Historic Blunders

9th June 2006 at 01:00
hink of Le Corbusier and you probably think of white villas, ideal cities, and tower blocks raised on stilts. "A house," he explained in a book that would become the manifesto of modern architecture, "is a machine for living in."

And a church? Well, you might be forgiven for assuming that the man who regarded furniture as clutter, did not do religion. But pilgrims who flock to the small French town of Ronchamp, just an hour's drive from the German border, know otherwise.

Here, in 1950, one of the world's most celebrated architects began working on one of the 20th century's most important religious structures - the extraordinary chapel of Notre Dame du Haut.

With its immense toadstool roof and its canted, curving walls, this most sculptural of all buildings has been described as the first example of post-modernist architecture. And 50 years after its completion, Ronchamp still has the power to surprise.

Visitors are amazed by the subtlety of the light in the chapel's interior.

They are astonished how the concrete roof appears to hover above its supporting walls. Many are taken by an overwhelming sense of holiness. Last year, visitors received a big surprise, however, for it transpired that, for reasons nobody can explain, this hallowed site had never been consecrated.

It's true that, on its inauguration in 1955, the chapel was blessed. But blessing is one thing and consecration is quite another. Not a single document has been found suggesting that the latter ceremony ever took place.

The walls were not anointed and neither was the altar. Correct candles were not lit or proper prayers recited. Most importantly, the relics of two local saints, housed in an earlier building that was destroyed in the war, were never rehoused in the new church.

Opinions vary as to the significance of this liturgical blunder - whether, for example, masses said in the unconsecrated church were technically valid. But as of last September, when a discreet consecration ceremony was held at Ronchamp, Le Corbusier's machine for praying in is in full working order.

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