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Le Corbusier, by design Finishing famed architect's church 40 years after conception
Jan Otakar Fischer
12 May 2005
International Herald Tribune


Le Corbusier was one of the 20th century's most important architects, whose cerebral and provocative designs are still poorly understood by most non-architects. In his effort to shape a better social order through functionalist forms and techniques, he didn't often make room for organized religion. He designed only three religious structures, all in France, and just two of these were realized: the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp and the monastic college of La Tourette.

The third, the church of Saint-Pierre de Firminy, celebrated its topping out ceremony late last month, more than 40 years after its conception. The last of Le Corbusier's unfinished projects is finally taking shape. Most of the crowd of politicians, architects and supporters standing in the sunshine had once assumed the building would stay on the drawing boards forever. When they arrived they found the belfry, which was meant to rise in symbolic importance before them, already perched high on the roof. The builders of the church were not going to let anything delay them any longer.

Saint-Pierre de Firminy, scheduled for completion in the summer of 2006, should prove a sensation for contemporary architects. No major design by a celebrated modern architect has ever been completed decades after its commission. It will also be the keystone of a new strategy of civic boosterism for the former mining town, which will soon be able to boast the largest concentration of work by Le Corbusier outside Chandigarh in India. And for one architect in particular, the church will fulfill a destiny only a disciple could hope for.

"We never stopped fighting for the project," said Jose Oubrerie. "We came back to the work again and again, like an actor who must bring the same freshness to a play even at the 200th performance." Oubrerie, 72, the architect in charge of Saint-Pierre's completion, worked for Le Corbusier from 1957 until the master's death in 1965. As a young man, he helped develop the Firminy church design from the very first sketches. One of a small, privileged cadre of Le Corbusier apprentices, who included Mario Botta and Iannis Xenakis, he went on to found his own practice and later became a professor of architecture at Ohio State University, where he still teaches.

Firminy, tucked into a valley of the Loire west of Saint- Etienne, was known for little other than its pollution and grim living standards until 1953, when an ambitious new mayor was elected. Eugene Claudius-Petit had first met Le Corbusier on a trip to the United States in 1946, and later, as France's minister of reconstruction, he had strongly endorsed the architect's ideas on urban planning, including his controversial Unite d'Habitation housing block in Marseille. When he became mayor of Firminy, Claudius-Petit initiated a large-scale renewal project, recruiting a team of planners to create a "vertical garden city" on an open site adjacent to the old town. The new town became known as "Firminy- Vert," in contrast to the notorious Firminy "noir" of the 19th- century mining era. Le Corbusier was asked to design three Unites d'Habitation, as well as a cultural center, stadium and parish church, which he organized as an ensemble around the bowl of an abandoned quarry. When Le Corbusier died, most of his buildings were still under construction. But Firminy-Vert was already being praised as one of Europe's most accomplished postwar planning exercises.

The reality of the theoretical social experiment underlying the plan for Firminy did not prove entirely successful, however. The cultural center never attracted the users Le Corbusier expected. Only one Unite was built, and it was soon surrounded by less elegant high-rises. In 1971 Claudius-Petit was replaced by a Communist mayor who considered Firminy-Vert an unjustified boondoggle.

Construction of Saint-Pierre went forward fitfully under Oubrerie's supervision, but only the raw concrete of the first two administration levels and a jagged portion of the sanctuary walls had been finished by 1978, when money ran out and work ceased permanently. The concrete skeleton of Saint-Pierre, sealed like a flak bunker, was the last of Firminy's Le Corbusier structures to gain landmark status in 1996, but even that seemed to do little except make the paralysis official.

Oubrerie, however, never lost his focus. In the 1990s he helped establish a foundation to win approval and raise funds for the completion of Saint-Pierre. By 2003 he had found enough support to restart the project with a handful of similarly dedicated local architects and builders. It will cost only 7 million, about $9 million, to complete the church, 40 percent of which will come from the European Union and the rest from city and state funding. Saint- Pierre no longer looks like a bunker. That was reason enough for the roughly 200 visitors to celebrate at the topping out, which was actually more of a group hug. The crowd gathered first on the stadium parapet overlooking the church. When asked to say a few words, facing Saint-Pierre, Oubrerie welled up with emotion and let someone else speak. Saint-Pierre will be radically unlike Le Corbusier's other churches and unique among religious structures. Its geometry is produced by the projection of a circle onto a square, a metamorphosis that represented for the architect the transition from the earthly to the spiritual realm and one made possible by a complex hyperboloid shell enclosure. The square base of the church containing functional rooms is surmounted by an enormous truncated cone housing the sanctuary, which is lit by an array of protruding "light cannons." The shell, and the winding pathway into and through the sacred space another version of Le Corbusier's "promenade architecturale" are the central elements of Saint-Pierre. Oubrerie did not attempt to explain the building's symbolic associations. "I am too close to the nuts and bolts to be poetic," he said. "I leave that to others, like my younger colleagues." They point out that the church resembles a nuclear cooling tower, or maybe one of those volcanoes seen on Volvic water bottles. Both may have influenced Le Corbusier. Other people refer to it as the seau a charbon, the coal bucket, a signifier linked to Firminy's industrial past. Interpretation is encouraged by the fact that Saint-Pierre is cast almost entirely in concrete, a material Le Corbusier preferred in his later years for its economy and plasticity. "The old walls were in excellent shape, even after 30 years of exposure," Oubrerie said. The original concrete has been water-blasted clean but left slightly darker than the new additions to mark the different building phases. A quick-setting, non- vibrated concrete not available in Le Corbusier's day has been used with great success, along with many more prefabricated elements that would have been previously poured in place. Much of the most important work is invisible the whole building had begun to list on the sloping site over the years, and the foundation had to be massively reinforced.

At a reception in Le Corbusier's cultural center, the current right-of-center mayor of Firminy, Dino Cinieri, 49, who has been a crucial ally of Oubrerie's in the effort to complete Saint-Pierre, proclaimed "a great day for us all" and reminded the audience that the church would soon house a satellite wing of the Saint-Etienne Museum of Modern Art in its lower floors. Remarkably enough, 15,000 tourists already visit Firminy-Vert each year, and the region is eager to enhance that figure with extra cultural attractions. Architectural tourism is not usually a reliable source of revenue unless you can offer pyramids or baroque palaces but perhaps Firminy is hoping for a bit of that rare "Bilbao effect," with which Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum reinvigorated a similarly down-om- its-luck industrial town in Spain.

Will Saint-Pierre be a work truly by Le Corbusier? The sanctuary of the church will be ready for use as he intended, but it will belong to the Region of Saint-Etienne, not to the diocese, which will have no obligation to hold services in it. The lower floors will be given over to a museum, not a ministry. Methods of construction and building codes have ecloced over 40 years, requiring changes in wall thickness, insulation and means of egress. What role do intention and method play in authorship?

"Le Corbusier was always interested in experimenting with new technologies," Oubrierie said. He has no doubt that his boss would have approved of recent innovations, so long as the spirit of the design was not compromised. Regarding a possible clerical absence at Saint-Pierre, Oubrierie is also not dogmatic. "I am not concerned with these questions. For me it is enough to paraphrase the philosopher Henri Levebvre, who said that all cities need big, useless spaces to provide their citizens with calm, concentration and even meditation. In any case, I'm an atheist."

In 1977 Oubrerie reconstructed Le Corbusier's famous Esprit Nouceau Pavilion of 1925 on a site outside of Bologna in Italy. It was given a green light by the Foundation Le Corbusier in Paris, which has been the arbieter of all things relating to the architect since 1968. The foundation was skeptical about Saint-Pierre at first, but with each month it is showing signs of approval, according to the architects involved. Oubrerie does not have time to worry about recognition at the moment. "Le Corbusier used to say, 'There are those who do, and those who do not.' I am doing what I have to do. For me it is the end of my education, at 72, the same age Le Corbusier was when I entered his studio for the first time."

On questions of attrbution, Oubrerie has a simple response, often shared with his colleagues: "If the church is good, it is a Le Corbusier. If it is bad, it is an Oubrerie." A happy medium -- very much in the incantatory sense seems assured.

Blue Devil
179 Posts
I'll respond to your post since nobody else on this forum seems interested in genuine architectural geniuses like Le Corbusier.

Great article. Im always skeptical about completing works by dead architects, especially since Gaudi's Segrada Familia was screwed up so badly. I'll wait and see how this turns out though.

Somnium Quinti
698 Posts
I just got back from a trip where me and friends spent a night in La Tourette and two nights in the Marseille Unite. It was amazing and I am looking forward to visiting Ronchamp, and the newly completed church. Since my recent visits Corbusier has become my one true, all round architectural hero. I already loved his work after visiting the Pavilion Suisse, Savoye and Cite de Refuge, but there is something fundamental, broad and complete about his later works that blows my mind. One day I will get to Chandigarh...
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