Monday, February 3, 2014

The Vandalism of Notre Dame du Haut: What it Means

By Tyler Dunahee

Notre Dame du Haut is often considered Corbusier’s finest work, and he was one of the most influential architects of the 20th Century. It revitalized a church after its previous chapel, which was a 4th century chapel, was destroyed in World War II.  Corbusier was chosen to do the new chapel as reformists within the Roman Catholic Church looked to renew their spirit by embracing both modern art and architecture as representative concepts. Notre Dame du Haut was finished in 1953 on the hill of BourlĂ©mont overlooking Ronchamp.           
On January 17th, vandals broke into Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, breaking a window and a taking a small concrete chest.  It’s just a window right? The window that was broken for entry was the only window in Notre Dame du Haut that bore the mark of Corbusier himself, a blue square with a man howling in the moon. The window was not of stained glass, as Corbusier believed it was too similar to the ways of “old architecture”, instead he hand painted it and had signed it, making the window irreplaceable, a historic piece destroyed forever in a meaningless act of vandalism.
                One would think that the vandalism would be the end of the discussion, but this vandalism has opened the eyes of many to another issue, exploitation of historical buildings and their negligence.  One may not be able to tell by looking at pictures of the structural feat, but when visiting Notre Dame du Haut you can tell there are a number of issues, likely caused by negligence.  Many architects and historians believe that the chapel has been left to rot in the French hillside, even while it has been turned into a “cash cow”, last year 80,000 tickets were sold, and that’s their average annual amount. The amount of income that is being generated coupled with the fact that the building is being neglected, as Le Corbusier scholar and architectural historian William JR Curtis points to the fact that the chapel is “quite literally falling apart, with the white pebbledash cracked and crumbling away and the bare concrete eroding at the edges”, is, also according to Curtis, scandalous.  The property is owned and run by the Association L’Oeuvre de Notre Dame du Haut.
                In 2011 Renzo Piano completed a monastery on a nearby hillside, not far from Notre Dame du Haut, this project was controversial as it diminished the remote site of Notre Dame du Haut and added a new access road nearby.  Curtis referred to the addition as creating a bit of a gated community, with an outward sign of prosperity.  Some believe that this sign of prosperity may create some harsh feelings toward these pieces of architecture as many locals suffer from desperate poverty in what is referred to as a depressed region of France.

                One must ponder though, which of these vandalisms are worse, the intentional vandalism by the vandals that smashed a window or the vandalism caused due to the negligence from which the very association that owns Notre Dame du Haut, a building from which they are profiting from.

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