Philosophers, scientists, artists, architects. These and many others are the prominent figures of the 18th century in France and Europe. Leading figures, whom with their thinking and charisma, are still remembered for their contribution to an epoch of political changes, renewed ideals and revolutionary discoveries, in a period of time stretching from the Age of Enlightenment to the French Revolution. During this epoch, the physical universe, no more alien and mysterious, finally begins to take shape and configuration, thanks to the excellence of Newton. This vibrant and evolving context creates the preconditions for the affirmation of man as an individual and as a thinker, aware of his abilities and means in a world of immense dimensions.
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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.
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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The Convent de la Tourette hovers weightlessly on a hill overlooking the nearby town, uncannily reminiscent of a temple atop the Athenian Acropolis. Visitors willing to make the pilgrimage are initially met with a visual field of low intrinsic interest – but the beauty of the architecture slowly reveals itself the more one looks.
If the essence of architecture – its intrinsic and determining constituent – is empty space, every man has experienced an archetypal feeling when visiting the Pantheon. Confined in an immense space, we can never embrace its entirety. Ignorant but curious, we marvel at how such a great dome can stand. Questions whose answers lie in subtle ploys: secrets buried within the structure and the material.
Palazzo del Lavoro – The building stood before us imposing and abandoned. A broken glass and multiple graffiti were evidence that many before us had violated its solitude. Right through a smashed window we penetrated into the concrete soul of the building. Here, an infinite space opened in front of us: a basilica of our time, a cathedral of architecture with no god or religion, a modern days’ ruin.
The power of a mirror lies in its simplicity. A single surface allowing for endless possibilities. Multiplication’s machine, illusions’ creator, reality’s extension are just some of its magical properties.
“Magic mirror, on the wall – who is the fairest one of all?”