Chris Eckersley on the joys of a Le Corbusier cell room
Artist and designer Chris Eckersley explains why he keeps returning to a tiny friar’s cell in Le Corbusier’s Couvent de La Tourette for an architectural pilgrimage…
A ‘hole-and-corner’ is an old English term meaning a secret place: somewhere you go to escape the world, to be inspired, to contemplate and create. Where is your ‘hole-and-corner’?
My hole-and-corner is Le Corbusier’s Couvent de La Tourette at Éveux, near Lyons.
Can you explain why it is so special to you?
I’m not religious, but I’ve been visiting La Tourette since the 1980s as for me it is a place of design and architectural pilgrimage. It’s possible to rent a Friar’s cell and stay for a few days, have your meals in the refectory, and enjoy the building and its site. The thing for me is the experience of architectural space. Le Corbusier used his ‘Modulor’ system of measurements and proportion throughout the whole building, and this is something you are physically aware of. If there is such a thing as ‘good proportions’ then it exists here and it creates a positive feeling of well-being.
Each cell is modestly furnished with a cupboard, a bed, a chair, a desk, and has a door to a private balcony overlooking the beautiful countryside. The room is narrow (only 1.83m) – Modulor man can outstretch his arms and just touch the walls at each side. The ceiling (at 2.26m) is just touchable by reaching up. Yet there is no sense of restricted space, in fact it feels generous and seems right.
During the day you can remain in your cell and think or read or draw; at mealtimes you can join others – mostly designers, architects, and perhaps the occasional Dominican Friar or local farm-worker – for a simple meal and a glass of red wine. The chairs you sit on are designed by Jasper Morrison, and from its elevated position the refectory has panoramic views across the landscape. The double-height windows were designed by Le Corbusier’s collaborator, the composer Iannis Xenakis, with mullion spacings inspired by harmonic sequences in music. Perfection.
Is it important to you to have somewhere to escape from the hustle and bustle of life?
Personally I think this is a bit of a London obsession; all my London friends are always on about ‘getting out of town for a few days to re-charge’. I haven’t found this so much in other parts of the country. But everyone needs time out of course, and I’m convinced that a break in routine has a positive effect on how things are perceived, and how time passes.
What do you like to listen to when you’re working?
I’m not in favour of music as ‘background’ but I do have a record player in the studio and a lot of LPs, so if I’m in a ‘systems’ mood then I’ll give Steve Reich and Terry Riley a good go. But I much prefer live music. If I have any writing to do though, I’ll have everything quiet. When we were out in the Herefordshire woods during the Bodging Milano project – allegedly to get away from it all – the sound of whittling, scraping, and pole-lathe-turning almost drove me nuts; I couldn’t wait to get back to the workshop! When I’m making things I enjoy the sounds of manufacturing and woodworking machinery as it makes me feel that I’m getting something done.
What elements do you think make a perfect ‘hole-and-corner’?
There has to be the sense of the place being ‘out of time’ to some extent. And you don’t want the internet in your hole-and-corner – at least I don’t!
Is it private to you or do you let other people visit?
La Tourette can be visited on Sunday afternoons. If you want to stay you have to book at least two weeks in advance.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My original training was in sculpture, and I’ve always been an admirer of Barbara Hepworth. Later I lived in St Ives and frequently visited her garden (this could be another hole-and-corner, except that it now suffers badly from its own popularity). Talking of her busy life when she and Ben Nicholson left London with their baby triplets at the outbreak of the second World War, Barbara wrote that, whatever else is going on in life, artists should always do some creative work each day ‘even a single half hour, so that images grow in one’s mind’. I read this just after leaving college and it made such an impression on me that I’ve tried to follow this advice ever since.