Updated: Aug 1, 2019
The sight of Notre Dame burning on April 15 was shocking and made me cry. But now the peril begins. What will become of the jarring darkened cathedral, now fixed in so many people’s mental landscapes?
President Macon immediately pledged to rebuild it “even more beautifully” within five years. I appreciate the sentiment, but why so fast? Notre Dame is 850 years old, after all.
The artificial deadline seems staggeringly impractical and unseemly fast. No doubt, it’s cynically intended to coincide with Paris hosting the Olympics in 2024. A terrible association for a venerable historic site. It probably also reflects Macron’s desire to eradicate a disfigured Notre Dame, which may affect the image of France, during his term.
I hope renovation can proceed, with all due probity and genuine medieval craftsmanship, divorced from the spectacle of sporting events. Over 1,000 architecture and heritage experts already have called on Macron to revise his ambitious 5 year deadline, in a letter published in Le Figaro.
It may be too late.
Just days after the fire, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an international competition for design ideas to renovate the cathedral.
At the time, he said “this is obviously a huge challenge, a historic responsibility.” But he also remarked, to some dismay, that a new design should be “suited to the technologies and challenges of our times.” Macron similarly weighed in that he was not opposed to a “contemporary” gesture.
Then a bill was passed seeming to expedite building. It provides tax exemptions for donations and skirts environmental regulations for building sites. An amendment proposing that Notre Dame be restored “as it was” was rejected.
The result? Architectural ambulance chasing. Restoration fervor has hit France. Hard and fast. With modernists bursting into the conversation.
Jaunty ideas flooded in, some outlandish, some meant to spark debate. Architects, after all, want to want their interventions to be writ large, a personal mark visible to the public.
As was Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th century spire, to be sure. Viollet-le-Duc had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. But his functional innovation/addition was based on a a long career and a weighty nine volume dictionary on medieval architecture. It respected the original Gothic architecture of Notre Dame.
Some architects now point out that the fire is “part of Notre Dame’s history.” (Seems obvious enough.) But they then say that Notre Dame must necessarily be “changed” and “reimagined” to reflect that reality. This is the age of starchitecture, after all. Can’t let that this kind of once in a lifetime opportunity pass by …
John Harwood, an architectural historian, told Rolling Stone:
“… it would be a mistake to try to recreate the edifice as it once stood, as LeDuc did more than 150 years ago. Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making.”
It’s an interesting idea and shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. But what does it entail exactly? Should Notre Dame shed its current identity and forge another “original” identity less connected to the Catholic faith? Architects seem to like the amorphous concept of “originality.” But how would that manifest?
Some architects suggest replacing the wooden beams with steel, glass, or carbon fiber beams. Some suggest eliminating a traditional roof and replacing it with one covered in glass, crystal, or stained glass. Perhaps in pyramidal form, a call out to the Louvre. Glass roofs seem very au courant.
New and lighter beams sound perfectly logical. I can wrap my brain around an understated glass or carbon fiber roof too, if it was tastefully done and sympathetic to the austere Gothic beauty of the cathedral. I’m just not sure whether it would be practical though. Could it be kept clean? Is Paris' rather dreary weather really good enough to warrant a glass roof ?
A glass spire may be a bridge too far for my taste. It seems so futuristic and clashes with the stone towers. Also it conures up images of Vegas, which is anathema to me. Perhaps the Victorian era spire could just be eliminated? It was never aesthetically correct in the first place.
Alas, now it seems to be a symbol of Paris.
Other modernists want to go much further and make Notre Dame an architectural folly.
Some advocate adding an open air public space or greenhouse on top. This too seems very trendy in today’s urban spaces and and is a cutesy allusion to Notre Dame’s nickname, the “forest.” Sounds awful to me. I don’t think of a cathedral as an “urban space.” One can envision an extra hefty entry fee to inspect the new “garden” and a food court to keep the masses from getting hangry …
One architect proposed a massive symbolic gold flame in lieu of a new spire. Another wanted a new spire to appear as a laser beam of light. The ideas are endless and most of them don't contemplate a neo-Gothic take on the iconic spire.
What will future generations say to all this? That delusional Parisians wanted to plant trees everywhere, including on top of historic religious buildings? That clown hats were the order of the day? That the French were obsessed with light beams and gaming?
A valid and measured architectural response needn’t be “soulless.” It would be appropriate for such a venerable 12th century edifice. It would take time and care, not a slapdash competition. I only hope the donors and bureaucrats see it that way and don’t theme park the cathedral or choose a crazy modernist rebuild.
It’s one thing to a put a modernist structure next to an ancient building — like the commingling of the Louvre and the I.M. Pei Pyramid. I like that juxtaposition. It’s another to alter the ancient building itself with a “new and improved” (3 very scary words) kitschy patchwork style, lit it up like a shopping mall.
I don’t believe anyone would like to see the Mona Lisa jazzed up with a fresh coat of paint or an abstract slash across her famous smile.
Of course, like every cathedral renovation, there will inevitably some alteration, and that is consistent with history. Cathedrals and churches are living buildings. They reflect the wheel of time and its sometimes harsh vicissitudes. Cathedrals are often a collaborative achievement of continual renovation and rebuilding. Notre Dame itself has been modified several times over the centuries. It isn’t pristinely Gothic.
So Notre Dame won’t reemerge as an exact pre-fire replica. That would be unheard of. Can it be recreated without being unrecognizably transformed?
It seems wise not to re-build the roof out of oak. Reims Cathedral was damaged during WWI, its roof destroyed. Instead of timber, heat resistant concrete was used to rebuild the roof. Reims was an example of a loyal and successful renovation, hewing closely to the original but with modern materials.
But you don’t have to look far to find the opposite result.
The controversial renovation of Chartres Cathedral has provoked outrage and debate. Some critics have labelled its interior restoration a “catastrophe,” “cultural vandalism,” and a “gaudy pastiche.”
The lead architect, Patrice Clavel, blithely claims “there is no reason to be nostalgic about dirt.” But the cathedral has lost the patina of age. Some features of the cathedral were erased with the painting and whitewashing of its columns and walls. Faux stone joint lines were used. LED lights replaced candles.
Is Chartres now authentic or a simulacrum?
Cologne Cathedral may also be a model for Notre Dame. The WSJ reports that the Dombaumeister of Cologne Cathedral fears that Paris might make the same mistake that Cologne did after World War II and says:
There, a crossing spire of the 19th century was replaced with something that was historic in its broad outlines but deliberately contemporary in its details. The result looks distressingly like a lost finial from the Chrysler Building. It is now widely regarded as a mistake.
How will Notre Dame fare by comparison? Will Notre Dame be thuggishly mutilated into a Nouvelle Dame? Or will there be a culturally sensitive and respectful adaptive-reuse of the sacred monument? One which values the mark of time and memory, values the past but imagines a new life.
I can only hope for the latter.
But Paris, of course, is know for its cutting edge architectural innovations and interventions. Paris has embraced "old meets new."
Think the Eiffel Tower, the I.M. Pei Pyramid, La Géode, Les Docks, even the Haussman boulevards. It was Haussman who bulldozed medieval Paris. More recently, Paris’ famous department store, La Samaritaine, is getting a new look. A rippling modern glass wall is being installed right next to its historically protected art nouveau facades.
A “contemporary” reconstruction of Notre Dame would technically be contrary to rules and regulations governing the restoration of historic buildings. But Macron’s and Philippe’s embrace of a “contemporary gesture” are shots fired. I don’t expect anything along the lines of Reims. I expect a statement, a “grand project.” I expect a fancy spire.
The debate will be fiercely contested. But a decision is likely months away with fire damage still being assessed. It will likely be a contentious redo and not everyone will be happy. A quarrel of old vs. new, of experts vs executives, of creation vs restoration. Of lawyers.
If the structural rationalist Viollet-le-Duc were in charge, I wager he’d favor a modern approach to the roof and would be opposed to the simple recreation of his spire.
The past predicts the future. Give it a couple decades, and maybe no one will care about how Notre Dame used to look.
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