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Features / Photography

A Concrete Pilgrimage: Architect Justine Bell on her journey to Le Corbusier’s French monastery

First published in Printed Pages Autumn 2013

Words by

Rob Alderson

Photography by

Justine Bell

The architect known to the world as Le Corbusier was known to his mum as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris. The fact he took such a pompous pseudonym is one of the many facets of this extraordinary figure which so fascinates Justine Bell.

Ever since she first started studying architecture in South Africa, Justine has been borderline obsessed with him and one of one his buildings in particular – the Couvent Sainte-Marie de la Tourette, a monastery half an hour north of Lyon and the last building Le Corbusier completed in Europe before his death in 1965.

When she arrived in London in 2005 to study at the The Bartlett UCL she was frustrated to find out the previous year’s course field trip had been to La Tourette. The frustration at having just missed out was compounded when her year visited Cape Town. “Four years of saving up and they just shipped me back to my own city,” she laughs.

But earlier this year Justine – who works on projects with John Pawson and is part of Cape Town’s World Design Capital team – finally fulfilled her long-held dream to make what she calls a “concrete pilgrimage” to La Tourette. A keen photographer, Justine was also excited about bringing her passions together and immersing herself in the world of her hero.

“I think every architect learns quite a bit about this guy and his seminal impact as the father of modernism,” she says, “but I think most architects are taught to have a love-hate relationship with him because of his impact on urban design and problematic ideologies.

“There are so many facets to him and he self contradicts at every stage. He writes manifestos and says things must be a certain way, and then he will have an affair with someone and completely change his mind.

“He invented the pseudonym Le Corbusier and perhaps that invention allowed him to come up with these manifestos of totalitarian architecture linked to the worst bits of capitalism and industrialisation, but then also be this really hotheaded man who paints in a bit of a Picasso style and has affairs on cruise ships…”

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She’s referring to his liaison with the French entertainer Josephine Baker which he conducted on a trans-Atlantic crossing in 1929 (during which he reportedly made nude sketches of her). “He immediately became obsessed with her but I think she lost interest quite quickly – there are all these ridiculous stories!”

Interestingly on arriving at La Tourette, what sprung to Justine’s mind was a “landlocked ship.”

“The monastery is a 30 minute train ride north west of Lyon, followed by a half-hour walk up-hill. Finally, at the end of a very muddy path, the first glimpse of the building appears between some trees. It looked much paler than I expected, the concrete almost the colour of bone.

“The base of the building is raised up on Corbusier’s signature pilotis and gives visitors the opportunity to explore the building from its belly and to weave among the wings. From a distance the stacked balconies of each shell look like those on a cruise-ship.

“I think it’s quite a bizarre collection of things – this big massive concrete block in the middle of the French hillside. It’s strange and it’s beautiful.

“But I also spotted a rather large generator and various site-hoardings scattered around the building. Clearly during my years of admiring this building in photographs – and my recent exchanges with the monks – I had failed to discover that it’s kind of a building site and has been for many years.”

The ongoing renovations scuppered some of her best-laid plans. The famous chapel was filled with scaffolding, the iconic roof terrace out-of-bounds because the noise of people moving around on it disturbed the monks – “apparently it sounds like a herd of elephants dancing on tin.”

In fact noise was a problem for the guests as well. “The entire building reverberates with every action, even across the courtyard. You can hear every footstep, every toilet flush, every prayer, every chuckle and even the monks catching up on their e-mail.” On her first night in one of the hundred long thin cells (designed to Le Corbusier’s Modular Man specifications), Justine didn’t sleep a wink.

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“It’s freezing cold and the cells have a sprayed cement coating leaving a pebble-dash finish, which gives the effect of the whole room melting.” She couldn’t turn to her partner Jonas for reassurance either – sharing rooms is strictly forbidden. But neither the noise, nor the cold or the “remove-the-cling-film-mass-catering style food” could take away from the experience of actually living in this building which had for so long dominated her creative imagination.

“It’s not very often you get to stay in great architecture and I always like to see what life does to a building, how it’s aged, what are the quirky characteristics people have had to adapt to due to things that were no intention of the architects. I find that really interesting and something we definitely witnessed at the monastery. It’s grand and amazing and the form is really inspiring but then you see these little failings, these little leaks and the sound is a problem and it’s freezing cold.”

Justine can trace her passion for architecture back to being about eight when she trotted around after a family friend who was installing a postmodern concrete gate on her Cape Town home. But her passion for taking photographs is more recent and initially started during her studies, as “a handy tool for making a visual note of something; the detail on a window frame or how the light is falling a certain way.” She moved onto 35mm, enjoying the freedom of ditching digital and the surprises thrown up by the developing process. But at La Tourette she was following in some pretty intimidating footsteps.

“The most iconic photographs of this building have been taken by Lucien Hervé, (Corbusier’s photographer of choice) and later Hélène Binet. These are some of my favourite photographers, and my favourite photographs of theirs were taken in this building. I was a bit scared I would end up taking the same photos as them and not be as good.

“But there’s something really mediative about the act of taking photographs, maybe because I am not hugely technical about it and it’s mainly intuition.”

Although Justine and Jonas were among only a handful of guests staying at La Tourette, the building is besieged by architectural tourists on a daily basis. “There’s quite a few people wandering around the grounds but you really can’t penetrate the building unless you have the code to get in. There’s this bizarre interplay of the monks wandering around the cloister and then these architects with their big SLRs photographing around the outskirts. I’m not sure the monks are huge fans of constantly being photographed – it’s not very removed from the world. But the ones who have stayed have grown really fond of the building and take enormous pride in it.”

For Justine the trip reinforced her twin obsessions – with Le Corbusier and with concrete. “I am dying to build a concrete building. John (Pawson) gets a lot of concrete suggestions and he had to pay for me to go on a concrete course.

“Le Corbusier in my mind is an alchemist, and a man with many faces – a writer, a theoretician, a builder, a traveller, a prolific painter and a womaniser. His architect face is perhaps his greatest invention.”