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.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today