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IDEAS / architecture

La Tourette. In Search Of The Ineffable

20 January 2018

words:  Natalie Donat-Cattin

photos:  Jian Yong Khoo

“La Tourette is in-situ cast concrete, and it reads as a singular structure in spite of its volumetric and formal complexities and apparently tectonic language. The monastery is suspended between earth and sky; it echoes the dark depths and gravity of the earth while reaching towards the sky, hovering weightlessly on its dense system of piloti. This building merges the opposing human dreams of flying and being buried in the earth. Le Corbusier’s floating man-made cliff feeds light into its very bowels, evoking an animistic sense of breathing. As Constantin Brancusi, the master sculptor, exclaims: art must give suddenly, all at once, the shock of life, the sensation of breathing” – Juhani Pallasmaa

The reading of the building originates from this antithesis: man’s primitive will of flying versus his fear and, at same instant, urge of contact with the earth. It is a journey towards the mystic, tied to the personal growth of Le Corbusier as an architect and even more as an artist. He is an acrobat poised on the wire of his time, in search of what he defines the “ineffable space” – an architectural fourth dimension, synonymous to relativity according to Einstein’s space-time theory. This historical fact, together with the discovery of speed – a consequence of the invention of the automobile – morphs man’s perception of the world: no longer two-dimensional, but total in its asymmetry.

La Tourette must be experienced within this dynamic vision. It is a voyage towards the underworld, imagined as a concrete prison set in the bowels of the earth. Light assists us down the whole way, to whose end a mystical darkness awaits us. It is not only a promenade architectural but also an ambivalent, introspective journey. We reflect on ourselves and on the religious choice: the suffering path of life’s learning goes hand in hand with the renunciation’s vow of the monks.

Upon arrival, faced by the monastery’s brutality, a short bridge spans the distance between the building and the surrounding world. It is a ford of faith and pain, in its simplicity we read all the precariousness of life. While entering the building, a feeble voice seems to invite us not unlike Caron in hell by whispering: “abandon all hope, ye who here enter”. The large pans de verre frame the surrounding landscape, which invades the corridors of the building. Continuing the descent down the ramp, the brightness decreases, becoming faint and distant, almost imperceptible.

The end of the descent culminates with the church: a heavy, single, parallelepiped block resting on the ground. Here, the only window is hidden. The light is intangible, distant, unreachable, experienced only in its projection on the wall. In this ineffable space we feel bare, brute like the walls of the church.

“I wish to conserve […] the extremely rough aspect of the church’s walls. There is here a success in the spiritual domaine, […] that must not be destroyed for any reason. […] Keep intact what is worthy by the circumstance, meaning the absence of pomp and the presence of something primordial”, says Le Corbusier, with regards to the concrete treatment in this space.

In this modern “gothic” cathedral, we are like ants begging to the superhuman; thighs of our faults and exposed in all of our humanity. Ready to be sacrificed on the altar.

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architasters / project by Natalie Donat-Cattin and Jian Yong Khoo. It is a platform for speculation and discussion, functioning as a complementary repository for their design work.