students worldwide can apply to the AA Foundation Course (Foundation Diploma), Experimental Programme BA(Hons), Diploma Programme (MArch), and nine taught postgraduate programmes encompassing History and Critical Thinking in Architecture (MA), Projective Cities (Taught MPhil) and Sustainable Environmental Design (MSc/MArch), amongst others.

AA Director, Eva Franch said, ‘since our founding in 1847 we have never ceased to create new horizons, institutionally and academically. This is a significant milestone for the AA and demonstrates how we have grown and progressed as an institution that has always valued independence. Receiving TDAP marks a new era for our institution; these are exciting times for the AA. The process has required considerable work from all members of staff and students. I would like to take this opportunity to credit them for this major achievement’.

President of the AA Council, Victoria Thornton added, ‘the TDAP process has recognised our strong governance, academic standards, scholarship and teaching as well as the environment supporting the delivery of taught higher education programmes’.

The School’s application for Taught Degree Awarding Powers was supported by the Architects Registration Board, the Royal Institute of British Architects and The Open University.