Architectural Mecca

The religion

“Architecture is a religion.” I was told in architectural school.

We were all devotees. Cutting cardboards at 3 am to make models was typical. We developed the power not to sleep in order to finish our presentations by the deadline.

We were ready to sacrifice everything for architecture.

“You won’t be rich by being an architect.” Another important point I learnt. “You need to have the passion. Ask yourself if you have this passion”.

I guess what hooked us was the magic of architecture. The form, the functions, the space, the material, the light, the shadow, the journey — how everything comes perfectly together.

The Mecca

The first semester started in September. The professors were all busy introducing this magic of architecture to the newcomers. They were all into different schools of thought. Some liked modernism, others liked postmodernism. Some enjoyed talking history, others enjoyed talking technology. But there were a few architects they all loved to mention. Le Corbusier was one of them.

I still remember how mesmerising the first time I saw the photo of Ronchamp was.

As a kid growing up in Hong Kong, architecture meant skyscrapers. It was about the HSBC HQ or the Bank of China building. Ronchamp was like something from another planet. I had never have seen anything like that before — The structure, the roof, the material. It opened up my imagination.

Ronchamp is a chapel. A chapel to worship architecture.

Time went by. In year 3 we needed to take elective courses. Many faculty members were from ETH Zurich. One of the professors from Basel opened a course on contemporary Swiss architecture. I took the course and learnt about Peter Zumthor, Herzog & de Meuron and other Swiss architects.

I got to know Basel — A city so far from Hong Kong. I found the Herzog & de Meuron’s railway signal box captivating. The copper strips work well for both function and aesthetic. How could someone put so much thinking into a utilitarian building?

Later, I found out Ronchamp is not far from Basel.

“I will go there one day.” I told myself.

A believer

I quit architecture.

No. To be precise: I quit trying to be an architect.

‘’Architecture is a religion.” But I am still a believer.

It had been a journey — the 3 years of architectural school and the year out. I got off the train without arriving the final stop.

I am working in another industry now but still love architecture. Moving to London makes it easier to travel around. You can enjoy the sun and beach in Barcelona and see Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. You can enjoy the vibe of New York and see Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim.

But the Ronchamp/Basel trip had never materialised. Until last year.

The Pilgrimage

This pilgrimage was personal to me so I decided to travel on my own. Or it was an excuse — I didn’t want to bore my travel companions with an itinerary full of architecture.

On a sunny autumn day, I arrived at Basel Mulhouse Freiburg Airport. Basel sits at the Swiss-German-French tri-point, so the airport serves all three countries. It was the hub for my trip so I started from there.

I was staying at Jugendherberge Basel in St. Albans. The hostel was previously a colour plant for silk ribbon. It was transformed by Buchner & Bründler into a hostel with a nice mix of tradition and modernism. Each guest receives a free Mobility Ticket for the entire duration of their stay. The ticket allowed me to ride freely on the tram system. It was the best way to explore the city as I could hop on and off wherever I wanted.

Jugendherberge Basel

I checked in at the hostel. Took my camera. Then I was on my way to Herzog & de Meuron’s railway signal box. The building sits in between the railway tracks near Muenchensteinerbrücke and its main function is to house electronic equipment. From a distance the signal box looks like a copper sculpture, but once you get closer you can see that it is wrapped with copper strips. The strips provide a electrostatic shield for the sensitive electronic equipment inside. Some stripes are twisted to let the daylight get into the building. Herzog & de Meuron’s use of material creates a poetic form as well as fulfils the utilitarian needs.

Herzog & de Meuron’s railway signal box
The copper strips

Basel is Herzog & de Meuron’s hometown. It was great to walk around to see their’s work: Messe Basel, Schutzenmattstrasse Apartment and Schaulager. But the city also surprised me with some amazing brutalist architecture.

Messe Basel

One example is Antoniuskieche. This church is located in a local residential area. You won’t notice its existence unless you get closer and see the bell tower. From the outside, you may think it is just an unpainted grey concrete box. Once you get inside, you can see the sunlight pouring into a monumental space. The brutal raw finish of the roughcast concrete works nicely with the classical stain glass. Surprisingly, the church is quite old — It was built before WWII in 1927 by Karl Moser Gustav Doppler.

Light on roughcast concrete

Another prime example of brutalist architecture is the Schule für Gestaltung Basel/Basel College of Art and Design. The art college is not far from the Messe Basel. It is a complex of different school buildings. What is spectacular is the college gym hall. The folded raw concrete roof forms the interior and exterior of the space. It is used by the students as a studio space. Similar to the signal box, Hermann Baur created a poetic form to fulfils the utilitarian needs.

Schule für Gestaltung Basel
Schule für Gestaltung Basel

Basel, ticked. Vitra design museum, ticked.

Then it was the time to visit the ultimate Mecca.

I decided to take the 10:39am train on a Sunday. I went to the ticket office at the main station an hour earlier to get the ticket. Ronchamp is not far from Basel but it does take a while to get there. There is no direct train and the gaps between the changes are huge. I needed to change at Mulhouse and Belfort before getting to my final destination.

I arrived and got off the train after a 2 hour journey. Ronchamp station was not the final stop. It is one of those small provincial stations. The pair of short platforms sits in the middle of French green scenery. A simple bridge with faded paint links them together.

“Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut.” The sign read. I was so happy to see it and took a snap.

The sign of Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut

The town of Ronchamp was quiet. The chapel is at the top of the hill. I followed the sign and walked along the road. I found myself in the middle of a forest. It was noon but the mist still shrouded most of the hill.

The road to Ronchamp

30 minutes later, I reached the top. I saw the white tower of the chapel peeping over the trees and the new entrance by Renzo Piano.

The white tower of the chapel

“8 Euros please. Where are you from?”

“I live in London but I was originally from Hong Kong .”

“That’s far!”

“Yes. It’s been a long journey.”

Finally I could see the Ronchamp in real life. I just walked around and around. The massive grey roof was still mesmerising. The four sides of the facade are all different but arresting in their own ways.

The facade
The facade
The facade

I went into the chapel and it was silent. I sat there and tried to memorise what I saw, listened, smelled and felt. Architecture is a sensory experience. It is different from just seeing the photo of a building. You need to be there to experience the time and space. The photo of the small random lit stained colour windows is iconic. But it was even more impressive when I entered the building from the bright outside with my irises constricted.

The small random lit stained colour windows
The light from the white tower

The mushroom hat roof looks massive from the outside. But once inside, I found it weightless. Le Corbusier separated the roof from the wall with a thin slot. The light shone thought this slot making the roof feel as it floating in the air. This is a mastery play of light.

The Reflection

After a good few hours, I checked the train time and walked down the hill.

The weather changed. The sun cleared out the mist. I reached the bottom of the hill and the town of Ronchamp was still quiet.

I walked back to the station. I was the only one waiting for the next train.

I got up to the bridge above the platforms and looked at the long railway tracks disappearing around the corner.

Sometimes it is not only about the destination, but also the journey.

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