Built on the site of a Neo-Gothic church, now stands, shall we say; a brutallistic church of Norte-Dame, Royan, France
A brief holiday was highlighted by a visit to this church, rebuilt from 1950-53 on the site of a neo-Gothic church that was destroyed towards the end of WW2 as was all its surrounding town. Flattened by two bombing raids as a strategic site of a last stronghold, this old town on the banks of the Gironde was rebuilt after the war and retains a distinctly well designed appeal from its promenading marina and beach area with its open space for a temporary arena for musical or other entertainments. Its restaurants and hotels along the front, short cut-throughs to assorted shopping streets and an easy stroll to its highest point where we have the ‘new’ church, built almost sixty eight years ago.
From across the wide river-mouth you can see what appears to be, a large, dark church with a spire sitting high on a hill and the town buildings settled all around. Once in the town you can spy its tower from many points in gaps between buildings.
When you glimpse it, as a visitor, it’s appearance might cause some curiosity. The town small is enough for the tower to guide you to the open paved space around the church. Larger than you might expect.
Describing it is not easy. Simply: It’s concrete. Slabs of raw concrete, striated with sides heaving upwards. Elements of curved corners but outweighed by a tower that looks too solid to grow that tall. A couple of small elemental, external balconies higher and higher that could be niches in a cliff-face.
A building that is instantly iconic. A dark slab of a silo. A construction that fits into the brutalist style. It certainly responds defiantly to the destruction of the church and town. It shouts out that buildings and communities can be rebuilt in strength. Time may forge differing opinions but this church now also stands as a significant challenge to time.
At the base of the tower, from a distance, there seems to be a door. Arrow shaped and guartered with iron but as you approach you realise it is the glitter of lead around stained glass, almost as grey as the concrete walls.
Slightly to the side of this main building is attached a low heavy lintel-like roof extending out and joining to a short walkway. At the connection of this lowering roof, almost like an entrance to a cave, the opening beckons you into the darkness like no other church has.
Unfortunately these photographs have decreased the contrast of the darkess within the space of this huge building and the light sparkling through the stain-glass. It is a truly dramatic, emotive, effect to stand within and feel this vast and magnificent construction.
Once inside, the dimly lit church retains its heavy power as you walk under more low (relatively) ceiling , before you are realise you stand in a vast space of a church. The low ceiling is in fact a balcony walkway around one side of the building, a similar on the other side. And ones above matching those outside. Light reflecting through angled stained-glass windows along the wall are all in limited colours and simple design; fascinating in themselves as some of the glass has been angled and protrudes like modern art work. As they are. You can follow the balcony right towards the altar but I suggest you move towards the far door which in this case was open. ( the main entrance) From here you can look back into the church and the beauty of the distant window behind the altar glowing in its limited palette. And feel the still darkness of the huge, no, awesome, wide and high building. No longer oppressive. Then walk forward down the aisle, or round the sides and stand before the altar.
The altar, a plain slab placed on a simple double-curved plinth. Effectively, theatrically spotlit on the curves, enough to highlight them and lead your eyes upwards and behind to that arrow shaped design you first saw from the outside. A graduating, rising, spark of colours that burst triumphantly skywards as dramatic counterbalance to the cavernous space and darkness.
My words really don’t do justice to this building. I doubt it can compare to the huge design and minutiae of the Gaudi Cathedral in Barcelona but… you knew there was a but: for me it just might compare in grandeur for its sheer simplicity.
This is a building that defies catastrophe, lives as an iconic design and inside offers a world of stark, aesthetic solace and peace.
When in the Bordeaux region, visit this church in Royan.
visited August 2017