A retrospective closes this weekend at MoMA on Swiss architect Le Corbusier, best known for his residential projects like Villa Savoye (as well as that chair). But I'd argue that his most genius work was Église Saint-Pierre, a remarkable cathedral in Firminy, France. Here, Le Corbusier manages a kind of architectural alchemy: creating the effect of stained glass windows with only paint and concrete.
What may be Le Corbusier's best work comes with an asterisk: He died in 1965, five years before construction began on the building. Then, due to financial hardships and political turmoil, the church was not completely finished until 2006. However, the construction was supervised by the original project architect, José Oubrerie, who oversaw the project for almost four decades.
The church is part of a larger vision called Firminy-Vert or "green Firminy," which hoped to counteract the city's reputation as a mining and industrial center. Le Corbusier's other works in the city include a school, a swimming pool, an athletic field and one of his Unite d'Habitation apartment complexes. They all have the same bright colors and raw concrete, making them almost feel like they were carved out of the quarry in the center of the town.
Stepping into the church your eyes slowly adjust to the near-darkness. Although you begin to notice the presence of light, it takes a while to understand what's going on. Each side of the structure glows with a different color, which you can see streaming through the windows and gleaming on the polished concrete floors. Behind the altar is a different effect entirely: round holes the size of drinking glasses punched into the wall like tiny stars.
Above, the ceiling glows with "light cones," apertures in the concrete also painted with different colors. These seemingly random geometric skylights are actually placed purposely to illuminate the altar on specific holy days. Although it was a cold day when I visited, I swear the light from the red and yellow skylights felt like standing under a heat lamp.
As the sun moves throughout the day, the "stained glass" reflections shift along the floor, as do the waves of light that travel along the interior walls. I sat for a very long time in the balcony, watching a square of blue travel from one pew to the next, illuminating people's faces as they wandered the stairs.
Does Église Saint-Pierre "count" as a Le Corbusier project? Some designers don't live to see the completion of their works, of course, but the project was also realized using materials and techniques that were developed decades after it was designed. Building codes also changed, requiring significant modifications like changes to the size of walls and windows. Oubrerie says that were he alive, his boss would have approved of the use of innovations like quick-setting concrete and prefabricated construction. "Le Corbusier was always interested in experimenting with new technologies," he told the New York Times in 2005.
But it's clear that Le Corbusier didn't need 40 years of tech advances to make this church a triumph. The elegant simplicity of his vision translates just fine. It's low-tech, timeless genius.