In the sky with diamonds’ of Ronchamp’s East Wall: Constellations of Thought


  • Marcia F. Feuerstein


The Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp designed by Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier, has been studied, analyzed and explored by architects, theorists and historians ever since it was completed. Despite these studies, scholars have paid little attention to the east wall of the chapel as a unique architectural element. An important and iconic element within this project, it is distinguished by the turning statue of the Virgin Mary set in a cabinet within the wall and surrounded by small openings allowing light into the chapel. While the moving statue had always been part of the original design, the small openings -- the stars -- were not. Somehow and sometime the eastern wall became a sky when, at the beginning of construction, it was a wall. The story began with Le Corbusier’s slow design process, which allowed him to develop an evolving vision even after a design was finalized. His creative process allowed him to envision the building as a full scale model, which provided him with freedom to take advantage of new opportunities of designing during construction. This occurred with the east wall. A serendipitous moment transformed the project as the scaffolding was removed and about to be finished.  The resulting ‘as built’ changes embedded a unique sacred threshold into the chapel and its east wall. This narrative considers this curious story of how Mary moved from being situated in the wall to becoming part of, and central to, a night sky with diamonds. It also reveals a seemingly lost art of slower building and design.