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  • Writer's pictureNigel Wakeham

The Convent of Sainte Marie de la Tourette

The Convent of Sainte Marie de la Tourette
The Convent of Sainte Marie de la Tourette

The Convent of Sainte Marie de la Tourette

The Convent of Sainte Marie de la Tourette is a Dominican Order monastery located on the edge of the small town of Eveux-sur-Arbresle in the Rhone Department in eastern France, 25 kilometres from Lyon.

In the middle of September we went away for a week’s holiday in the Puy-de-Dome department. Along with everyone else in France and most of the rest of Europe, we had been in lock-down since March and I had also spent the last few months working very hard on COVID-19 related projects in West Africa and the Caribbean and we needed a break. We stayed in a gite in a small, remote hamlet in the mountains not far from Ambert, home to the eponymous cheese and I had discovered that we were not far from La Tourette, a convent designed by Le Corbusier (Corb) in the early 1950s and this became the latest of our visits to his buildings in France.

From the middle of the 19th century the Dominicans had had a study centre for the training of young friars in the region of Chambery but during the second world war they decided that they wanted to move closer to Lyon and in November 1943 they purchased the Tourette estate on the outskirts of Eveux-sur-Arbresle with a view to building a new centre there. In February 1953, Corb was chosen to design the new buildings. The choice seems to have been made by Father Couturier who had earlier engaged Corb to design the chapel at Ronchamp and Corb later said that Father Couturier had been a great influence on the development of his designs for religious architecture even though he himself was not religious. The convent is his last great work in France.

The convent is situated in a park that covers approximately 70 hectares and which consists of forest, meadows and cultivated land. The main building of the convent stands at the top of, and on the edge of a hill that overlooks and slopes steeply down to the farmland below.

The convent consists of four buildings arranged around a central courtyard. The three buildings to the south-west are raised on pilotis and house the accommodation for the monks together with a refectory, library, lecture rooms, study rooms, a chapel, service buildings, etc and form a U-shape which is closed by the church to the north-east which is the only building built on the ground.

The top two floors of the three U-shaped buildings accommodate one hundred very modest ‘cells’ or sleeping rooms for the monks and students (unfortunately we were not allowed to visit any of these rooms).

The main entrance to the buildings is from the south-east at the level below the two floors of accommodation. The entrance level is at ground level on this side and the ground slopes steeply away from the entrance and under the buildings. There is a circulation route around the three buildings at the entrance level connecting the chapel, the library, study rooms, and spaces for work and recreation all overlooking the central courtyard. The courtyard is divided into four by the corridors or cloisters at the lowest level and from the entrance level there is a view over the green roofs of the cloisters below and the geometric shapes of the roofs of the atrium and the small chapel.

There are staircases leading down from the entrance level to the lower levels in which are located the refectory, the cloisters linking the buildings with an atrium at the centre and the main church with a sacristy, high altar and a side chapel at a lower level.

The layout of the buildings allows for maximum views from the three buildings containing accommodation and teaching, study and recreation spaces as well as a secure, enclosed environment in the centre. All elements of the buildings were designed using the ‘Modular’ that had been developed by Corb as a design tool. This is particularly evident in the vertical and horizontal divisions of the windows. Other aspects of Corb’s architectural vocabulary are the vertical brise-soleil (which in this case are not very effective), the panels of bright colours applied to sections of walls in the church and the light ‘cannons’ or funnels directing light down into the crypt.

The church itself is extremely simple and effective consisting of a very high rectangular box (the height of the other buildings) with rough concrete walls and ceiling and a floor that slopes down from the altar with light coming through a single square opening in the roof and small bands of coloured openings on the side walls. The side chapel is lit from above again through cone-shaped funnels with primary colours applied to the internal surfaces of the funnels.

The construction of the buildings is extremely simple (intentionally so and supposedly reflecting the simplicity of the life of a monk) being constructed mainly of in-situ reinforced concrete (with some pre-cast concrete elements), steel windows, exposed concrete ceilings, exposed services and screed floors. The in-situ concrete is very ‘raw’: the concrete finish is rough and uneven and the joints occur where necessitated by the size of the timber or plywood shuttering; the shuttering was in no way designed!

The buildings, set at the top of a steep slope dominate and offer views of the landscape whereas the central courtyard, no doubt intended as a contemplative space does not really live up to this expectation. While the spaces in three of the buildings overlook the courtyard there is no access into or around it (except from the service area). What is called the ‘cloister’ is basically a wide corridor that runs across the courtyard from the southern end of the courtyard, through the double-height atrium to the main entrance to the church.

Access to the church from the upper levels is via two fairly small staircases or via the larger spiral staircase that descends from the monks’ common room and from the refectory but none of the staircases look large enough to accommodate one hundred monks on their way to mass! As noted above, the brise-soleil are not large enough to be effective and certainly do not protect the floor to ceiling windows on the south and west sides of the building and these spaces must suffer from over-heating in summer (curtains were drawn across many of the windows when we were there). The monks’ cells however have deep balconies which will protect the windows from the sun and offer pleasant places from where to contemplate the views of the surrounding countryside.

There are now only a few monks resident in the convent and it operates mainly as a study and research centre. It also hosts exhibitions and seminars and ‘retreats’ and the public can attend the daily services. It is also possible to stay in the unused monks’ cells.

All in all and despite its faults, it is an impressive set of buildings that offer a modern take on the idea of a monastery as a place of study, contemplation and the worship of God and definitely well worth a visit.


Architecture in Developing Countries: A Resource

The design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health in rural areas of the developing world.

Nigel Wakeham is an architect who lived for 23 years in Southern and West Africa and the SW Pacific working on education, health and other projects. He has since worked for over 20 years as a consultant for national governments and agencies such as the World Bank, DFID, ADB and AfDB on the implementation of the construction components of education and health projects in many countries in the developing world.​

​The objective of this website will be to provide the benefit of more than 45 years of experience of working in developing countries to architects and other construction professionals involved in the design and construction of appropriate, low-cost buildings for education and health. It will provide reference material from the projects that Nigel has worked on and technical information on the design, construction and maintenance of educational and health facilities and other relevant topics and these will be added to from time to time.

I am happy to be contacted by anyone requiring further information on any of the projects or resources referred to in this website or by anyone wishing to discuss work possibilities.


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