As the drawings indicate, there is barely a straight line,
barely an assumption about the geometry of religious
space that hasn’t been questioned by Le Corbusier.
Most of the walls curve. The customary apse is convex.
The floor slopes towards the altar. The roof drops
towards the centre of the building. Yet the structuring
of space through light is immediately apparent.
A geometrically complex and more rectilinear corner
articulated with southern light (the building’s south-eastern corner, the south wall, the east door, Mary’s
niche, the pews) is set against the much calmer
curvilinear spaces at the back of the chapel, lit from
above via the light towers. (This basic diagonal division
is displayed in the earliest sketch-plans of the chapel
and asserted by the narrow slot of light below the roof.)
A corner that exploits direct light is counter-posed
to one that exploits indirect light. In the dark interior
this has a particular impact on how visitors encounter
the architecture. In the south-eastern corner direct
light intensifies the darkness as it pierces it, and here,
because direct light sources are in view, form is more
indistinct and the light almost palpable.
Conversely, the diffuse top-light of the secondary
chapels at the back of the space erodes the darkness
progressively, producing a gentle overall gradation from
light to shadow accentuated by the heavily textured
wall surface. Here, the indirect lighting of wall surfaces
from above means the form and spatial enclosure are
more stable, the light more elusive. Elsewhere, strong
colour intensifies darkness: candlelight is prominent
in the dim interior of the red chapel; the violet of the
north-east wall makes it almost invisible.
One typically moves in Le Corbusier’s early projects
from disorienting darkness to space flooded with
sunlight and given extensive views. In this project,
on the other hand, as in his other late work (all of
whose agonic settings – political or religious – are
caves), a superimposed dialectic of light and shadow,
orientation and disorientation, help to create l’espace
indicible. In this work, Le Corbusier creates a world of
shadow configured about the mutual play of fragments
and light that gives the architectural encounter an
even more powerful initiatory character (in this case a
descent through darkness to blinding light).
‘Our eyes are made to see
forms in light: light and
shade reveal these forms’
– Le Corbusier
A more rectilinear corner articulated with southern light is set against
the calmer curvilinear spaces at the back of the chapel lit from above
Overleaf and following pages: Le Corbusier designed the coloured glass
windows for the 27 rectangular openings set into the thick south wall.
The sketch and image of the window in the south wall depicts the
traditional Marian symbol of the moon