Sometimes called the “Holy Chapel of Reinforced Concrete,” Notre Dame du Raincy has the peculiar particularity of being the first place of worship built in France using grey cement.
The architect Auguste Perret was a pioneer in the use of concrete and probably one of the most important architects of the early 20th century. He rationalized the structure of his buildings, minimalizing the decor and favoring a more sober, elegant style – quite a bold choice at a time where the organic fantasies of Art Nouveau had degenerated into a frantic excess of noodle arabesques.
These days the idea of a concrete church isn't exactly mind-blowing, but in the '20s it was quite a subversive choice. The idea of using such a vulgar material to build a temple was mad, not to mention sacrilegious, but the economic aftermath of World War I didn’t exactly allow for the construction of a “Notre Dame de Paris 2.0 ”. Like Rome during the golden era of Patron Popes, the Catholic Church, in the person of Abbot Felix Negre, embraced and promoted the progressive use of new forms and materials by choosing Perret as architect. Reinforced concrete cost nothing compared to carved stones, and Auguste Perret had proven by building the Champs Elysees Theater that the drab material was the epitome of modernity.
Exploiting the technical possibilities of reinforced concrete, Perret used standardized elements, slender supports, and thin membranes pierced by windows to give his church the elevation and luminosity of an actual cathedral. Resuming the dialogue between colors and architecture, and the Gothic concept of light being an allegory of God himself and participating in one's experience of divinity, the stained glass progressed from different shades of blue around the entrance to warmer tones in the sanctuary.
Le Corbusier, once Auguste Perret's assistant who then became the Pygmalion of modern architecture, used to say, “Le Raincy wears a mask, a façade that hides the beauty of the vessel.”