Wednesday, 13 October 2010

La Tourette

photos top to bottom: church; south facade; dining room; windows being restored; view of the chapel from the roof.

The Couvent de la Tourette, near Lyon, is one of Le Corbusier's great iconic buildings. It was inaugurated in October 1960 - exactly 50 years ago. It was originally planned as a place of study and residence for up to 80 Dominican friars, where they would spend four or five years training before moving on to other priories. Today it is home to ten friars, seven of whom were in residence the weekend we stayed. The spare rooms provide accommodation for visitors. Largely made up of the architecturally curious and those in search of an environment where they can truly disconnect from everyday life. On the Saturday night we stayed there were probably around 20 guests.

We each slept in a cell. 1m83 wide. Each cell has a wash basin, a small wardrobe and shelves, a bed and a desk. And a deep balcony. The floor is black lino and the walls and ceiling are very roughly plastered and painted white. You can sleep, contemplate, read, write. A notice on the door asks you not to eat, drink or converse in the cell.

On Sunday morning at 8, before breakfast, we joined the friars for 'les laudes' - a short service of chanted hymns and psalms. It was magical. The church is a vast and resonant concrete cavern. Perhaps 18m high, around 40m long and 10m wide. The four sheer walls connected by the strata lines where the concrete was poured layer after layer. Bright coloured light filters through horizontal slits - these slope upwards through the massive walls, so that the window itself is not visible, just the painted surface inside the opening that reflects the light. The chanting of the seven friars filled the space completely. We tried to imagine how it must have sounded when there were 70 or 80 of them. It is a space that I found slightly oppressive initially - the concrete is almost overwhelming, the geometry of the space, particularly the north end, is not entirely comfortable - but when the friars sing it all makes sense. The volume, the material and the voices just work together.

The building was undergoing renovation when we were there. Half was finished, a quarter was more or less finished but still under scaffolding, and the remaining quarter - the church - had yet to be begun. Three states visible together. One end crisp white render contrasting with the pale clean exposed concrete. The middle under wraps, new double glazing panes lined up in the corridor. The other end looking slightly grubby, the render and the concrete hard to distinguish from one another.

It would be nice to see the whole once all the work is finished, but it was great to visit in a semi building site state. And just as authentic. The iconic buildings of modernism have become precious artefacts. Listed and revered, studied and interpreted. Great efforts are taken to return these buildings to their imagined original state. Methods to clean and repair the concrete, to restore original paint colours are laboriously researched and tested. Theses are written, papers published. Renovation works may take years. In 2010 la Tourette is no longer just a convent, it is also an important piece of architectural heritage. I found it interesting to witness the processes involved in maintaining this status.

One of the most striking things about the building is its materiality - it is tactile, physical, visceral, quite rough in places. And the forms are wild - the strict repetition of the cells and the corridors is set against the steep slope of the irregular pyramid roof of the small chapel, that seems to float in the courtyard. The vast oblong of the church sits between two chapels that bring light deep into the crypt, one is a sinuous bunker, with great funnels, the other a modest rectangle, with diamond shaped lightwells crashing diagonally into its roof. The glazed facades are articulated by an irregular rhythm of concrete vertical elements, a pattern developed by Le Corbusier's friend, composer and engineer, Iannis Xenakis. (The pair collaborated throughout the project, Le Corbusier was preoccupied with his work in Chandigarh, and left Xenakis in charge on site. Execution drawings we found in a plan chest were signed by Xenakis.) The rich and rough materiality and the experimental irregular forms are so striking because they go against the way Le Corbusiser's architecture was so often presented by tutors when I was studying. For years at school we learnt about his five points of architecture and modular studies, and great emphasis was placed on the whiteness, the cleanness, the pureness, the mechanical, the machine age, the uniformity, the prefabrication. Well all that seems to miss the point after 24 hours spent in La Tourette.

The final thing I want to mention is the acoustic quality of the building, already touched upon in the church. Throughout the building silence rules. One has to keep silent at all times, apart from the communal meals in the dining room. We found ourselves whispering the whole time, even outside. It is a place of study, reflection, meditation. But at the same time it is incredibly noisy. It is a giant resonance box. You hear every footstep, every door being closed, every key turning. What would be a tiny sound in a modern acoustically insulated building, becomes a huge rattling sound in this building.

Le Couvent de la Tourette
Eveux, near Lyon

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