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April 15, 2011 / catherinebwrites


When I was in Primary School, there was one year when, due to renovations, the school day finished early.     Because my mother was working and there would be nobody at home, I went to an aunt’s house until she was home from work.  My cousin Colm had just started studying Architecture and he took it upon himself to instruct me on the wonders of modern design.    He told me all about Bauhaus, Walter Gropius, Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Loyd Wright and Le Corbusier which made me feel terribly sophisticated.    I longed for an opportunity to show off my new-found knowledge but, ten-year old girls have little interest in whether function should dictate form or not.   It was many years before I had to chance to fling “Bauhaus” into a conversation in the hope of impressing people with my knowledge.Colm showed me pictures in Architectural magazines of cutting-edge buildings including the Dominican Couvent de Saint Marie de la Tourette in Eveux in France, designed by Le Corbusier.   He’d said that Le Corbusier was one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century and I was more than happy to believe this.    So, recently, when we were in Lyon and La Tourette was nearby, I couldn’t wait to visit it.

You take the train from Lyon to L’Arbresle and then walk up a hill and keep on walking.   The walk took  the best part of an hour but it was a lovely day, the views were delightful and we stopped frequently to admire the scenery… well that was my excuse.   Finally we got there and I couldn’t believe my eyes.

It was hideous.   It is made entirely of concrete and concrete doesn’t weather well.   The outside walls were badly stained and the bell tower looked as though a particularly clumsy child had stuck it on in the wrong place.   The entrance was puddled and muddy and they had put wooden boxes down to keep your feet dry but I still had high hopes for the interior.   I remembered photographs of light beaming down through coloured shafts.  

The interior is a huge, rectangular, concrete box with a high concrete ceiling.   The concrete is dirty and stained.  I kept thinking “gas chamber, gas chamber, gas chamber”.   Yes, the light does come in through coloured shafts which are painted red and yellow and blue but the paint is cracked and bubbling, the windows are spiderwebbed and leaking and there is a terrible air of neglect.    Curiously though, some sections still photograph well.   The building induced a great sense of unease and agitation in me.   This is in contrast to the cathedral and basilica in Lyon, neither of which are particularly outstanding but both are peaceful, calm spaces.

The rest of the monastery buildings  have also worn badly and the entire complex had the air of a sink estate built in the sixties.    Having held the name of Le Corbusier in high esteem all my life I felt terribly let down and yet, and yet, I have to admit to a certain pleasurable schadenfreude.    Finally I had serious a word with myself and reminded myself that, geniuses too have their off days.  

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  1. Colm / May 11 2011 3:20 pm

    One of the most interesting books I've read in the last few years, or at least the one I find myself bringing up in conversations, is How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand It's a fantastic read which makes you think twice about how architecture esteems the built environment and tends to live in the immediate novelty of new buildings and disregards how buildings age. So the new innovative roof may win an award for its beauty and innovation but you can be pretty confident that nobody on the judging panel spoke to the maintenance staff to ask whether the roof leaks or is a nightmare to deal with on a day to day basis.There is an accompanying documentary available online here:


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