A Concrete Testament: Le Corbusier's Final Project

By Stefan Simons in Firminy, France

Le Corbusier is considered one of the fathers of modern urban planning. But his last creation, a spectacular concrete church in the small French town of Firminy, was never completed. Now, more than 40 years after his death, Sainte Pierre is finally being opened to the public.

The urban wonder is located in a rural idyll: Firminy is a small town decked out in flowers, nestled into the hills not far from the Loire Valley. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was a smoky industrial center, but now this town of 19,000, not far from the city of Saint Etienne, has the charm of a sleepy suburb.

The square in front of the city hall is surrounded by a pedestrian zone and a middle-class residential area. Not far from there is the town's "green" neighborhood, Firminy Vert -- another residential area, surrounded by plenty of vegetation and built against a sloping hill. Single-family houses are neatly lined up on one side. Across from them are staggered apartment blocks, their grid-like window fronts almost entirely covered by mirrored, color-coded panels.

The architectural surprise is located at the center of the natural amphitheatre: A cone of fair-faced concrete -- a kind of pointed tower with rounded edges. A cube and a cylinder jut, chimney-like, from the slanted roof. The building resembles the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor or the raised platform on a submarine. It's Firminy's Sainte Pierre church, which has only just been opened to the public -- the last project of architect Le Corbusier, who died in 1965.

The building, completed after the multitalented Le Corbusier's death, is his "concrete testament," according to Jean-Louis Cohen, a historian and an expert on the architect. "The church isn't just an enormously important construction in itself," says Cohen, author of the most recent Le Corbusier biography. "Firminy now constitutes the most important work by Le Corbusier in Europe."

The mastermind of modern urban planning

A Frenchman by choice, Le Corbusier was born in 1887 as Charles-Édouard Jeaynneret in Chaux-de-Fonds, then the center of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Local art instructors encouraged him to develop his talent as a draftsman, painter and furniture designer. He was only 19 when he built his first house -- a relatively traditional chalet. Then he traveled all over Europe for five years, equipped with his sketchbook and camera. He visited both ancient historical sites and the design offices of the era's architectural avant-garde, settling in Paris in 1917. After adopting the pseudonym Le Corbusier, he quickly established a reputation as a painter, architect and mastermind of modern urban planning.

A brilliant writer, bohemian and provocative member of the art world in one, Le Corbusier quickly became the star of French architecture. But despite his growing recognition, the big projects he had hoped to do weren't materializing. Influenced by the Bauhaus movement in Weimar, he built a residential complex in Bordeaux, in addition to houses for the Paris elite, an administrative building in Moscow and the headquarters of the Brazilian Ministry of Education in Rio de Janeiro. But the globe-trotting urban planner wasn't able to implement his overall concept for a modern urban environment.

It was only after the war that Le Corbusier could partly realize that concept, in the form of an apartment complex in Marseille. The complex, assembled from pre-fabricated concrete elements, is composed of connectable parts, including the smart furniture. Equipped with an integrated shopping center and primary school, the complex combines the most important aspects of human activity: "Living, working, moving and exercising the body and the mind."

The controversial "living machine"

The creation of the controversial "living machine" remained a brief episode, at least in France. While Le Corbusier contributed to the design of the United Nations headquarters in New York and designed entire cities in India, he limited himself to building two churches in his home country -- the pilgrim's church in Ronchamp and the priory of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Tourette.

That was all the more reason for him to respond enthusiastically when, at the beginning of the 1950s, the then mayor of Firminy, Eugéne Claudius Petit, suggested he could put his ideas about humane housing into practice on the working class town's decrepit edge. Le Corbusier accepted the offer of his friend, the former minister for reconstruction, and came up with a generously designed residential complex, with plenty of fresh air and daylight, as well as separate routes for cars and residents. Other architects took charge of the apartment blocks. "Corbu" -- his nickname with the locals -- designed a cultural center, a sports stadium and a church at the center of the complex – buildings intended to cater to the human spirit and the human body while allowing for the exercise of religious ritual as well.

But only the futurist "House of Culture" and the neighboring sports arena, complete with a small tribune, were built. And only one of the three planned "living units" ever saw the light of day. Le Corbusier died in May of 1965, and the plans for Sainte Pierre were still being revised at the time.

An association took over and hired José Oubrerie, one of Le Corbusier's employees, with completing the project. The foundation stone was laid in the spring of 1970. Work on the two lower storeys of the church -- originally designed to hold the offices of the church congregation -- was begun three years later. But then the project became a bone of contention for parties and local politicians. The Catholic Church withdrew its support and financial problems caused repeated interruptions to work. For 20 years, Le Corbusier's legacy in the heart of Firminy was nothing more than a walled-up hollow space made from rotting concrete.

An architectural legacy

Recently, neighboring Saint Etienne has been self-consciously transforming itself in a center for French design -- hence the rediscovery of Le Corbusier's unfinished masterpiece. In 2003, the

In 2003, the abandoned construction project got a major boost when it was elevated to the status of a prestigious regional project. At first, the government had to deal with the prickly issue of religion: In 1905, the secular country banned public financing of any new religious building. To circumvent the law, Le Corbusier's church was simply declared to be part of the country's "architectural legacy," thus classifying Sainte Pierre as a cultural rather than religious site.

And yet the building in the heart of Firminy, now completed, remains a church even if it hasn't been consecrated in accordance with Catholic ritual. A simple metal cross crowns the truncated cone on top of the slanted roof, where square-shaped and round "light cannons" direct the rays of the sun inside. The interior, only indirectly lit by slit-like gaps in the façade, is dominated by a pulpit, a chapel and an altar. Behind them, on the eastern side of the building, light falls through three dozen fist-sized openings. Massive perspex cylinders, built into the 22 centimeter (8.6 inch) concrete wall, form the constellation Orion.

"We kept to the plans and specifications of Le Corbusier as closely as possible," emphasizes Yvan Mettaud, the official responsible for the preservation of monuments and historic buildings in the region. The only changes made were those rendered necessary by new restrictions concerning railings, emergency exits and fire prevention. The entry ramp was leveled and an elevator was added in order to make the building accessible to handicapped people. "Sainte Pierre remains an oeuvre true to Le Corbusier's work despite these concessions to new construction parameters," says Mettaud, who then goes on to praise the building's "elegance born from weight and softness."

The most important thing for the residents of Firminy is that the ugly abandoned construction site that tainted their town for so long has finally disappeared. "The church has come out beautifully," says Madame Pierrette. "It's modern, but beautiful." She points her walking stick at the flowing forms above the right-angled main entrance.

"I can still remember how the foundation stone was laid in 1970," the white-haired 78-year-old says. She lived in the apartment complex across from the church at the time. "I didn't think Sainte Pierre would ever be completed, after so many years."

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