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More fun than humans should be allowed to have

That’s what I’m having: much more fun than I ought to. Really. But let me step back and tell you about a trip to France several years ago.

Between two legs of an NDSU summer study tour, Joe Odoerfer and I invested a few days traveling together. We met in Frankfurt—in a very accidental way that I’ll have to write about another time—and decided on a pilgrimage to two of LeCorbusier’s buildings: Notre Dame du Haute at Ronchamp and, not terribly far away, his convent called La Tourette. Other than the Carpenter Center at Harvard University (Corbu’s only building in the United States), I hadn’t experienced any of his work. So our two-day excursion to France was mouth watering.

Getting to Ronchamp by public transportation in the late 20th century must be like walking to Santiago de Compostela in the 13th. About half way between Belfort and Vesoul in eastern France, Ronchamp is linked to the outside world by a toonerville single-car trolley that reminded me instantly of the Push Me/Pull You in “Doctor Doolittle”. But no matter which way you depart—from either end of the line—the car leaves at 6:00 a.m. and jerks into Ronchamp about forty-five minutes later. Neither Joe nor I spoke a word of French, however, and the village was hardly awake by the time we got our bearings. So on blind faith—faith, by definition, is blind—we followed a sign pointing toward “La Chapelle” and arrived at a large asphalt parking lot after a twenty-minute uphill stroll punctuated by crowing roosters and church bells. Without a Michelin guide, who knew the chapel only opened at 10! Two-and-a-half hours in an empty rural French parking lot gave Joe and me a chance to get much better acquainted and solve some of Western Civilization’s minor problems. Finally, the gates opened and we made the final assault on an icon of the 20th century. For two hours we were the only people on the grounds.

Take me out for a drink some time and I’ll fill in the details. My point here is to tell you how my understanding of architecture made a quantum leap that day. As a shallow undergraduate, I “knew” Notre Dame du Haute, its crusty pock-marked walls and swooping concrete roof. And it was this visual feast that I had anticipated. But as Joe and I sat in the silent sanctuary (taking photographs despite a sign in multiple languages advising us to not be so rude as to disturb the meditation of others), I realized that Ronchamp is an acoustic environment as well as a visual one: the shutter on my SLR made more noise than a guillotine, ricocheting around the room for minutes after the camera clicked. I began to understand what LeCorbusier had done.

It would have been all too simple to pad every surface and absorb my acoustic arrogance, allowing me to remain unaware of myself as a source of disturbing sound. Instead, he hardened floor, walls and ceiling, amplifying the very wale of my corduroy pants as my chubby legs brushed together. I heard myself breathing.

Sitting in the small island of pews to the right of the altar, I decided to become a different sort of pilgrim and move toward the rail for an imaginary communion. After a few feet of concrete floor—divided by expansion joints, no doubt proportioned according to LeCorbusier’s modulor, all aimed toward the east—I crossed an invisible line, one not delineated by an expansion joint, and felt myself drawn forward, downward toward the altar. Stopped by curb and rail, I knelt as though participating in the Mass and rested on the rail, only to discover that it was not wood but, rather, brown-painted steel with a shape abstracted from Ionic volutes perfectly curved to fit my forearm and folded hands. Communion complete, I returned to my seat but felt the up-hill slope of the floor pulling me back to God. For a moment, I was Marcel Marceau, walking against the wind, resisting an invisible gravitational force that refused to let me leave. 

And all the while, the air was tinged with the scent of incense and beeswax votive candles. If only the communion wafer had been stuck to the roof of my mouth, the engagement of all five senses would have been complete. What I had expected to be a singular visual encounter—seeing the chapel I had known from Bill Burgett’s architectural history class—turned into a multi-sensory experience reshaping the way I think about architecture. I had seen, heard, felt, touched and almost tasted Ronchamp in ways that could not be accidental. LeCorbusier had me at the train station and skillfully manipulated my experience each step of the way. Two things were clear: 1) LeCorbusier was a more skillful architect than I had guessed, and 2) architecture is a lot better than it looks. Test these notions out on buildings you thought you knew.

Which brings me to Agincourt. You knew it would.

The way things work

My friend Howard Tabor has written several times of his own parish church in Agincourt, St Joseph-the-Carpenter, a 19th century Gothic Revival building with Arts & Crafts modifications in the years before World War I. St Joe’s will be represented in the September exhibit by a handful of artifacts and an abbreviated narrative. Our friends Sara and Pi are crafting the model; some drawings from my sketchbook will be enlarged on the wall, along with an altar triptych by Philip Thompson. A good start, but still not enough. How might this virtual trip to Agincourt be as multi-sensory as Ronchamp had been? Your ideas are most welcome.

Image

If you’ve read Howard’s columns from the Plantagenet, you’ll know that the original baptismal font was a green enameled wash basin, a humble vessel standing in till something better came along. And it did in 1915, when St Crispin’s chapel was added on the chancel’s south side, commemorating Anson Tennant’s disappearance with the Lusitania. A large copper bowl by the Roycroft Workshops in East Aurora, New York, came as a gift in Anson’s name. But last year someone entered the unlocked church and stole the bowl; the green basin coming out of retirement and going back into God’s service until a suitable replacement could be found.

I’m pleased to report that a new font is on the way, however, for that’s the way things work in Agincourt. Moorhead artist Dwight Mickelson is crafting a new font in the spirit of St Joe’s, a new work that will be revealed in September before its installation in the church—which still, but the way, leaves its doors unlocked. Faith is still blind.


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