May 1, 2019
by Barry Bergdoll
Cathedral of Notre Dame. Image credit: Ian Kelsall.
Cathedral of Notre Dame. Image credit: Ian Kelsall.

In the weeks since the horrific fire at Notre Dame left much of the world fearful that one of the most treasured achievements of medieval architecture might be lost entirely, there has been a whirlwind of views put forth on how to respond to the loss. The damage to the cathedral’s roof, the collapse of its spire, and the loss of the crossing vault below the spire, as well as one of the vaults of the south transept, imperil even the survival of the stained glass of the church’s beloved medieval rose window.

This is not the first time a building has been lost—even in most recent memories—to the very efforts deployed in conserving it. In the last few years alone there have been numerous devastating fires in landmark buildings of architectural history and of civic and national identity that have occurred while the buildings were under scaffolding for restoration: the Church of the Holy Shroud in Turin in 1997; the Glasgow School of Art of C.R. Mackintosh, not once but twice in 2014 and 2018; and now in perhaps the most famed and beloved of all French cathedrals, Notre Dame, just days before Easter. Clearly this is a peril that needs addressing because of the cruel paradox that sometimes a monument is under the greatest danger while it is under care. In our age of surveillance and detection we should be seeking state-of-the-art fire monitoring systems as an integral part of restoration procedures.

But now that the fire has been extinguished by a heroic and wise fire-fighting strategy that thought to focus on the twin towers of the West Front, the conversation has turned to immediate repair and reconstruction. The timber of tress felled in the Middle Ages to create a man-made “forest,” one that remained intact for centuries despite the French Revolution, World Wars, and the Nazi occupation of Paris, can in most likelihood not be replaced, despite the precious documentation created by the brilliant Vassar art historian Andrew Tallon, completed before his untimely death in November last year. And it is perhaps futile to try to recreate precisely the structural system of a medieval technology for roofing the structure to protect the vaults which must be covered, checked, and repaired as a first priority.

But the profile of the cathedral in the city can be recreated. The conversation has already been opened of whether or not to reproduce what is lost or to advance the argument that cathedrals have always been living monuments that have evolved and changed with each generation. And the question of the famous spire, a pure creation of the 19th century and yet one of the most beloved symbols, is at the heart of this debate. I am of split minds on this debate. On the one hand I am always in favor of promoting new architectural creativity and opposed to historical pastiche; on the other hand I think the issue is more complex when repairing a loss that is immediate and raw. I have always been opposed to the recreation of buildings that were lost long ago. I think that the rebuilding of the Schloß in Berlin, for instance, is at once an aesthetic perversion and a symptom of a cultural problem in post-unification Germany. On the other hand, the recreation of lost buildings and city fabric in the immediate aftermath of destruction by war or natural disaster is a natural emotional response to healing. The reconstruction of the Cathedral at Reims, largely undertaken with Rockefeller contributions, after World War I comes immediately to mind, as does the reconstruction of the historical center of Warsaw after World War II.

The cathedral of Notre Dame has remained largely unchanged in its outward form since the comprehensive campaigns lead by E.E. Viollet-le Duc over some 25 years in the mid-1800s. The cathedral is therefore arguably as much a monument of the 19th century rediscovery of Gothic architecture and of the modern culture of preservation and conservation as it is of the 12th and 13th century long Gothic campaign of construction. It seems now that even though the cathedral was one of the first buildings to be protected under French Monuments Historiques legislation in the mid-19th century, and under UNESCO World Heritage designation in the 20th, it is now considered acceptable to distinguish between medieval and 19th century fabric in selectively intervening to repair the loss and hand on the building to new generations. French President Emmanuel Macron has even called for an exception to French monument protection law, a move protested by over 1,000 signatories from the French professional heritage sector and by an international moral support against this foolhardy and dangerous legal and aesthetic move with perilous implications for French heritage management at large. This appeared on the front page the Parisian daily Le Figaro earlier this week and has been widely circulated in social media.

Viollet-le-Duc crowned his nearly two-decade-long involvement with the cathedral by replacing the spire over the crossing that had been destroyed in 1792 during the French Revolution. It is one of his finest creations. And the idea to remove Viollet-le-Duc from the very monument protection he helped craft seems not only wrong but cruel. Ridiculous arguments are being advanced that it was a neo-Gothic creation and therefore not authentic, even though it is both protected by law and, even more absurdly, that much of the surviving fabric of the building was restored and even reworked by Viollet-le-Duc and his team between 1845 and the 1860s. So proud of the spire was he that included among the life-size copper figures of the apostles set on cascading platforms on the spire is a figure whose face is a self-portrait, twisting his head backwards to look up in admiration. Given that many of the sculptures, including Viollet-le-Duc’s image of himself, were removed during the restoration work underway, it seems all the more logical to put them back in place on a replica of what has been lost. The idea of submitting this beloved symbol to an aesthetic referendum in the current tense political climate in France seems as unwise politically as it is questionable in relationship to current uses of French monument restoration. If this tragedy had happened to a less famous cathedral in the French provinces it is unlikely that this debate would have entered the political arena, creating more smoke just after the fire was extinguished.

And what of the flurry of designs that have been published of late, as though the solution could be found in Photoshop? I append here my response to just such a query from Architectural Digest, with the hope that a serious discussion of the implications both for historical preservation and for contemporary architectural production might be continued at the Center for Architecture:

No sooner had the fire been extinguished by a heroic and strategically savvy fire-fighting force, than the air around Notre Dame was filled with political smoke. Emmanuel Macron abruptly announced an architectural competition to imagine a new design for the cathedral’s spire and thus its profile in the city without thinking of its aesthetic grounding or political consequences. One of the most beloved religious buildings on the planet is now in critical condition as commentators and even architects seem intent on waving their arms around the patient without having the patience to await an expert diagnosis. The first order of business should be roofing the exposed vaults and finding and surveying the fabric of a building composed of stone and mortar that has been exposed to intense heat. We don’t even know just how fragile the free-standing transept wall silhouetted against the sky without roof or a critical vaulted bay is, or the state of the mortar in the vaults still in place. And yet architects whose own reputation in the wake of a generation of Starchitects is not at its high point are rushing in like ambulance chasers, publishing images in full ignorance of the structural reality of a cherished historic monument. Viollet-le-Duc’s integral presence in the cathedral it is thought might be blithely discarded, the nature of light to the Gothic aesthetic might be negated with a glass roof sitting atop a structure whose health is in serious question, and designing the “look” of a 21st century Gothic cathedral has taken over the debate when a diagnosis of how to save the 12th to 19th century fabric of the building will take months if not years to establish. And who ever heard of a competition in which the proposals were published the day after the announcement, without waiting even for the deadline? Attention to the emergency at hand rather than rushing in with instant prognoses or signature solutions seems to me unseemly.