The ashes have cooled. The firemen did their jobs. Within hours they were able to stop the flames from consuming the building and minimize the damage to the structure and its treasures. But now the battle to save the Parisian cathedral of Notre Dame begins in earnest. Because now the building is threatened by something more dangerous than flames. Now it is threatened by ideology. And a dangerous ideology cannot be beaten back in a matter of hours.
I was immediately worried when, upon reading some of the earliest reports—even before the fire was out—I saw comments about Notre Dame not being a “static” building. True, no building is entirely static. It weathers, and sometimes you clean it off or re-paint it, perhaps even add an extra room or two. But what particular relevance would that have to Notre Dame? Too often, this language about the dangers of treating something as “static” is just modernist code for, “We intend to change this.”
Then I read comments about the building representing various eras in history, not just the medieval age when it was built, and so the re-building efforts should strive to represent this age. This is also modernist cant: the notion that buildings “represent the spirit of the age.”
Norman Foster, one of Britain’s most famous architects, described the competition as an “extraordinary opportunity” and suggested that the new Cathedral’s spire could be “a work of art about light” and should be “contemporary and very spiritual and capture the confident spirit of the time.”
Ian Ritchie, the creator of the Spire of Dublin, declared that he would enter the competition and proposed “a refracting, super-slender reflecting crystal to heaven.” “I think it would need to be perforated — at least 50 percent empty space to eliminate wind loads — and could be a beautiful contemporary tracery of glass crystals and stainless steel. It should get to touch heaven’s clouds in a piece of celestial gothic acupuncture.” One of the schemes even suggested placing a minaret on top as a memorial for the approximately 100 Algerian protesters killed by the French police in 1961 and thrown into the Seine.
Finally I read comments insisting that we not “cover up” the history of the building, and since this fire has now become an important “part of the building’s history,” it is important that we not cover it up. Indeed there are certain ideologues among the modern so-called “preservationist” crowd who think that classical buildings should be left entirely untouched. Repairing them with modern materials is considered by some a crime. So, for example, if you go to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous house Fallingwater, you will find that those famous cantilevered porches over the falls are now being held up by metal wires. But the wires do not restore the cantilevers to the way they were when Fallingwater was built. No, the modernist ideology dictated that the wires had to preserve Fallingwater the way the preservationists found it. So the wires hold the cantilevered porches at the exact angle they were when the preservers began their work. Talk about making a building “static”! But this is modernist ideology. Thank heaven those porches hadn’t fallen in the river. They would still be there.
Remember how when the Vatican set out to clean Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a host of “elite” artists and art historians complained bitterly that this would “destroy” the art? Generations of people had viewed the work with all the soot, they said, so cleaning it would “ruin” the work. Fortunately, the Vatican under John Paul II went ahead anyway, and the results are stunning: a new and renewed gift to the world of art.
The history of these disputes is an odd one — odd in the way that only ideological disputes with little or no foundation in reality can be. One of the people who generated the modern controversy over renovations was the man whose name has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with Notre Dame: Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.
Viollet-le-Duc undertook a “scientific” renovation of Notre Dame in the nineteenth century. He made an exhaustive study of the Gothic style and all his renovation work was undertaken in what he understood to be in accord with the craft and character of that style. He had sculptures that had been damaged during the French Revolution recurved or repaired. And he was the one who designed the steeple that fell in the fire. An earlier version had blown down in a wind storm.
But after Viollet-le-Duc’s renovations and similar renovations elsewhere, especially in England, a new consensus emerged among certain designers, such as John Ruskin and his disciples, contending that “renovations” to classical buildings shouldn’t be undertaken at all; rather, the buildings should be left as they are or, if renovations are necessary, the materials employed should be clearly discernible from the originals.
We needn’t go into the details of this debate, but for a good history and as wise and perspicacious resolution as you are likely to find, may I suggest my friend Steven W. Semes’ superb book The Future of the Past: A Conservation Ethic for Architecture, Urbanism, and Historic Preservation. I have included the cover here not only because the book is excellent, but also because the picture on the front — Chicago’s formerly-grand football stadium, Soldier Field, now with the alien space ship which landed on its top — will give you an idea of what I fear is in store for the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The French authorities (who own Notre Dame, by the way, and can therefore do with it what they wish) have announced an international competition to redesign the steeple that will sit atop the cathedral. It is important to understand that modernist architects and designers have taken the debate about renovations and turned it into their ticket to rebuild buildings in their own image. At least Viollet-le-Duc thought he was being true to the medieval spirit. He was at least trying to be faithful to something beyond himself. Modernist architects tend to be faithful to nothing quite so much as their own ego and their own vision. Often, that “vision” is described as somehow “emerging from” or “being an expression of” the spirit of the age, the community, the city, the contemporary situation, the history of the place — take your pick. But if you’ve ever heard or read any of these absurd disquisitions, you know it’s mostly smoke and mirrors.
For a good example, you can read the description of what the Denver Art Museum, designed by starchitect Daniel Libeskind is supposed to “represent.”
The new building is not based on an idea of style or the rehashing of ready made ideas or external shape because its architecture does not separate the inside from the outside or provide a pretty facade behind which a typical experience exists; rather this architecture has an organic connection to the public at large and to those aspects of experience that are also intellectual, emotional, and sensual. The integration of these dimensions for the enjoyment and edification of the public is achieved in a building that respects the hand crafted nature of architecture and its immediate communication from the hand, to the eye, to the mind. After all, the language of architecture beyond words themselves is the laughter of light, proportion and materiality.
In a similar vein, Eric Parry, the architect who created the London Stock Exchange by St Paul’s Cathedral, said that Notre Dame’s spire “should touch the cultural pulse of today, uniting the ground and sky, and form a lens through which to aspire to the future.” Parry worries that the rebuilding might be “driven by a political agenda. That might taint it.” One presumes Parry isn’t worried about a “progressive” building project that would “touch the cultural pulse of today,” but about one that might hearken back to the Catholic character of France’s past.
If you want a foretaste of how this competition will go, think back on the controversies that surrounded the rebuilding of the Twin Towers in New York City. From the beginning, the one thing that became clear was that the doyennes of taste would not allow the Twin Towers to be re-built as they had been but with updated materials, nor would they accept any “classical” designs. The winner of the competition was an absurd design by the aforementioned Daniel Libeskind. There were better designs, but all of them were rejected because they didn’t fit the slick, super cool, avant-garde, modernist, globalist urban design chic deemed necessary for such an important, “sacred” site.
In a similar spirit, expect designs for the cathedral of Notre Dame to be completely contrary to the logic and meaning of the building. Imagine Frank Gehry’s metal shards on the top of the cathedral or one of those wing-like structures Calatrava likes so much. Someone will want to rebuild the entire roof of Notre Dame the way the Pompidou Center in Paris was done. And trust me, there will be buckets of ink spilled justifying this absurdity with the usual Modernist cant about “honest architecture” and about “revealing the structure of the building” the way the Gothic did with its stone vaults and flying buttresses. Indeed, Norman Foster has suggested that proposed submissions to the project should embrace the boldness of the original builders, who pushed the limits of the technology of their day with their flying buttresses. And since this fire is now “part of the building’s history,” expect someone to propose simply placing a large cantilevered rain shield over the top that looks like the Olympic Stadium in Munich (and innumerable “modern” airports and stadiums since) to preserve the building as is.
The last thing that starchitects will allow is for the building to be rebuilt the way it was built in the Middle Ages. The problem isn’t that there isn’t the historical and architectural expertise currently available to do this — there is — or that there aren’t skilled craftsmen who can do the work — there are. And make no mistake, all of them would give their eye teeth to be involved in an amazing restoration project like this. The problem is that the modernist ideology that came to power in the post-World War II period is not going to step aside and allow a major monument such as this one to go “unmodernized.” Right now, both architecturally and religiously, it is a stick in the eye of everything they stand for. And now is their chance to change that.
George Weigel wrote a very fine book a few years back entitled The Cube and the Cathedral, on the cover of which were pictures on one side of the nave of the cathedral of Notre Dame and on the other of La Grande Arche de la Défense, “one of the grands projets of the late French president, François Mitterand, designed by Johan Otto von Spreckelsen, a Danish architect of sternly modernist sensibility,” Weigel tells us, “a colossal open cube: almost 40 stories tall, 348 feet wide, faced in glass and 2.47 acres of white Carrara marble.” “Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy?” Weigel wondered. “The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy “unsameness” of Notre-Dame and the other great Gothic cathedrals of Europe?”
Good question, one worth reflecting on at length. But I fear the answer will be given when that glass cube (or its close cousin) ends up on top of the cathedral, a perfect artistic representation of how the state currently views its relationship to the Church.
What to do? I have modest suggestions, but they’re hardly worth mentioning since I am not anything like a “global” personality or a “public intellectual” of the sort the news media would turn to for “expert” commentary on this question. And in truth, I really am not any kind of expert at all. So I have no specific suggestions about the building, other than that they might consider just putting it back the way it was when it was built, since we don’t live in an age that can handle the task of adding to it. But I don’t imagine that’s a recommendation anyone would take seriously.
So there are two groups I would turn to in this time of sorrow. The first would be all those people on the streets of Paris who bowed their heads and knelt on the cold, cobble-stone Parisian streets singing and saying the rosary over and over, praying that their beloved church would not be destroyed. Nothing which displeases them should even be considered. But there are also architects who have experience designing, renovating, and building Gothic-style churches (including hundred-year ongoing projects such as The National Cathedral in Washington DC, The Cathedral of St. John The Divine in Manhattan, and La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona).
They have studied; they have practiced the craft; they have learned from their mistakes. You need to find architects and designers of this sort who respect the work of their forebears, who understand what those men and women worked and sacrificed for all those years, and who have shown by the fruits of their labors that they can be trusted to work with those people in those Parisian streets to produce something that truly represents the history, the culture, and the Catholic population of Paris, not just in empty words or as an objet d’art, but as an actual church the architect wants to see filled with both the prayers of the faithful and the Spirit of the Risen Lord.
But I don’t imagine that’s a recommendation anyone is going to take seriously either.