Many hastily sought to ascribe meaning to these fires. In regards to the burning of Notre Dame, the Moscow Times, citing “Russian commentators,” has called it a “symbol for Europe’s decline.” Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University, was quoted in Rolling Stone saying that “the building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation.” Al Jazeera’s Belén Fernández sees the response as a “case of misplaced empathy,” and even Newt Gingrich felt compelled to grace us with a travelogue on the significance of the cathedral.
“I am convinced that in the near future you will also be able to go to Paris and see the great Cathedral of Notre Dame where it was and as it was,” he writes. But that might not, and should not, be the case.
Yesterday, the French government announced that an international competition will be held to redesign the spire of the cathedral—originally designed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc—which many saw collapse in flames in footage shared worldwide. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is quoted by Reuters saying, “The international competition will allow us to ask the question of whether we should even recreate the spire as it was conceived by Viollet-le-Duc.” In the context of France and its history, a faithful restoration of the cathedral is the least imaginative option, and one that betrays the spirit of Notre Dame and the cultural history of Paris.
As has been widely reported, extensive high-tech surveys of the building were carried out before the fire, and successful restorations of landmarks such as the Reims Cathedral have been brought up as examples of effective, loyal restorations. But one does not have to look far to witness the disastrous consequences of seeking a return to “original” Medieval architecture.
Just 60 miles from Paris, renovations at the Chartres Cathedral saw the building’s interior scrubbed and repainted in an attempt to return the building to its original state. A 2017 New York Times piece on the project described “strong scholarly arguments in favor of the renovation” facing up against the complaints of critics and the general public, who called the attempts “arrogant” and “kitsch.” Patrice Clavel, lead architect, defended his work by saying that “the public is not competent to judge.” Harvard Professor Jeffrey F. Hamburger is quoted as saying “there is no reason to be nostalgic about the dirt.”
Idiosyncratic features of Chartres Cathedral that emerged during centuries of history and maturation, such as a rare and iconic Black Madonna, were literally whitewashed. The brooding dark patina of the stonework inside was erased in favor of a speculative vision of what the cathedral might have looked like in the Middle Ages. Bright, white LED lighting was installed to replace the candlelight.
While the architecture and structure of Notre Dame is extensively documented, and advances in restoration technology might make for a fidelitous reconstruction of the lost spire and roof—there is no restoration work that can rekindle the age and the roughness of the cathedral. Nothing can bring back the organic side of architecture that emerges from the use of buildings, the reciprocal relationship between places and their inhabitants.
There are also immense financial and opportunity costs involved in a prolonged restoration. If Macron’s vision for a full renovation within five years is to prove honest, then the government must decide on an architect that can elevate the ruins from the ashes as quickly as possible through resourceful and intelligent design—minimizing waste and the government expenditures that have put France in a state of crisis.
There is no shortage of local architectural talent which can accomplish this task—many French firms work at the cutting edge of ecological design and historically sensitive adaptive-reuse. Philippe Starck’s Azkuna Zentroa in Bilbao recently won the Urban Land Institute’s 2017-2018 Global Award for Excellence—converting an underutilized building in the heart of the Basque city into a destination catering to citizens from all walks of life. The result is a time-tested design of outstanding merit, which applies principles of architectural hybridity to a contemporary space within the shell of a historic landmark.
In regards to the architecture that should come—it is the spirit of what was lost which should be preserved.
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, whose work represents the most significant portion of Notre Dame consumed by the fire, was an architect with one foot in the past and one foot in the future—a transitory architect and engineer with a love and respect for Gothic style. However, his methodology would inspire the Art Nouveau and Modernist movements to come. In opposition to his ruin-adoring contemporary John Ruskin, Viollet-le-Duc was an advocate for restoration projects that could provide faithful but distinct contributions to original designs—and he rescued many of Europe’s finest Medieval buildings by doing so. His inside-out, function-first vision lives on in much of contemporary architecture being built around the world today.
For Victor Hugo, the author who returned attention to the national monument at a time when it was seen as an outdated relic, the essence of the cathedral was to be found in its chimeric nature. “Everything is merged, combined, amalgamated in Notre-Dame,” he wrote. This burden of meaning and symbolism embedded in architecture is key to the story that Notre Dame tells and will continue to tell—the most important role of the monument. Future designs should take this in mind, and contribute purposefully to the millenial history of the cathedral and its city. Paris, a city known for its controversial architectural interventions—including the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Pyramid, and the complete reconstruction of the city core under Napoleon III—can be successful if it embraces this approach.
Among the flood of voices responding to the fire, perhaps one headline captures the essence of its aftermath best—and it comes from an unlikely source, The Onion: “Paris Vows To Rebuild Notre Dame Despite Cosmic Absurdity Of Seeking Inherent Meaning In Fleeting Creations Of Man.” Published on Wednesday, the tongue-in-cheek and satirical article cleverly foreshadows a dilemma that is just beginning to bubble up: how the existentialist and revolutionary attitudes of French culture will respond to the restoration of Notre Dame, a religious, historic, and traditionalist landmark.
In the heavy, politicized debate that will ensue, it’s best to keep in mind that there is no inherent meaning in the disaster itself, but there is meaning to be made in the work that will follow. It will be a test of resolve, and an immense opportunity to challenge the imagination of a country in need of expression at a time of change. The future designs for Notre Dame’s renovation should be marked with this crucial moment, a gesture towards the future, as well as the full scope of it’s history—including the fire.