Le Corbusier Symposium – Part 2 – Russel Walden and Kenneth Frampton

Lecture date: 1968-01-01


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In one of his unpublished sketchbooks, he wrote: “When a task is assigned to me, I usually put it aside in my memory, which means not to tolerate myself any sketch for months.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


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