Smoke billows as fire engulfs the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. File/ AFP
The French, who know a thing or two about the bold reinvention of architectural landmarks (consider I.M. Pei’s once-despised, now-iconic Louvre Pyramid), have announced an international design competition to restore or redesign the destroyed spire of Notre Dame cathedral.
Is that a good idea or a publicity stunt? At first glance, I’d say, it’s more of the latter than the former. The contest, announced Wednesday, appears to offer French President Emmanuel Macron a convenient way to divert attention from the politically damaging sight of the “Yellow Vest” protests that have engulfed Paris’ streets.
The timing and scope of the contest also seem ill-advised. Job one at this stage is to ensure the cathedral’s structural stability, not to replace its architectural exclamation point. And if French officials are going to hold such a competition, why limit it to the spire? Why not also include the replacement of the cathedral’s destroyed timber roof?
Rushing to heal architectural wounds is risky business that can have negative long-term consequences, as we know from the bland row of glassy skyscrapers that replaced the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
It is even riskier to tweak a masterpiece. So much can go wrong. Why not just rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it was? But things really aren’t that simple, and not just because it will be impossible to replace materials of the original building, like the tall, sturdy beams of oak that undergirded its steeply-pitched roof.
Since the first stone was laid in 1163, Notre Dame has been tweaked continuously, reflecting changing tastes and technologies. The cathedral we see today is not a frozen-in-time monument of the Gothic master builders. It has evolved, shaped by changing tastes, technologies, and circumstances.
The spire that toppled Monday was “only” about 150 years old, a legacy of a restoration carried out in the mid-19th Century by the French architect and theorist Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. His spire (300 feet tall, its wood frame sheathed in lead) was once accused of being outlandishly personal and romantically inventive — unfaithful, in short, to the original design. Yet without it, Notre Dame seems heart-breakingly incomplete.
The cathedral’s complex history raises a fraught question: If the 19th century “improved” Notre Dame, then why can’t we, in the 21st century, rebuild the cathedral using our own advanced art and technology?
That was the gist of French Prime Minster Edouard Philippe’s remarks in announcing the competition Wednesday. “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,” he told reporters. “Or if, as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, we should endow Notre Dame with a new spire.”
To get a firmer grip on Viollet-le-Duc’s design, I called Kevin Murphy, a Vanderbilt University art history professor whose 2000 book “Memory and Modernity” explores the architect’s restoration of a Romanesque church in France’s Burgundy region.
Viollet-le-Duc’s Notre Dame spire, Murphy told me, replaced one that was in bad condition and was taken down in the 1780s. He was unsure if that spire was the original. With the new spire, Murphy said, Viollet-le-Duc sought to achieve a sky-piercing exterior expression of the awe-inspiring Gothic verticality that may not have been achievable when the building was constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries.
In addition to shoring up the structure of the once-crumbling cathedral, Murphy explained, Viollet-le-Duc cleared out aged buildings around it. That step enhanced Notre Dame’s monumental presence, making it more visible to tourists, whose ranks were growing in the mid-19th century.
So what does Murphy think about the possibility that Viollet-le-Duc’s spire might be replaced with a different design?
“I’m attached to his work,” Murphy replied. On the other hand, “the building as it exists has a very long history. There’s nothing pure about it. It’s been altered and restored over the course of many centuries...It might be interesting to see a proposal for a spire that was compatible with the building but at the same time spoke to our own time the way Viollet-le-Duc’s did.”
Then, Murphy added, “It could be horrible.” Indeed it could. The stakes here — aesthetic, cultural, and spiritual — are enormous. Political calculations should not drive the fate of Notre Dame. Nor should brazen architectural adventurism. It is necessary to move ahead, and even to consider new solutions, but with the care, intelligence and sense of stewardship demanded by one of the world’s great landmarks.
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