Now the Battle for Notre Dame Begins

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.

A proposal for the renovation of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame by the French architect firm Godart + Roussel Architectes (Facebook.com)

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.


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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 26 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

26 Comments

  1. Randall Smith is right on, but maybe not skeptical enough. We’ll be lucky if Notre Dame escapes being capped not simply with a minaret, but with the engulfing dome of a Mosque! All in modern, homogeneous, reinforced concrete, of course. What a great time to be multi-cultural–the secular state (Laicite) and the mosque-state fused (and con-fused) into one.

    Rather than the self-referential notion that architecture should “reflect the spirit of the age,” the master builder and generations of craftsmen of Notre Dame understood more deeply that a cathedral should reflect the spirit of the–ageless.

    G.K. Chesterton reminds our amnesiac culture:“[T]he Catholic Church [and sometimes even its church building!] is the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

    In addition to the above book, another sane and useful resource is Steven J. Schloeder, Arhitecture in Communion (Ignatius, 1998). “The Gothic cathedral [he writes] can be described as ‘the heavenly Jerusalem’ or ‘the Body of Christ’ because it is like a city or body in that it has a harmony of separate parts all of which find organic integration in its formal expression.” Harmony, integration, form. Too “static”? Too “traditional”! Only to some.

    These modern-day design exhibitionists would follow the example of Ramesses II (likely pharoah during the Exodus), who ensured his posterity partly by engraving his own name (cartouche) on the monuments of his ancestors. But maybe Notre Dame Cathedral can escape this grabby approach (another tradition!) of more than three millennia past.

    • In its day so called Gothic was novel and modern. The style replaced the rather severe and mostly unadorned Romanesque in northern Europe. Islamic influences on Gothic style are evident too.

      • Islamic influences? Yes, but not to be overstated…

        The characteristic Gothic pointed arch was suggested by Islamic surface designs seen in Sicily by Norman conquerors in the decades before the First Crusade (1096 A.D.). But, even in this case, the inspirational Islamic feature had been limited to decorative purposes, not structural as in the Gothic.

        The Gothic pointed arch is a structural solution to a vexing building problem throughout the earlier Romanesque period. How to intersect the nave rounded arch with the lower-apex rounded arches of the narrower transepts? Presto! Pointed and ribbed arches, including diagonals at the lines of intersection that then enable a common apex elevation.

        Also, with the new ribbed structure, reduced wall thicknesses–no longer structural–and soaring new heights, together with conversion of wall surfaces altogether into expansive stained-glass windows. The overall design became ever more articulated into differentiated features, including basically the reconciliation of horizontals and verticals, and of outward-thrusting ceiling arches with exterior, counter-thrust flying buttresses—all of this as a metaphor for Scholastic (not Islamic) philosophy. For example, the reconciliation of faith and reason (i.e., Christian revelation and Aristotle). Thomas Aquinas in light-filled, translucent glass and skeletal stone.

        Yes, the mustard seed for all of this probably did come partly through Sicily, but the pointed arch actually originated long before Islam, in the aqueducts and doorways of Mesopotamia. So, this outside influence need not be overstated, especially in today’s context. Besides, intercultural influences flow both ways. Domed mosques are influenced by the Christian Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, built in the early 6th century, still before the birth of Mohammed (570 A.D.). This very monumental design, even more than pointed arches, greatly inspired Western viewers to do things in a big way (soaring cathedrals) when they got back home.

        The Gothic style (more than a style) was more an evolution or metamorphosis from the Romanesque than it was a replacement. The basilica form (borrowed from Roman courts) remained. The cruciform floor plan remained (representing the body of Christ, with the altar/heart at the central intersection). The distinction between the nave and the (hierarchical) sanctuary remained.

        But, the caterpillar became a butterfly. Or maybe (in France) became a fleur de lis, or lily. In the restoration of Notre Dame, there’s no need to gild the lily.

        • An interesting twist on the influences motif is the mosque of Sayidna Hussein in Cairo.
          I have often wondered why the exterior looked so ‘Gothic’. It seems that sometime in the 19th century it was given a Gothic revival makeover. By whom I have not been able to ascertain. .

    • Entirely agree with your views that eclectic as well modernist thought does not influence the partial re-construction of the Cathedral. It should be rebuilt the way it was in that the vast majority of visitors till today awestruck with architectural design and exquisite exterior constructional embellishments that go to make the building. That would be also a fitting tribute to the countless mason specialists and workers spanning over centuries to complete such a beautiful monument to the glory of God and His Holy Mother Mary.
      Incidentally it is my view that the fire that reportedly consumed the spire and roof of the building was perhaps God’s way of calling all His peoples to come back to Church to praise and glorify Him and not to allow buildings consecrated to Him to become mere tourist attractions or worse left abandoned.

  2. If the results of the design competition, which seeks to provide free advertising for deservedly-obscure architectural practices and an ego boost to those already well-known, are not acceptable to the Archdiocese of Paris, the archbishop should politely inform the French government that while it owns the building (because it confiscated it by legal but immoral means in 1905) and while the Catholic Church is responsible for the maintenance of the building, the Catholic Church is under no legal obligation to reconsecrate Notre Dame and to hold masses in it. You want your dumb renovation, fine. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass will not be held on premises tainted by abject stupidity.

    Notre Dame did not originally have the spire that fell in the recent fire. The reports I read online claimed that the spire consisted of 500 tons of wood and 250 tons of lead. The total load of 750 tons is something that, while clearly tolerated by the building, was not part of the original design. I would suggest that the aesthetics of the spire could be reproduced using durable materials that do not place such a load on the original building.

    There is one modern architect, John Pawson, who has done a modern chapel at the Abbey of Our Lady of Novy Dvur and who respects Gothic architecture. I hope the eventual result of the competition meets with his approval.

    • It did have a spire, if not that exact one. “The original spire was constructed in the 13th century, probably between 1220 and 1230. It was battered, weakened and bent by the wind over five centuries, and finally was removed in 1786. During the 19th-century restoration, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc decided to recreate it, making a new version of oak covered with lead. The entire spire weighed 750 tons.” I don’t know whether that’s heavier or lighter than the original one.

      I absolutely do not understand how *anybody* can think that coming up with a brand new look for the cathedral roof would be a good thing. And then I look at the churches in my diocese that were built starting in the 1950’s, and realize that for over fifty years people have been trained to have no sense of beauty or fitness.

  3. Notre Dame should not be reconstructed with “grand” aesthetics. It’s wasteful and unnecessary. Christ’s presence is all that is necessary to make the structure grand. 5% of French Catholics were attending mass in 2017. Perhaps more of them will be drawn to a humble reconstruction.

  4. First define the thing. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_architecture
    Not at all easy, sole link, contemporary technique and materials.
    ND has had many makeovers. The gutted building with its flamboyant high altar and spire are anything but gothic but for some reason are lauded and deemed ‘iconic’ by traditionalist Catholics. In their day they were ‘modern’ accretions to a medieval structure.
    The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been offered on the hoods of jeeps and on piles of stones, it has an intrinsic aesthetic independent of trends in architecture.
    Traditionalist Catholicism ought not to be afraid of the architectural Zeitgeist but seize it, Catholicize it and use it.
    We are not stuck in the past reactionaries. I certainly hope not.

  5. I hope that the reconstruction doesn’t result in a monument to ugliness and stupidity and non-culture.

    But let’s consider the probabilities: Macron of France has already declared that France does not have a culture. At the very least, this statement truly indicates that Macron himself has no culture (and Macron is representative of thousands like him in political and economic power).

    The commentary by the carnival of “modern architects” is pathetic, and utterly impoverished.

    • Macron actually said “il n’y a pas UNE culture française” roughly there isn’t just one French culture. He made the comment during a lengthy discourse on the French language and culture and its place in the world in february 2017.
      He pointed out diverse influences, national, regional, local and international on the culture which made it greater than the country of its origin.
      He is actually a strong advocate and promoter of culture through the medium of the French language.
      He is, irrespective of his political views, ‘un homme cultivé’. He has actually made positive references to the foundational rôle of the Catholic Church in creating and sustaining that culture. Given the historic antagonism of old republican France to the Catholic religion, something notable.

  6. Anyone who believed Notre Dame would be spared a “new and improved” reconfiguration hasn’t been listening for the last six years — let alone the past sixty. If the perennial Magisterium of the Church is subject to the “New Paradigm” why not that “old heap of stone.”
    We haven’t seen anything yet.

  7. Anything other than keeping with the Catholic tradition would not be appropriate. If anything, don’t put up a spire at all. That was a 19th century addition. Go back to the original 12th century design.

    • Actually, there was a spire until the mid-1700’s; they took it down when it became unstable, and then in the 1840’s when the cathedral was restored they put on the new spire.

      “The original spire was constructed in the 13th century, probably between 1220 and 1230. It was battered, weakened and bent by the wind over five centuries, and finally was removed in 1786. During the 19th-century restoration, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc decided to recreate it, making a new version of oak covered with lead.” (Wikipedia)

  8. Once desecrated as a temple of “reason” now to be prostituted to the goddess of climate ideology, Gaia.
    They will turn our Father’s house into a den of thieves.

  9. One thing that should give us at least a small measure of hope — or at least ensure it won’t be capped by a minaret — is that fact that, unlike many cathedrals in Europe, which have been relegated to museums, Notre-Dame is still an active place of worship. There are numerous daily Masses and liturgies, and confession is offered at regular hours. That should and probably will mean something

  10. I may keep missing the information but I know that the government owns the Cathedral, but who owns the treasures and the other physical things (statues, tabernacles, etc) in the church? Does that mean that the government has the right t take from the cathedral anything they want?

  11. Funds that have been appropriated from people around the world did not donate to have the cathedral made into a multi-cultural structure. It was donated to rebuild it in its pre-inferno state. Anything that veers from its original form is a desecration to the Virgin Mary, for whom it was built to honor.

  12. Has anybody heard whether the three relics that were in the rooster on the spire, which they rescued, were also saved? All the reports I saw said “We don’t know yet whether the relics are intact.”

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