Renzo Piano is set to create additions for the grounds of the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, the 1955 building by Le Corbusier that is widely considered to be among the 20th century architect's greatest designs. But the plans are coming under fire from the Fondation Le Corbusier, the organization created to safeguard and celebrate his life's works.
Last summer, the Association Œuvre Notre-Dame-du-Haut, which owns the chapel and its grounds, announced plans to replace the existing visitor center, add housing for a small population of nuns and a few guests, and add meditation space; the association also announced its choice of Piano to design the new buildings. The Fondation Le Corbusier has voiced concerns over the project and certain aspects of Piano's design, particularly the proximity of the new convent to the main chapel and its annexes.
"This construction might be seen from far away and change the perception of the chapel," says foundation director Michel Richard. "We are not completely convinced of the necessity of the additional convent and of the need to be so near the chapel. We have no guarantee of the convent remaining a convent for the coming generations, and we fear that it could be used for any kind of auberge [inn] in the future."
As part of its mission to preserve and achieve greater recognition for Le Corbusier's work, in January 2008 the foundation—along with the French Ministry of Culture and six other countries—submitted selections from his architectural portfolio, including the chapel at Ronchamp, for inclusion in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO's) World Heritage List.
Because France's Ministry of Culture must approve construction plans that involve national cultural landmarks, last June the foundation's president, Jean-Pierre Duport, wrote to Minister Christine Albanel about the chapel additions, asking her to defer any decision that might "compromise the authenticity of the work and the integrity of the site." The foundation's fear is that any addition to or alteration of Le Corbusier's original plans for the chapel grounds could endanger the chances of the proposed portfolio's being placed on UNESCO's World Heritage List. "We trust the architect, but we are not sure that he will perfectly manage architecture and vegetation so that the site won't suffer from the new buildings and their services—new large roads, materials, etc.," Richard says.
In its October 2007 newsletter, the foundation discussed its concerns over the project, stating that it "fully shares the concern of the association owning the chapel for the need to undertake work aimed at restoring the site and endowing it with reception facilities equipped to cater to the increasingly numerous streams of visitors, while at the same time remaining in keeping with the cultural and spiritual quality of the work." According to Richard, the foundation's position is that the association should have taken more time to find alternate solutions regarding not only the feasibility of the construction in the proximity of the chapel but also other locations, as well as the problems of managing visitors, locating bus parking, and establishing the quality of the reception area, services, shops, restaurants, and exhibition of the chapel. The foundation maintains that it will cooperate in finding a solution that meets the needs of all involved parties and secures the lasting spirit and character of the chapel.
** This article has been updated since its original posting on Feb. 22, 2008.