“This is a place of silence and peace”, says the sign as you enter La Tourette convent, Le Corbusier’s last major work in France. Quite what the party of 40 architecture students from Darmstadt, who are boisterously pouring out of their tour bus, will make of that remains to be seen. Or how they will comply with the instructions pinned on the back of the bedroom doors not to congregate, eat or drink in the ‘cells’.
As it turns out the students are a respectful bunch. Even through dinner, they keep their chatter low, which is not necessarily easy. Built in the late 1950s and finished in 1960, the convent is a cavernous place which epitomises Le Corbusier’s use of concrete and light. Sound easily echoes down the concrete corridors and vast public spaces, except perhaps the small sparsely furnished cells.
I had been meaning to stop over at La Tourette, just north west of Lyon, for a while. The last time was on the way down to the Alps, just before Easter, which was bad timing as I was told the convent at that time was for the exclusive use of those on retreat. So coming up the tree-lined drive to the convent on a sunny spring afternoon was a special moment. The site is on a west-facing slope, looking over to the lower hills of the Lyonnais region. This concrete box on stilts has enormous atmosphere.
Originally home to about 100 brothers, the convent now only has eight. Taking in paying guests brings in a bit of life and helps fund the maintenance of the building, which has not aged that well. A cell is 37 euros per night, breakfast included, and dinner 14 euros. It’s basic, very basic – no en-suite bathrooms, just a communal washroom on each floor – but functional. No plumped up pillows or oversized beds either, but I had not slept so soundly in a long time. In fact this pared down hospitality suits the place: it means there is nothing in the way of enjoying the architecture and taking in some of the contemplative mood.