La Tourette, the monastery designed by Le Corbusier near Lyon in France, offers design fanatics a chance to experience his architectural theories in a spiritual context, without having to take radical vows of chastity and poverty. At La Tourette, guests are welcome to book themselves into a cell for a night – or longer – for a unique and thrifty taste of Modernism with a splash of Catholicism (or the other way around, according to your tastes).
Bearing Le Corbusier’s design trademarks – stilts, a free-floating facade, horizontal windows and a roof-top garden – the concrete structure is grouped around an internal courtyard in the manner of a traditional monastery. Within its walls is a series of interconnected spaces, providing its inhabitants with the opportunity for personal, community and spiritual life; the three pillars of human life. Commissioned by the Dominicans and built between 1956 and 1960, the building was designed to house both novices – who spent several years at the convent – and friars who were life-long inhabitants. Today it also welcomes visitors, such as Le Corbusier fans!
Le Corbusier developed a building scale based on what was then the average size of the average French man – 1.75 metres (5ft8″); but noting that the ‘hero’ in American movies and books of the time, was invariably described as ‘6ft tall’ (1.88m) – he created a secondary, more ‘heroic’ scale that could be applied to international or big budget projects. At La Tourette visitors are housed in the novice cells based on the 1.75cm scale. (The friar’s rooms are based on the larger scale to accommodate the few more modest possessions they may accumulate over the course of their lifetime.)
By contemporary standards, the cells are small and basic, but they are also cosy and efficient. This is the kind of set-up Virginia Woolf was probably imagining when she wrote about having A Room of One’s Own. Each compact room contains four distinct spaces delineated by its unique light source and activity: an entry with hand-basin and clothes storage; a bed with reading light; a desk with chair; and a private balcony with a little nook for candles etc. At opposite ends of the room are louvres to enable cross ventilation. Pared down to its essentials this modest room enables the full gamut of a monk’s day-to-day living: rest, reflection, privacy and contact with the outdoors. This is real minimalism minus the chichi price tag.
The hallways circulating the living space are designed to accommodate meditational pacing. Small blocks of strategically placed concrete, and ‘concrete flowers’ that obscure the windows at the end of the corridor, enable light to enter but block external views; this allows the thinker to walk without having their thoughts interrupted by the view. The end windows are positioned off-centre to draw walkers (who subconsciously follow their axis) to orient themselves closer to the internal courtyard and away from the living cells, thus assisting with noise and privacy. As our guide said, “It’s not symmetrical, but it is balanced.”
Staying at the Convent: From an accommodation perspective, the Convent’s sleeping arrangements are evidently basic: each cell is equipped with bed linen, a blanket and a single bed. (You do have to make your own bed and no, you cannot share it.). It’s no thrills, but it’s clean and somehow pleasing. Showers and toilets are taken in a communal ablutions room – one for men another for women. Meals are taken in the large communal dining room with beautiful verdant views through windows that were designed in conjunction with the mathematically-minded composer Xenakis. The building is heated but we suspect it could be brisk in the cooler months.
This is supposed to be a place of spiritual and intellectual reflection so there is a rule of silence throughout the convent. However, the hard concrete surfaces and old-fashioned door sealants mean that the convent is far from sound-proof and with some visitors going to bed at midnight and others getting up at 6am, and couples accustomed to sharing a room, whispering urgently to each other through their cell doors “Have you got the toothpaste!?”…well, it’s not exactly silent. (For the sake of your own peace and others, it’s best to leave small children at home). Despite all that, the intention of silence was enough to create a meditative atmosphere and after 24 hours of quiet and a good walk in the adjoining forest we felt calm and refreshed.
The crowd: there are three main groups: the actual residents, the Friars; groups, such as volunteer gardeners preening the grounds, or writers attending a workshop; and tourists – primarily of the archi-fanatic variety and easily spotted by their trademark hipster glasses and manic photo taking! Dining tables are organised according to the purpose of your visit – a group of unwitting Japanese tourists created quite a stir among the grey-haired green-thumbs by going free-style and accidentally breakfasting at the Gardener’s table.
Perks: First up, don’t miss the guided tour! Also, we don’t want to over-hype it, but the church at La Tourette is something really special, make sure you enter it from inside the monastery so you get the full effect (i.e: not from the external side door that takes you directly into the church). If you take the tour you can also access the magical Crypt. We were amused to see that Le Corbusier wasn’t satisfied with merely designing the entire building; he also felt compelled to sign his hand-drawn crucifixes. (Not that he had an ego issue or anything.) The smaller chapel with its avant garde fluorescent lights is also delightful. Note that the tours are open to everyone – you don’t have to be a guest.
Tariffs: €35 per night, per person with breakfast. You can also have diner there, but you will need to pre-order at the time of the booking or significantly in advance. Alternatively, come prepared to picnic on the grounds. Failing that, Lyon is a half an hour drive away, or you can eat at the neighbouring villages such as L’Arbresle.
The ominously named Hotel Terminus (Place de la Gare, in L’Arbresle) has some retro charm, we enjoyed the trout with almond sauce, but locals were raving about the house speciality: frogs. We were also recommended the cute-as-a-button Le Capucin in an old, quaint part of town.
Booking: if La Tourette’s official website is still under construction, you’ll find them listed on the Dominicians site here. Practical information is listed here. Note, there is a train that connects from Lyon, but the walk to the monastery from the station is definitely uphill and there are no taxis, not advised for non-minimalist packers.
Alternatives: If you’d like to visit Couvent de La Tourette, but not to sleep there, we can suggest the following alternatives in nearby Lyon: the quirky and cosy College Hotel which has a slightly scholastic meets gentlemen’s club feel. If you haven’t had enough architecture, you can try Renzo Piano in a slightly corporate mood at Hotel de la Cité. If you feel the need for sumptuous digs fit for a Pope, book yourself into Cour des Loges.
Sleeping with Le Corbusier: you might also like our story about Hotel Le Corbusier in Marseilles.