Concrete Monastery: Le Corbusier's Brutalist Monastery of Sainte Marie De La Tourette

Updated June 26, 2010

The Dominican monastery of Sainte Marie de La Tourette was designed by Modernist architect Le Corbusier and built near Lyon in France. Constructed between 1956 and 1960, the monastery houses a chapel, residence and place of learning for Dominican friars. La Tourette is one of the most important buildings of the Modern Movment. The building had a profound influence on the later phase of Modernism and initiated a notorious architectural style called Brutalism.

The Dominican Order of Lyon was led by Reverend Father Couturier, who commissioned Le Corbusier to design a new monastery. Not only was Le Corbusier a world-renowned architect but he lived a rigorous lifestyle of self-denial and monastic simplicity. This found an echo in the strict discipline associated with the Dominican friars. Accordingly, Le Corbusier created a building of stark beauty. The harshness and ‘brutality’ of the design reveals an empathy with the life of the monks.

Sitated in the landscape near a wooded vale, the monastery is executed in reinforced concrete. The building does not have the lightness and ethereal quality of Le Corbusier’s early work. Instead, the form is a regular repeating grid with a strong horizontal emphasis and the concrete is left exposed, making it deliberately harsh and rugged.

The monastery is built on two-levels. Halls for study, work and recreation occupy the upper-level, along with the library. On the lower level are the refectory and a cruciform cloister leading to the church. Part of the building is raised from the ground on piloti. Each cell is acoustically-isolated to permit meditation. It was not possible to build a traditional cloister due to the slope of terrain. Instead, a system of corridors connects the component parts. The loggias crowning the building form brises-soleil.

The panes of glass on the exterior form the ‘undulatory glass surface’ desired by Le Corbusier. He used a similar feature in his Secretariat building at Chandigarh, India. In constrast, the garden-court of the cloister features fenestration of vertical concrete slats reaching from floor to ceiling. These are perforated with glazed voids and separated from each other by ventilators: vertical slits covered with metal mosquito netting.

A chapel stands alongside. This is an abstract composition with the bare minimum of religious symbolism. The interior has immensely thick walls, which evoke the massiveness of medieval architecture. The walls are pierced with horizontal slits, which allows shafts of coloured light to penetrate the interior, giving an undeniably spiritual atmosphere.

The contrasts of this building are fascinating. We associate religious architecture with the Gothic style and religious iconography; Le Corbusier’s monastery is relentlessly modern and uncompromising, but somehow this seems appropriate. The raw concrete suits the strict religious doctrine it was built for. La Tourette has become a site of pilgrimage for architectural students.

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