Zeitgeist, World Order, Silence. A tour of Le Corbusier’s monastery La Tourette in Eveux (1957-1960)

The architect has designed a “life machine” for the Dominican order, whose individual parts do not at first appear to form a whole. And yet he shows us the standard for an order that is felt to be in harmony with the world order.

Zeitgeist, World Order, Silence. A tour of Le Corbusier’s monastery La Tourette in Eveux (1957-1960)

Whoever builds a monastery has to grapple with a way of life that is hundreds of years old; he also has to face a building tradition that he cannot ignore. When Le Corbusier received the mandate to build a monastery in Eveux near Lyon from the Dominican Order, he was already acquainted with outstanding examples. Nevertheless, he chose a new, contemporary approach, not only in the material used – concrete and glass dominating the appearance – but also in the design of all the building elements. At first glance, nothing prompts you to think of a holy building. Visitors coming from the North face the erratic concrete facade of the church first. The other views are no more pleasant: cells, work wing and refectory are mounted on massive reinforced concrete slabs and as thus lay over an angled hillside. That is why the cloister is missing the arcade that traditionally surrounds an inner courtyard and connects all parts of the building. Seen from the valley, one seems to face an oil drilling platform rather than a monastery.

If you enter between the church and the cell wing, the inner courtyard presents itself as a seemingly unregulated clash of the most diverse forms. Because every use, every room has its own character, its own facade, its own shape. Nothing seems to subject itself to a larger whole or to refer to such a totality. The architect of the “Dwelling Machine” [1] has designed a “life machine” for the Dominican order, whose individual parts do not at first appear to form a whole, a completeness. Still, surprisingly, it is known that from the beginning the monks agreed with the way the building was constructed, they didn’t have any suggestions for alterations or improvement. They accepted it as a suitable setting for their spiritual work.

Openness and seclusion

While you slowly get to know the building, the first impression is further amplified. It becomes obvious that the architect designed every detail very carefully.

After the visitor has passed through a symbolic gate measuring 226 x 226 cm [2] he or she is greeted in the middle of bare concrete of the cell and teaching wing by handmade-looking, round, plastered visitor cells with padded benches around the inside. In the beginning, a visitor did not get any further, because the religious college was not open to lay people.

Nowadays everyone, both men and women, can enter the building, and can even spend the night there. Most areas of everyday life have been given open facades – the cell wing, the classrooms, the refectory, the hallways, the “cloister”, which does not surround the inner courtyard as usual, but crosses it. Only the church and crypt deny insight and view. And there are still the concrete flowers at some of the ends of the hallways – slightly inclined concrete slabs outside the windows block the view and only let in subdued light. The view of the monks who walk on the flat roofs is similarly restricted, because all roofs are surrounded by a man-high concrete wall that only allows a view of the sky and the clouds. This restricted view is meant to remind man never to forget in which building he is in, because the architect’s conception is always visible and evident; in this case it seems to be a hint: you are here to reflect!

Even where the building celebrates openness, the view is always accompanied by the facades when you are looking out into the landscape or across the courtyard at the rest of the building. Concrete facades created in a rhythmic format, called ondulatoires (i.e. waves), blend a fine, man-made harmony into the view. Whenever you look through the narrow, upright glass fields between delicate [3] concrete bars, you have to relate man and nature with each other. Since it is Le Corbusier who invented the architectural walk, the “promenade architecturale”, something happens to people moving inside the building. One is asked to perceive one’s spatial-temporal being again and again and to localize oneself, perhaps even with regard to eternity.

Human measures and other measures

When one enters the church through a corridor confined by the ondulatoires, one comes into a rectangular room that differs from all others. The entrance is usually through a kind of hatch in a large square steel door which is opened only on special occasions. The room is approximately 16 meters high, dark, made of raw concrete, almost completely negating human measurement. In the middle of the room there is an elevated altar area, which is accessible via six steps and resembles a stage on which a mystery is supposed to occur. On the east side, from which the laity enters the church, there is a wide vertical slit of light; and in the west, in the area of the monks, a narrow, horizontal slit of light directly under the flat ceiling. Together they form a cross, they combine birth and death.

The entire church space offers the senses no comfort. Nevertheless, the architect has made a small gesture of care by cutting flat window slits in the outer wall behind the monks’ benches, the soffits of which are painted in primary colours and in whose light the monks can read their hymnbooks.

The experience with which the church space confronts people has, however, not yet come to an end. In this repulsive dark room, laymen and monks turn towards the center altar from opposite sides. There the room opens to a transverse axis on which the sacristy and crypt are located. Another cross! The sacristy shows itself as a slightly inclined red wall; on the side of the crypt, light and color pour into the room, and one looks into a room illuminated by large round skylights, the so-called light cannons. Again, it is primary colors, yellow, red, blue and even black, that form a pure, abstract light scenery. Where originally only priests were allowed to enter, there is light, in an area that seems removed from everything human. The entire church building is a single confrontation, which, according to the architect’s statements, can be uplifting:

“True architecture touches our strongest primal instincts through its objectivity and at the same time addresses our highest abilities through its abstraction. (…) Architectural abstraction has the peculiar and magnificent thing about it that, rooted in the raw reality, it spiritualizes it. The raw reality is nothing more than becoming matter, as a symbol for the potential idea. The raw reality becomes pervious to the idea only through the order that is brought into it.” [4]

There is actually a kind of harmony that does not pay homage to people, but challenges. The raw reality challenges our spirituality, which wants to transcend the raw, blind matter. We have to perceive the “raw” and accept that we are alike. Then transcendence becomes possible, being permeated by something else, something spiritual, in the people themselves and in the material that is the starting point of this process. This harmony has to be achieved. In the architect’s words, it is the moment of conformity with the laws of the universe, the return to the world order. [5]

In La Tourette, Le Corbusier also created places that embody a harmony turned towards people. The monk cells do this literally, measuring 183 x 226 cm in cross-section, which means the six-foot “Modulor’s” arm span and the upward reach of his hand. However, the cells do not appear narrow, but rather tailor-made – a counterweight to the vastness of the rest of the building and the incomprehensibility that one encounters in the church. Each cell has a breezeway that opens to the hilly landscape. Here the dialogue with the material world is required, between the security in the small and the vastness that one faces.

If a monk wants to retire for prayer and meditation outside the scheduled times, he has the oratorio at his disposal, a small cube that is placed on a cross-shaped concrete support in the courtyard and that has a sloped pyramid roof. There are only two light sources in it: a window with a red shutter and one in the concrete roof.

A small crucifix decorates the white plastered wall. A place of closeness and silence has been created here that is inclined towards people.

This architecture does not represent a world order. It leads one to occupy oneself with it – with the zeitgeist and with the universal behind it. It is a special type of glasses through which you can see the world. In this way, it condenses life experience and world experience. It places people in a more conscious relationship with the world, in a continued communication with it – as being carried, as a question, as a confrontation and an imposition. In this respect it is a concentration of what people experience through being in the world and at the same time it is a spiritual helping hand.

Every person experiences moments in their everyday life when they face the world and their life as the parable of the Eternal [6] – meaningful, beautiful and sublime. At different moments, everyone experiences world and life as meaningless, questionable and cruel. We have to make sense of this ambivalence and find our way through it. Nothing works without acceptance – of every moment, of every situation. Only in this way does the present open itself to us, in which the earthly fits in harmony with the divine. Le Corbusier’s monastery embodies this ambivalence by placing man in a relationship with the world that includes security, mystery and imposition in equal measure. In the process, it is noticeable that all of this comes from a single source – here from that of the architect, who has created a modern picture of the whole. And the architect’s creation becomes a symbolic concentration of all the tasks that life has in store for man.

The intentions of the architect

Le Corbusier confessed that he wanted the zeitgeist and the world order to become recognizable and reconciled. He built for people who at all times, both inwardly and outwardly, want to deal with the zeitgeist, recognize it, work on it. The architecture initially appeals to the senses, but this enables a deeper understanding of the world: by using the forms, the architect realizes an order that is a pure creation of his mind: by means of the forms, he intensively touches our senses and awakens our feelings for the design. The connections that he creates evoke deep resonance in us. He shows us the standard for an order that is felt to be in harmony with the world order. [7] And further: In this context, harmony is the moment of compliance with the axis, that rests in man, that is, in accordance with the laws of the universe, the return to the world order. [8] To be conscious in the present moment in the world and at the same time connected with its original principles – that was Le Corbusier’s project.


[1] “A house is a machine for living” was first written in 1921 in issue number 8 of the still young magazine “L’Esprit Nouveau”. You have to “completely revise all the customs honored by architects today, you have to screen the whole past and all memories of the past through reasonable consideration, you have to pose the problem in the same way that engineers posed the problem of air traffic, and you have to build machines for living.“ This is what the architect wrote in “Le Corbusier: Coming Architecture”, Stuttgart 1926, p. 102. In short: The architect tries to free building and living from the ballast of the traditions.

[2] The “Modulor”, a six-foot tall person, measures 226 cm with his arm extended upwards.

[3] Which are only about 5 cm wide. The reconstruction of these narrow profiles presented the conservationists with enormous challenges during the renovation (from 2006)

[4] Norbert Huse: Le Corbusier, Reinbek 1976, p. 160

[5] Item, p. 152

[6] see Goethe’s “Everything ephemeral is but a parable.”

[7] Le Corbusier: “View at an architecture”, Berlin / Frankfurt am Main / Vienna 1963, quoted from: Norbert Huse: Le Corbusier, Reinbek 1976, p. 21

[8] Item, p. 21

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Date: June 3, 2020
Author: Angela Paap (Germany)
Photo: Christoph Reichelt und Angela Paap

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