Two design circumstances were decisive to establish the character that typifies the architecture of the Convent of La Tourette. The first is embodied by defining the horizontal plane governing the highest point of the terrain, so that, from that horizontal, the building descends copying the irregular topography of the slope. The second is to mutate the concept of traditional cloister by a more complex arrangement, where the patio is not the space of expansion of the rooms that surround it but the support of volumes and circulations that cross it to link different points of the program.
Both provisions align Le Corbusier’s emphatic response to a program that promotes introspection, in a site that also presents a suggestive complexity. The land where the convent was built was acquired by the Dominicans, an estate of 80 hectares with forests and a farm on the side of a hill in Eveux-sur-arbresle. The program is summarized to a church, a chapter house, accommodation for 100 Dominicans, school and library. Le Corbusier was imbued with the monastic spirit by Father Marie Alain Couturier, with whom he had a close friendly relationship since the time of Ronchamp.
Couturier was passionate about art and as such exerted strong influence on the decision of the Dominicans so that the chosen one is Le Corbusier, whom he imbued with the characteristics of the activity within the monastery, through letters where he profusely recounted rites and customs of the Dominicans , and even a sketch about
“The typical Cistercian plant, with common services attached to a porticoed courtyard that, in turn, was attached to one side of an elongated church”.1
In the first visit to the land, Le Corbusier determines the nature of the implementation:
“I drew the road, I drew the horizons, I put the orientation of the sun, I confused the topography, I decided where I would be, because the place was not fixed at all. By choosing the location I was committing a criminal or valid act”.2
By defining the horizontal plane at the highest point of the terrain, Le Corbusier avoids an important modification in the topography, mediating on the sides of the convent blind and perforated planes, to allow the free circulation of the mobile sediments of the site.
In this work, Le Corbusier raises a determining tension between the individual and the collective, which is expressed in the representation of a repetitive unit for the monastic cell and the free disposition of the collective spaces. Making “use“ of the irregular topography the convent offers decisive contrasts, mediating a throbbing façade over the valley, where the private cells located in the last two floors, model with their balconies a character that is not repeated in the rest of the building. On the lower floor, the seminar room has glass cloths on the entire exterior surface, divided by vertical concrete pillars that follow a sequence designed by Xenakis. This modulation that comes from the modulor and musical rhythms, in the fixed panels is called “ondulatories”, and in the mobile “aérateurs“.
But the greatest point of contrast is exteriorized between the design in horizontal bands of the convent and the hermetic volume of the church. The transparencies and the modulated shadows collide with the 5-level vertical massif, separated by a slit of air that establishes the dissociation between the privacy of the monastery and the public space of worship.
In plan, the interior sides of the building show variations that indicate the different uses of each floor. At the access level, the corridor linking the public spaces shows carpentry designed on the basis of a modulated square that recalls Mondrian’s pictorial exercises. Above, the circulations of the cells are illuminated by small slits of light located at eye level, modulated with small concrete supports that protrude like clods, coinciding with the structural columns.
The cells are small rectangles regulated by the dimensions of the modulor: 5.92 in length, 1.83 in width and 2.26 meters in height. Each room has a carpentry that covers the entire exterior and a balcony that allows the entry of sunlight. The walls have a rough and heavy texture that only lightens in the place where the reading table is located.
The central patio is crossed by two perpendicular corridors that link all public functions. One circulation leads from the access to the room, the other from the cells to the church; both are located vertically under a sloping roof. The walk allows us to contemplate the figures of architecture: the cube of the oratory, the pyramid juxtaposed above the cube, the cylinder of the spiral staircase, squares and parallelepipeds that reflect the forms of human creation.
The church is the result of an exercise of individual design within the group. The main volume presents two side-by-side volumes on each side of its length. One of irregular shape that contains the crypt, where three large skylights and large surfaces covered with primary colors predominate; another rectangular one on the opposite side where the sacristy is lit by seven geometric skylights. Both build the transept, founding a unique version of the Latin cross plan of the traditional church. The altar is located where the axes of these figures intersect. The solid, vertical and bare walls of the main nave are interrupted only by two horizontal slits: one open to the rising sun and the other to the west. The black floor accentuates the contrast between the shadows and the sheets of light.
Content in its rustic character, the attributes of La Tourette exalt the spiritual values that gave rise to it, mediating a rigorous project discipline. The building combines typological, spatial and functional games that depart from historical prototypes, but that are imbued with the spirit of their gene. The conventions of architecture are of a strict geometry, to elevate the graffiti of human creation and establish a conclusive divergence with the forms of nature.
Marcelo Gardinetti. Architect
La Plata. Argentina. Juny 2019
1 CURTIS, William J.R. Le Corbusier, ideas y formas. Madrid. Hermann Blume. 1987 pág. 181.
2 Le Corbusier´s words transcribed from the documentary Arquitecturas, El convento de La Tourette, Copans 2002.