We arrived in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the last day of our voyage, earlier than expected. With both excitement and melancholy, we rode up and down the town’s steep streets gathering cheeses, saucisson, champagne, bread, and cornichons for the birthday celebration.
It had been 5 weeks since we left Paris, and we had cycled over 1,400 km through France and Switzerland to visit 30 of Le Corbusier’s buildings: from his first to very last projects. Now the four of us—architects, designers, and cyclists from New York City—were in the small town where the 20th century’s most important Modern architect had built his spartan vacation home, la cabanon, and is buried. It was his 127th birthday.
One clear summer morning 49 years ago, Le Corbusier walked down from la cabanon to the pebbly beach below. He swam out into the clear Mediterranean and never came back; he died at sea.
We had assumed that today would be an easy day of riding (30 km each way) along the Côte d’Azur, but getting to the cemetery proved to be a challenge. Since, the road from the west of the town did not lead to the cemetery, we had to carry the bikes up hundreds of stairs under the strong sun—a climb harder than any other we’d undertaken.
Looking back, this final ascent seems fitting considering what we had learned over five weeks: to see a Le Corbusier building, you usually had to go up. Aside from the pleasures of visiting architecture in person, cycling gave us intimate knowledge of the geographic, cultural, and sensorial landscapes the buildings occupy. In our voyage, we traced the architectural evolution of one mind, the shifting terroir of our route, and the ghost of Le Corbusier, the man. These became confused and conflated into a single experience and raison d’être that propelled us.
Climbing to see a building is a tortuous gratification. We had naively assumed that our first real climb to Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp—an extremely steep long hill—must be the worst we could possibly face. It would be outdone repeatedly, from the long climb to Le Corbusier’s birthplace of La Chaux-de-Fonds, of which Swiss cyclists warned us ominously “La Chaux-de-Fonds? Oh, you go up.” To La Tourette, the Dominican monastery in the Rhône-Alpes. The physical exertion of cycling made the experience of the monastery—from the rough concrete, the vivid sunset, and the elastic reverberations of the chanting at evening mass—that much more powerful.
As we climbed the last stairs in the cemetery searching for Le Corbusier’s tomb, we carried the weight of the voyage with us. In setting out with the simple notion of visiting an architect’s body of work by bicycle, we were taken to places unimaginable to us five weeks ago. We had come to a deeply personal and thorough understanding of a canonical set of buildings and we had lived some amazing stories.
The tomb itself is a small concrete volume in a simple pebble garden. It looks over an incredibly wide horizon of blue Mediterranean. After a somber and celebratory toast to Le Corbusier’s birthday and to our tour, we rode down to visit la cabanon and to have one last swim. As it turned out, la cabanon was closed to visitors for renovation. We retraced Le Corbusier’s last steps down to the pebble beach and into the shockingly clear sea. As we swam out of the bay in order to get a glimpse of la cabanon, we were all struck by the same feeling of rightness: Of course we were swimming. What better way to see this tiny house than from the Mediterranean?