Review of “Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence”

February 19, 2018

We might all end up as paper-clips!

Max Tegmark is a Swedish-American professor of physics at MIT, founder of the Elon Musk-funded Future of Life Institute and an optimist. His 2017 book, Life 3.0 – Being Human in the age of artificial intelligence, demonstrates his belief that a positive future is possible and that a conscious universe is more valuable than one made up of paper-clips.

“He finds it abhorrent and wasteful that humanity could die a “death by banality” if the objective of a goal-driven artificial intelligence turned out to be nothing more profound than “rearranging all the molecules in the universe to maximise the number of paper-clips”.

Tegmark’s institute is more focused on the future of intelligent, conscious life than the Future of Humanity Institute, based at the University of Oxford, set up by his colleague and fellow Swede, Nick Bostrom. It is a noteworthy distinction between life and humanity. Tegmark’s accessible, readable book explains cutting-edge science in a comprehensible way and belongs to a burgeoning genre of singularity titles, such as Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 Sapiens: A brief history of mankind and his 2015 Homo Deus, a Brief History of Tomorrow. They follow on from Stephen Hawking’s 1988 A Brief History of Time, Bostrom’s 2014 Superintelligence and Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 The Singularity is Near. The singularity is sometimes taken to mean the point at which artificial intelligence becomes more powerful than human intelligence. This has been interpreted in various utopian and dystopian scenarios; either the robots decide that the greatest threat to the universe is represented by humans and act accordingly or, slightly less scarily, a few mega-wealthy humans morph into super-transhumans by updating themselves periodically with the latest biomedical technology and blast off in their private spaceships to residences on Mars or some other exclusively expensive corner of the universe, while the impoverished mass of mankind scrabbles around on over-heated earth for the leftover scraps.

Tegmark is the optimist to Harari the pessimist, who is more worried about the dangers posed to humanity by artificial intelligence and the need for a serious discussion about how to prevent catastrophe. Tegmark is no slouch, however, and one of the fascinating aspects of his scientific method, compared to Harari’s literary-historical approach, is his discussion of the Really Hard Problem, that is, how to explain consciousness scientifically. In Homo Deus, Harari worries that advances in computing mean that advanced intelligence has been decoupled from consciousness and that it is therefore very dangerous if non-conscious intelligent machines take decisions that may adversely affect humans.

Tegmark’s Life 3.0 pursues a less doom-and-gloom-laden exploration of what perhaps is to come. He approaches consciousness from a different angle, arguing that information is substrate-independent. For example, we understand that a “wave can travel across a lake, even though none of its molecules do”[1] or that a Mozart aria written in musical notation embodies the same information as when it is sung out loud. Tegmark’s optimism is underpinned by his use of scientific theory to test out new ideas. He explains modern theories of consciousness, which focus on activities in the brain, what are called the neural correlates of consciousness or NCCs. The current challenge is to explain how these NCCs are – or can be – PCCs or physical correlates of consciousness, “defined as the patterns of moving particles that are conscious”. Tegmark is very taken with his Italian colleague Gulio Tononi’s integrated information theory (IIT) which supports the idea that “consciousness is a physical phenomenon that feels non-physical because it’s like waves and computations: it has properties independent of its own physical substrate. […] If consciousness is the way that information feels when it’s processed in certain ways, then it must be substrate-independent; it’s only the structure of the information processing that matters, not the structure of the matter doing the information processing. In other words, consciousness is substrate-independent twice over!”[2]

So, what about the paper-clips? Well, it’s hard to compress 300 brilliant pages into a short review, but suffice to say that Tegmark feels it would be terrible if humanity’s molecules were all rearranged into said stationery. He does not explain why.


Non-narrative fiction homework week 4.  11 February 2018

[1] Tegmark, Life 3.0 pg. 66.

[2] Ibid., pg. 303-304.



January 25, 2018

            Swimming is one of my favourite pastimes for many reasons. It keeps me fit, it gives me precious private space and it acts as a sort of punctuation to articulate the day. There is always before and after a swim. Sometimes, especially in winter, it takes me a while to convince myself that I must go for a swim. If it’s cold outside, the prospect of walking down to the baths, getting changed and diving into the water is not terribly appealing. But I know from experience that it is a question of managing perception, as the water temperature, whatever the outside air temperature, is fairly constant, between 26 and 28 degrees Centigrade, winter or summer alike. After the first surprise of immersion, your body adjusts to the water temperature and by the end of a kilometre, 50 lengths of a 25 metre pool or only 20 of a rarer 50 metre Olympic pool, the mind has completely forgotten about the initial perceived difficulties.

            In my imagination swimming reconnects me to the primal life form that crawled out of the swamp millennia ago, the faint cross-shaped patterns of the vellus hair on my upper arms suggest the paddling fins of my prehistoric ancestors, genetic tattoos of our fishy forebears. Swimming reminds me, however, that I don’t have gills and need to raise my head out of the water to breathe in fresh air. Inhaling and exhaling carefully produce a yoga-like attention to the breath, which is always calming. When I learnt to swim the crawl, after decades of breast and backstroke, my instructor told me to imagine that my body was encased in an invisible sheath and that I should attempt to keep inside it as I took each coordinated stroke, to keep my arms close to my torso and my legs as serpentine as possible. He also told me to point my fingers to the front of the pool and my toes to the back, stretching in both directions at the same time. It works wonders on the spine and was confirmed as beneficial by a more recent yoga teacher, whose exercises I have now incorporated into my swimming routine.

            During the forty-odd minutes it takes me to swim a kilometre, space-time is all my own and throughout the almost weightless progression through the invisible water, thoughts churn and coagulate, and ebb and flow until they seem to bubble and evaporate into the nothingness whence they came.

            Swimming regularly is like a surrogate religion or rather a surrogate religious practice, creating a structure, like a ritual, which allows you to follow, mindfully or mindlessly, the same set of movements, gestures and behaviour wherever you are. Swimming pools become like chapels or churches, places of worship, each with their local differences, styles, practices and customs, but all with the same central liturgy of diving, plunging, arm and leg strokes and their clergy of life-guards, pool attendants and receptionists. Praise the pool!


This was my first homework exercise for the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing course I’m doing at City University run by the fabulous Peter Forbes.

Britain does not break Treaties dixit Margaret Thatcher

February 9, 2017

If you, like me, are feeling bereft by the potentially imminent loss of your European Citizenship, then you might agree in finding the jokey vocabulary, which creates portmanteaus of ‘British’ and ‘exit’ and ‘British’ and ‘remain’ and ‘British’ and ‘moan’, simply irritating. Furthermore, you might find the superficiality misplaced and alarming, because the Churchillian ‘sunlit uplands’ whither Andrea Leadsom and now Theresa May seem to be leading us, seem like some sort of never-never land or the wonderland so aptly evoked by Ken Clarke, the only Conservative MP to vote against the triggering of Article 50 in the House of Commons on 21 January 2017:

“Apparently, when we follow the rabbit down the hole, we will emerge in a wonderland where, suddenly, countries throughout the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that we were never able to achieve as part of the European Union. Nice men like President Trump and President Erdogan are impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access. Let me not be too cynical; I hope that that is right. I do want the best outcome for the United Kingdom from this process. No doubt somewhere a hatter is holding a tea party with a dormouse in the teapot[1]”.

Contrariwise, I don’t believe that Theresa May is an Alice who can lead us out of the forest and I am rather amazed that she has managed to get where she is and hang on. Remember that she was only elected by her 35,453 Maidenhead constituents; not by her party and not by the country. Certainly not by the 65 million she claims in the Foreword to her White Paper[2]: The strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen”. Funny arithmetic all round here: 17 million voted Leave, 16 million Remain.

Whether you were a Thatcherite or not, it is fascinating to read her words and wonder whether Theresa May remembers what her predecessor said in April 1975:

“But for Britain to leave [the European Economic Community] would mean denouncing a Treaty.

Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for our relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade we may need to make. As Harold Macmillan said recently: ‘We used to stand for good faith. That is the greatest strength of our commerce overseas. And we are now being asked to tear up a Treaty into which we solemnly entered’.

The choice is clear. We can play a role in developing Europe, or we can turn our backs on the Community.

By turning our backs we would forfeit our right to influence what happens in the Community. But what happens in the Community will inevitably affect us. The European Community is a powerful group of nations. With Britain as a member, it is more powerful; without Britain it will still be powerful. We can play a leading role in Europe, but if that leadership is not forthcoming Europe will develop without Britain.

Britain, if she denounced a treaty, cannot then complain if Europe develops in conflict with Britain’s interests.”[3]

The speech has some other startling assertions, which would have those in the Leave camp growling and hurling abuse; unfortunately memories of Margaret Thatcher are selective.

So, Theresa May’s lack of leadership in Europe and her removing the United Kingdom from the European Union – and seemingly the single market – is going to deprive me of my European citizenship, which I cherish. The freedom to travel as I wish and when I wish to the other 27 member states; to work there if I wish – and that includes Switzerland, where I sometimes earn my muesli by virtue of our joint membership of the European Economic Area. If Global Britain is open for business and free trade, why are we leaving one of the biggest and richest free trade markets in the world? It simply does not add up. More funny arithmetic; the European single market has 508 million people[4], less 65 million hapless Brits soon, which makes 443 million. If we embrace free trade with the USA (326 million), Canada (37 million) Australia (25 million) and New Zealand (5 million), that only makes 393 million. Curiouser and curiouser!

The Supreme Court’s judgment[5] in favour of the Miller case was reassuring for those of us who still want to believe in the separation of powers and representative democracy, rather than mob rule in the Twittersphere. Lord Neuberger and his judges shared the fascinating metaphor of the 1972 Act taking us into the European Economic Area as a ‘conduit pipe’ by which EU law is introduced in UK domestic law[6] and enables us as “UK citizens […] to recover damages from the UK government in cases where a decision of one of the organs of the state based on a serious error of EU law has caused them loss.”

This ‘conduit pipe’ allowed us to turn on the tap of prosperity in the 1970s and catch up with the Trente Glorieuses (1945-1975) that had made France and Germany so much richer than we were. Do you remember the three-day week and the power cuts? I do – and the candles and one paraffin heater in our sitting room in suburban London in 1973.

The ‘conduit pipe’ also brought us our EU citizenship rights, the loss of which are the cause of my bereavement. How will I recover the damages?

Here are some “vivid illustrations of the variety of ways in which individual and group interests will be profoundly affected by implementation of the decision to leave the EU. Ms Mountfield for example provides a detailed breakdown of “fundamental” and “non-replicable” EU citizenship rights. The list starts with the “fundamental status” of EU citizenship (Citizens’ Directive 2004/38/EC preamble), leading to more specific rights, such as the right to move, reside, work and study throughout the member states, the right to vote in European elections, the rights to diplomatic protection and the right to equal pay, and to non-discriminatory healthcare free at the point of use. She categorises the government’s case as an assertion of -“untrammelled prerogative power to do away with the entire corpus of European law rights currently enjoyed under UK law, and render a whole suite of constitutional statutes meaningless, without any Parliamentary authority in the form of a statute.”[7]

Lord Neuberger didn’t agree with ‘untrammelled’, so let’s hope he’s right and that parliament gives the White Paper a good trammelling, but after the vote – excepted the lonely voices of Ken Clarke and Caroline Lucas and Nick Clegg – are we to surmise that our elected representatives are lemmings hurtling off their trolleys to the cliff edge?

I am losing my European citizenship, losing some of the fundamental freedoms that have enriched my life for the past 45 years. We should stop this nonsense.

“All persons more than a mile high must leave the court”.

[1] European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill

[2] The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union. Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty, February 2017

[3] Speech to Conservative Group for Europe (1) Thatcher Archive: CCOPR 314/75 (2) ITN Archive: News At Ten, 16 April 1975)


[5] JUDGMENT R (on the application of Miller and another) (Respondents) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Appellant)

[6] Ibid. paragraph 65

[7] Ibid. paragraph 269.

Theresa May’s case for withdrawal from the ECHR: Politically astute, legally dubious, constitutionally naïve

July 1, 2016

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has argued in a speech staking out her position on Brexit that, although she is in favour of the UK’s remaining in the European Union, it should withdraw from the E…

Source: Theresa May’s case for withdrawal from the ECHR: Politically astute, legally dubious, constitutionally naïve

I’m thinking of you

November 6, 2015

 In memoriam  Arthur James Wm. Wells, 1896 – 1915poppy 1915-2015

01 I'm thinking of you

I’m thinking of you, Card sent home by great-uncle Arthur

One hundred years ago, my grand-father’s only brother died in the mud in Flanders. He was 19 years old when he fell on 17 December 1915. We can imagine what Christmas must have been like for his parents and fourteen year old brother.

20150215_125508Arthur James William Wells was the elder son of James Joseph Wells, a foreman at Erith Docks on the river Thames and Annie, née Saunders (‘Lovely and ‘ot, Daisy’, which is what she used to say to my grandmother at Sunday lunch). My grandfather, Stanley Lewis Wells, was four years younger (1901-1984), too young to go to the Great War that claimed his elder brother and too old for the Second World War, which saw his elder son, Arthur Lewis Wells (born 1923), my father, in uniform. Granddad named my father and my uncle James (1930-1995) after his lost brother and father.

My father still has my grandfather’s copy of The Erithian, the magazine of the Erith County School from May 1916, which has an obituary of great-uncle Arthur:

The Erithian header

Once again it is our sad duty to record the loss of one of our Old Boys, the fourth to lay down his life for his King and country. Arthur Wells was one of the best sportsmen we have ever known and naturally he was one of the first to enlist on the outbreak of war. His love of danger and excitement led him to join the Hussars, and he went through his training as a cavalryman. He would certainly have been one of the best had he ever had the opportunity of showing how well he had profited by his training. But the way in which warfare developed made the cavalry arm of the Service of very little immediate utility, and he was drafted into the 3rd Batt. King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with whom he was serving when he met his death a short while ago.

                Though only in his twentieth year, his splendid physique made him a notable figure in any company. A natural athlete, he excelled in whatever branch of sport he took up, and was one of the best footballers – he played full-back – and beyond doubt the best cricketer the School has produced. He might have reached high honours in either of these games had he been spared to us. But far finer than his playing abilities was the truly sporting spirit in which he played. A mean action or an unfair advantage never entered the mind of Arthur Wells. He was indeed a true, manly Englishman, than which nothing finer can be said of him. We deplore his loss, both for our own and for his country’s sake.

                He entered the School in September 1908, and left to start work at Messrs. Cory’s Engineering Works, Erith, in December, 1911. His School career, though not of remarkable brilliance, was in every sense one to be proud of, and his sterling worth endeared him to fellow pupils and staff alike. He was one of the most valued members of the Green House, for whom he always did yeoman service, and his housemates felt with special keenness the sadness of his loss.

03 James, Annie and Stanley 1919

Photograph of great-granddad James, great-grandma Annie and granddad Stanley, Belgium 1919.

The only time my great-grand-parents, James and Annie left England, was in 1919, when they followed their son from the outskirts of London and travelled to Poperinge, not far from Ypres on the Belgian side of the border with France. There they visited his grave at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.

In 2000, I moved to Brussels to work for the European Union. It had been a long held ambition, motivated by my upbringing and the family memories passed down of the disruption, loss and fear that the two world wars had wreaked. International reconciliation and understanding was essential to rebuild shattered Europe. Growing up in the 1960s, the European ideal of hope and shared destiny was exciting and comforting. My elder sister learned German and went on Christian youth work camps in Germany in the late 1960s, inviting her international friends one Christmas to our house in Wimbledon. My younger sister and I revelled in being spoilt by these lovely Dutch, French and German students who spoke fascinating languages. In 1971 the introduction of decimal currency in the UK and then our accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 were historic landmarks that had a profound impact on my generation, helping us to integrate with our European neighbours, providing opportunities to travel freely across the continent (the Western part, at least) that had been denied to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations in their youth. In 1979 I went to live and work in France for the first time, as an English language assistant in a provincial secondary school. Being a foreigner, I was only allowed a bank account in convertible Francs and the only money I could deposit in it was my salary.

I read French at university and went to live and work in Paris after graduation and spent some 15 years there. It was as translator that I moved to Brussels and there that I acquired my first television set and my first car. The television was important. In Brussels I was able to watch the BBC and in July 2000 was very moved by a report on the commemoration ceremony of the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. The wives, mothers and daughters of the men who had been victims of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II struck me with their dignity and determination, but I also felt viscerally puzzled as to why they would want to visit the mass graves that were the locus of their grief and suffering. It was the visit to pay my respects to great-uncle Arthur that helped me understand.

The car was not so important, but useful. Paul and Philip, two English friends living in Brussels, accompanied me one Sunday on the drive to Poperinge in Western Flanders near the French border. Without too much trouble we found the Military Cemetery at Lijssenthoek. Beautifully looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the rows of white gravestones commemorate some 10,000 burials. Unable to locate my great-uncle’s grave, I returned to the monumental red-brick gatehouse, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, where I found a little alcove cupboard, closed by a neat metal door. Inside was a ledger with the names of the fallen and a plan of the cemetery. Turning the pages to the letter W, I soon found the entry, which has since been digitised and made available online, for WELLS, ARTHUR JAMES. It made me shudder to read:

In Memory of



23597, 6th Bn., King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who died on 17 December 1915 Age 19

Son of James J. and Annie E. Wells, of 23, Thanet Rd., Erith, Kent.

doc5718628 AJW grave

Thanet Road in Erith is just around the corner from Lesney Park Road where my father was born, where my grand-parents lived when I was little and where we held the reception after Uncle James’s funeral in 1995. Connecting those streets on the slope rising up from the Thames to this flat field in Flanders, it all suddenly became so real; it wasn’t a story read in a book, but this 19-year old boy, who looked in photographs just like my father, was family, buried in the ground here. When I located the headstone I had another shudder, as the inscription read, AJ WELLS, the same initials as my eldest brother, Andrew Joseph. I felt for granddad, what feelings must have gone through him when he stood here in 1919, eighty-one years earlier. Then I began to understand, with all due proportion and respect, why the Bosnian women visited the mass graves at Srebrenica; the dead create a connection with place. I had family buried in Belgium.

Rupert Brooke, the young poet who wrote The Solider, an evocative poem about the First World War, death and place, also died that same year, in 1915.

If I should die, think only this of me;

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

There’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England. This place, this cemetery in Flanders was and is part of my family story. Standing there with my two friends I felt glad and grateful that my parents’ generation had put the war behind them and created an environment in which I was free to travel and work and enjoy life in the European Union of then 15 Member States. Indeed, I was working for a Frenchman, whose boss in turn was German and my colleagues in the ‘minestrone’ translation department were a jolly mixture of all the nationalities.

A family story

Our European history is a family story and it is still essential that we remember the tens of millions of our family members, like my great-uncle Arthur, whose lives were claimed by an ultimately useless, futile war. Their untimely deaths were the result of the international political elites’ failure to communicate and cooperate, what Christopher Clark has called ‘sleepwalking’ (The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914). Today, we need to be mindful of history when we consider our relationship with our friends and neighbours in Europe and wary of the mythologizing of independence. Our European story is a family story that goes back hundreds of years, so much so that by the 19th Century the crowned heads of Europe were closely-related members of the same family. Christopher Clark reminds us, in a London Review of Books article, of the kinship links between Nicky, Willy and George[1], respectively, the Russian Czar, German Kaiser and British king.

By the turn of the 20th century, the genealogical web of Europe’s reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion. Wilhelm II and George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria’s granddaughter. The mothers of George V and Nicholas II were sisters from the house of Denmark. Wilhelm and Nicholas II were both great-great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The Kaiser’s great-great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the Tsar’s grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, not everybody was asleep to the dangers of war. In ‘The World of Yesterday’, the memoir written and published shortly before his suicide in exile in 1942 during World War II, Stefan Zweig describes his friendship with the French writer, pacifist and 1915 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Romain Rolland. For Zweig, Rolland was the ‘man who would be the conscience of Europe in its time of crisis’.[2] Rolland wrote an anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (Au-dessus de la Mêlée), moved to Switzerland where he worked for the Red Cross in Geneva and pleaded for international reconciliation.

Rolland is one of the many who believe, […], that the spiritual forces that are important and ought to prevail are the international ones; that co-operation, not war, is the right destiny of nations; and that all that is valuable in each people may be maintained in and by friendly intercourse with the others. The war between these two ideals is the greater war that lies behind the present conflict.[3]

In 2015, one hundred years after great-uncle Arthur died in the mud in Flanders, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer issued a warning that the world is at a turning point and appealed for urgent and concrete action to address human suffering and insecurity.

Rest in peace, Arthur James William Wells. Gone, but not forgotten.

poppy 1915-2015

[1] The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One by Miranda Carter
Fig Tree, 584 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 670 91556 9

[2] The World of Yesterday, pg. 226

[3] Above the battle, introduction

Revealed: Capita Charges for Interpreting Services

October 29, 2015

Thanks for posting, very interesting and useful.

Interpreting Signs

NUBSLI members this morning received leaked information about Capita’s charges under the Ministry of Justice contract. It reveals that Sign Language Interpreters, as usual, are talked about as being expensive yet do not receive anywhere near the money that is being charged for their services. A quick breakdown below…

capitas charges

A half day job with 1 hour travel each way
Capita charge:             £172.80 minimum charge + £80.00 Travel time
£252.80 TOTAL

Interpreter’s fee:           Less than half this amount (using Clarion and Sign Solutions rates outside of London).

Interpreters have been taking a pay cut under this contract for years and not getting travel time/expenses resulting in chaos. I am not the only interpreter I know that refuses to work under this contract due the dodgy practices of the contractors and its sub-contractors.

And I will not work for less than NUBSLI fees guidance. With information like this leak, it is…

View original post 120 more words

Objets à réaction poétique

August 10, 2014

Une visite à la chapelle Notre-Dame du-Haut et au chevalement du puits Sainte-Marie à Ronchamp

C’est dans mon enfance que j’ai vu pour la première fois une photo de la chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut de Le Corbusier [1] à Ronchamp ; j’ai toujours voulu la visiter. La toiture de béton armé brut, de couleur gris, posée sur les murs blancs, me faisait penser à une coiffe de religieuse, telle que portée par les Ursulines du couvent de Wimbledon où mes sœurs étaient éduquées.

ronchamp TH

Dans le collège wimbledonien – tenu par des pères jésuites où mes frères aînés et moi étions éduqués ‒ Gordon Crosby, professeur d’art et de céramique, nous a enseigné l’histoire de l’architecture anglaise. Chaque élève devait rédiger une fiche, de la taille d’une carte postale, sur laquelle au recto nous avions listé les styles de l’architecture anglaise du gothique primaire au modernisme de Berthold Lubetkin et de Denys Lasdun. Au verso de notre carte postale nous devions noter des exemples de chacun des styles, dont « Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall » (plus de verre que de mur), un manoir élisabéthain somptueux de la fin du 16e siècle. Gordon nous promenait dans Londres et nous faisait arrêter quelques moments sur le trottoir pour dessiner les bâtiments, tels la maison des banquets à Whitehall d’Inigo Jones où la cathédrale Saint-Paul de Christopher Wren.

Hardwick Hall

Ainsi, armé d’un vocabulaire architectural, il m’a été plus facile de découvrir et de déchiffrer les bâtiments et monuments historiques en France. Même avant de lire les manifestes de Le Corbusier, j’avais qualifié une de ses résidences de « machine à habiter » tellement il était clair que cette construction massive et angulaire en béton armé était un élément de la vie moderne où les diverses fonctions et occupations quotidiennes de l’homme devaient être réglées comme les pièces d’une montre. (Photo : Maison Guiette, Anvers © FLC/ADAGP)

Maison Guiette Anvers  FLC ADAGP

La lecture des livres de Le Corbusier sur l’architecture en tant que contribution politique et environnementale à la vie moderne après l’hypocrisie esthétique et maniériste du victorianisme, m’attirait énormément. En effet, en 1933, au Congrès international d’architecture moderne (CIAM) d’Athènes, Le Corbusier affirme : « Les matériaux de l’urbanisme sont le soleil, l’espace, les arbres, l’acier et le ciment armé, dans cet ordre et dans cette hiérarchie. » Le docteur Pierre Winter lui déclare : « notre rôle et le vôtre, aujourd’hui sont de restituer la nature à l’Homme, de l’y intégrer »

La visite de la chapelle de Ronchamp vaut le voyage pour employer la terminologie des Guides Michelin. C’est un chef d’œuvre de l’architecture moderne, construit pour remplacer une ancienne chapelle, lieu de pèlerinage depuis le Moyen Âge, dédiée à la Vierge Marie et détruite lors de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale. Le Corbusier, protestant suisse de naissance, connu pour ses constructions sévères et comme maître de l’angle droit, a créé à Ronchamp, non pas une « machine à prier », mais un endroit de contemplation sereine qui puise dans la tradition de l’architecture ecclésiastique européenne : chapelles latérales pour dévotion intime, vitraux et jeux changeant de lumière à la gloire du Divin, rencontre et fusion de l’extérieur et de l’intérieur et utilisation de techniques de construction contemporaines tout en récupérant des matériaux sur site. Pour reprendre la formule du Docteur Winter, Le Corbusier a su restituer l’homme à la nature en l’y intégrant. En lisant le guide de la chapelle, rédigé par Danièle Pauly [2], j’ai appris que sa toiture, une coque en béton formée de deux membranes, a été inspirée par une carapace de crabe que Le Corbusier avait trouvée des décennies auparavant sur une plage de Long Island et qu’il avait qualifiée d’« objet à réaction poétique ». La création de la nature se retrouve ainsi reflétée, ré-imaginée par l’homme qui construit son abri extérieur-intérieur, lieu de culte et de reconnaissance de son existence terrestre et de son désir de trouver l’équilibre et la paix dans l’action et l’inaction ; un cadre de recueillement, de réflexion et de méditation.


Si l’étymologie grecque de « poésie » poíêsis est l’« action de faire, la création », la carapace de crabe qui devient couverture de chapelle est une réaction à la fois simple, audacieuse et complexe dans sa portée poétique.

Comme son nom l’indique, la chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut est posée comme une couronne sur la colline qui domine la ville de Ronchamp, commune minière depuis le milieu du dix-huitième siècle, lorsque les hommes forèrent les entrailles de la terre pour en extraire du charbon.

Autre objet à réaction poétique, à mi-chemin du bourg en bas et de la chapelle en haut, se trouvent les vestiges du puits Sainte-Marie, dont le chevalement en béton armé est incorporé dans le bâtiment du carreau de la mine. Cet édifice est le témoin, désormais silencieux, de la quête d’énergie, de chaleur, du labeur et de la souffrance des hommes faces à leurs besoins vitaux ; ces hommes qui créèrent de l’or noir en charriant la terre de l’intérieur vers l’extérieur.

chevalement puits ste marie ronchamp

Texte de Michael Wells, rédigé pour Jane Wentworth, relu et corrigé par Yolande Eyoum, juin 2014

 [1] L’usage a tendance à préférer « de Le Corbusier » lorsque l’on se réfère à l’architecte, et « du Corbusier » lorsque l’on se réfère à l’immeuble d’habitation. P. Fuentes, « On dit ‛du Corbusier’ ou ‛de Le Corbusier’ ? », [archive] La Poutre dans l’œil, billet de blog recensant l’usage, 1er juillet 2013 sur Wikipédia FR

 [2] « Le Corbusier, la chapelle de Ronchamp », Danièle Pauly, Editions Birkhauser, 2008, ISBN 3764382333