Ronchamp, chosen in an American Institute of Architects poll a few years ago as the most significant church building of the last 500 years, represented a startling shift in direction for Le Corbusier. "If you look at his previous work," Safe says, "he did these very stark towers, so the fact that he would get into this sort of poetic, formal manipulation for a church was pretty remarkable. Here is this man who was designing these relentlessly square and, I'm not kidding, mile-long blocks of apartment buildings that he proposed for Algiers and Paris, and all of a sudden he got poetic."
And like any good poem, the chapel at Ronchamp provokes a wide range of readings. Some believe the roof is shaped like the habits worn by French nuns; others feel it's intended as a metaphor for Noah's Ark. Safe has his own theory. "Le Corbusier always had a shell on his desk, and the structural idea behind it is very derivative of a double-sided shell with a bottom and a top with an open structure between it, and I think that's probably more likely." Even the Ronchamp gutter prompts speculation. Pointing to one of Hervé's pictures, Safe says, "This scupper where all of the rainwater comes off of the roof, people talk about [it as representing] a woman's breasts and the liquid of life coming out of the thing. I don't think Le Corbusier ever sat around and explained any of this to anybody, so we're free to interpret."