Window in Le Corbusier chapel smashed

A stained glass window in the Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, designed by Swiss-born French architect Le Corbusier was smashed to smithereens in a break-in last month. On the night of January 17th, a person or persons broke through the stained glass window, hand-painted with a yellow flower, dark red clouds and the moon on a blue background, and stole a heavy concrete collection box from inside the church. The box contained no money; it was torn open and abandoned on the chapel grounds. The door leading to the library and gift shop also shows the tell-tale signs of attempted forced entry.

Le Corbusier painted all the simple, richly colored windows in the building, but the one destroyed was reportedly the only one bearing his signature. It’s very hard to see in pictures of the intact window because he signed the dark cloud underneath the moon, but if you look closely on the bottom edge of the cloud you can just make out some light vertical scratch-like things. That’s the signature which reads “L .. C 14 Mai 55,” the artist’s initials and the creation date, May 14th, 1955. You can see heart-breaking views of the broken window in this French news story:

Initial reports described the damage as irreparable, but all the glass fragments that could be found have been collected in two large bags and sent to master glassmaker Pierre-Alain Parot in Côte d’Or. Parot has restored some of the most exquisite stained glass windows in the world, including those in the Strasbourg Cathedral and is scheduled to begin work on the windows of Sainte Chapelle in Paris shortly. Despite his workshop’s undeniable skill, the job is a daunting one. When the thieves broke through, it busted into thousands of tiny pieces.

The good news is restorers have already found few pieces of the signature. They’ve begun by grouping like with like, much as you would put together a jigsaw puzzle. You can see the glassmakers at work in this news story (also in French):

The bad news is this is doubtless going to be a very costly, time-consuming rescue mission, and the decision about how far to go in the attempt is in the hands of the private owners of the chapel, the Association de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut. The master glassmaker and experts from the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) will first have to determine just how much of the window they think is salvageable and then present their conclusions to the Association. At the very least, this process will give experts the chance to study paint and glass samples, identify microorganisms or environmental issues at risk of damaging the paint, and determine what approach would be the most effective in conserving the surviving windows.

This disaster has put the Association de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame du Haut’s record of securing and maintaining the chapel under the microscope. The Le Corbusier Foundation in Paris, an organization founded by the architect himself to ensure the conservation of his work, is displeased, to say the very least. The chapel is afflicted with moisture problems and serious damage to the concrete and masonry. While upkeep on the 60-year-old building is neglected, the Association chose to spend €10 million ($13,522,000) on a Renzo Piano-designed monastery built into the hillside next to the chapel. Boasting housing units for the Poor Clare sisters, an oratory for pilgrims, a large new visitor’s center, the new addition was completed in 2011.

The Association de l’Oeuvre de Notre-Dame du Haut which owns and runs the site has done little to preserve the Chapel itself which is quite literally falling apart, with the white pebbledash cracked and crumbling away and the bare concrete eroding at the edges. Given the huge sums paid for the Piano project and the income from roughly 80,000 tourist tickets a year, this is scandalous, as is the failure to guarantee security. The building urgently needs restoration.

The Association is therefore going to be under heavy scrutiny for their response to this violation.

The Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut was a center of religious pilgrimage long before it was a center of architectural pilgrimage. The hilltop was a sacred space at least as far back as the Romans. The first Christian chapel was built on the site in the 4th century. The second chapel was destroyed during World War II. When the Catholic Church decided to rebuild after the war, reformers enlisted Le Corbusier to create a modernist spiritual space, a clean break from the decadent associations of the past.

Because access to the hilltop was a challenge, the architect had to build the chapel without the mechanical tools of construction that had become part of his trademark approach. Thus the modern building was constructed using wooden forms, cast concrete, steel reinforcement all done by hand. The chapel curvilinear shapes, thick walls and swooping roof are unlike anything else Le Corbusier made. Many consider it his masterpiece. Indeed, it was finished in 1954 and declared a national Historical Monument just 13 years later.

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11 Comments »

Comment by Hels
2014-02-06 04:40:22

Since glass cannot be taken away and sold on to an unsuspecting public, why would anybody bother smashing a stained glass window? No benefit to the vandal or to anyone else.

And why, if this was Le Corbusier’s masterpiece, would someone select THIS Le Corbusier instead of any other? Even vandals have goals.

Comment by livius drusus
2014-02-06 12:30:39

I think SC is right that they simply picked the most useful window. It had to be on of the low ones, obviously, and since the panes are framed in concrete, they looked for the largest, squarest pane to break. The blue moon pane fit the bill. The goal, in my opinion, was theft, not pure vandalism, which is why the door to the gift shop was tampered with; they hoped to find cash in the register.

 
 
Comment by The Old Salt
2014-02-06 06:52:40

Because…they’re vandals. Its their nature. Its what they do – indeed, probably all they know how to do.

Comment by livius drusus
2014-02-06 12:31:33

That too. I doubt they would have done any differently if they had known that particular window was the only signed one.

 
 
Comment by SC
2014-02-06 12:06:13

I would guess that their method of entry was through the broken window, and that’s why the window was smashed.

Comment by livius drusus
2014-02-06 12:32:10

Agreed. I think theft was the motivation more than just destruction.

 
 
Comment by KatWillow
2014-02-06 15:46:20

Why not steal the window?

Comment by livius drusus
2014-02-06 15:49:21

I doubt these clowns had glass cutters handy, and selling a stolen window everyone knows about would be next to impossible. I suspect they were just looking for ready cash.

 
 
Comment by Drue
2014-02-06 22:57:07

Is it me or does there seem to be an uptick in thefts and damage of art lately? Maybe it’s just the feeling that when something like this happens, I feel robbed too….

 
Comment by Frederique Jackson
2014-02-07 03:49:57

Born in Ronchamp, I was a witness to the damage to the chapel at the end of 1944. Ronchamp was under siege for a solid month and pretty well destroyed. The reason at the time, for not fixing it, was that it had been desecrated since soldiers died actually inside the place and supposedly on the altar. Thus was decided its destruction. It was supposed to have miraculous power and scores of crutches could be found inside to prove the miracles.

 
Comment by Nic
2014-02-17 11:42:45

This is unfortunate, stained glass windows are a work of art. This act of vandalism was unnecessary and purposeless. Hopefully, the replacement will be as beautiful as the original.

 
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