The Future of Notre Dame

Writing by Elif Yildiz. Illustration by Phoebe McGowan.


‘The Church of Notre-Dame de Paris is still no doubt, a majestic and sublime edifice. But, beautiful as it has been preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer.’ - Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris


Almost two years after the fire which devastated most of the Notre Dame cathedral, there are many questions still to be answered. Are we reconciled with such destruction? Can recovery ever be at peace with the present or does it deny it by nature? Do architects owe more to the past in their duty to restore the monument back to its former glory, or rather concentrating their efforts on securing it a long and prosperous future? How does an architect choose which age of the monument to revitalize? Does that selective process erase some part of history? These questions have time and again placed the restoration of the cathedral at the centre of many debates.

In fact, Notre Dame as we knew it before the fire was largely the product of the 19th century architect Viollet-le-Duc’s restorative work. At the turn of the 19th century, positivism spread across Western Europe as scientific discoveries served the great goal of ‘progress’- an idea which is nowadays completely démodé. But at a time where new regimes emerged and leaders had to legitimize their power, what better way was there to create a Nation than to link it to some old lineage no one really knows much about? So arose an archeological and historical awareness that prompted a series of campaigns designed to revisit the forgotten, dark, and misunderstood times: the Middle-Ages. While in the UK a myriad of Victorian tourists travelled from London to Stonehenge, on the other side of the Channel, Viollet-le-Duc bridged Napoleon III’s France to the Middle-Ages. The ‘recovery’ of famous gargoyles, flying buttresses and vaults from a fantastically recreated medieval atmosphere caused controversy amongst both national and international elite spheres. On the other hand, his most remembered addition to Notre-Dame, the Gothic Revival spike, was truly a restoration of the spike which had been put up in 1230 but dismantled in 1792 because it threatened to fall down.

One wonders what motivated Emmanuel Macron’s choice to restore the spike exactly as it was - a task he entrusted to the architect Philippe Villeneuve - instead of opting for a more ‘contemporary architectural gesture’, which was a possibility he had alluded to in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Although unofficial polls revealed that 54% of the French population would prefer an identical restoration and 25% only were in favor of a modern version (the rest of the population having no opinion), the people have had no part in the decision-making process. Perhaps then the executive pressure came from the unspoken checks and balances of this business, namely the donors whose generous promises of contribution made the dream of restoring the immense monument even possible. Both the Arnault family, owners of the multinational corporation LVMH and the Bettencourt family who own Loréal, gave 200 million euros each, for the restoration and the conservation of Notre Dame. Kering and Total also each donated 100 million euros. And the list, which rather resembles a Forbes- style list of the wealthiest people in France, goes on. In total, together with the contributions of a hundred and ten countries, a multitude of third party donors, regional administrations etc, 900 hundred million euros were collected. Despite generally being welcomed, the astronomical amount of money secured for the restoration of Notre Dame caused a unanimous surprise. While most people in France simply found 900 million euros too much, others’ reaction was harsher. Indeed some yellow vests, who had been protesting since October 2018, condemned what they viewed as a display of charity from the oligarchy and urged them to pay the taxes they regularly evade. ‘We too are flammable,' read the slogans on their signs.

Furthermore, Macron’s insistence on finishing the restoration in just five years, to celebrate a Te Deum by 2024, irritated professionals in the field. Not only are they scared that the restoration will be concluded at the expense of a safe, and long-lasting conservation, but they also deplore the missed opportunities of a rushed process. Indeed, every occasion of recovery is also one of rediscovery. The preparatory restoration of two of the twenty four chapels gave a foretaste of the range of discoveries that could be achieved. To clean the stones they have alternated between the use of latex to which the dust stuck, as well as a more traditional technique which consisted in applying wet cloths onto the walls. As for the joints, a fairly recent technology has been tried - laser. After careful and patient experimentations, the architects have been awarded with the discovery of beautiful ancient polychromy on the walls. Although it had never been researched in depth, Viollet-le-Duc had put forward the possibility of the interiors bearing traces of medieval polychromy - to the disbelief of those around him. Now that the colourful interiors are exposed, they pair extremely well with the stained glass which Viollet-le-Duc had designed and drawn himself. Faithful restoration thus has the advantage and merit of exploring and listening to the past.

But how faithful exactly should restoration be? And to whom? Alongside the need to be loyal to the former appearance of the building, there is the issue of architectural integrity. This principle argues against imitating the original style which only results in mere stylistic reproduction and cautions against hiding the signs of decay because monuments are first and foremost heritage buildings. This idea was first developed by Brandi in the 1930s then emphasized at the 1957 Paris congress and adopted in the Venice Charter of 1964 where the now widely accepted concept of conservation-restoration emerged. To understand it properly, let’s briefly delve back into historiography. In the same decade as the Venice Charter, the Annales school entered its second era, led by the historian Fernand Braudel. The school, founded in 1929, understood history as ‘total’. Fernand Braudel developed the theoretical framework of ‘three times’. In analysing history, he distinguished the following three prisms: a ‘quasi-motionless history’ which dealt with historical geography, a ‘long-term’ historical social political and economic structures, and finally a ‘short-term’ history of men and events embedded in the context of long-term history.

It is this long-term approach which seems to be at place in conservation-restoration. The aim is to focus on the effects of space, climate, and technology of the building all throughout time. Typically then, this would call for a restoration which respects the techniques and materials with which the monument was built, without neglecting modern requirements, challenges and technologies at hand. But in effect this ideal appears impossible. For the restoration of Notre Dame’s spike, architects have decided on a wooden framework, just like the 800 year old oak one which burned down in the fire. Moreover, they also want to restore its roofing with lead. This decision caused great turmoil because of lead’s known harmful health effects. Does recovery then entail going backwards and giving up on advantages of today? Perhaps one way to find a middle ground would be to apply the principles of conservation-restoration on the actual edifice, but to modernise the uses of the building. For example, pieces of burnt stones or art could be displayed inside or outside the cathedral in a separate exhibition zone. Or enlarging the Notre-Dame square and transforming it into an exclusively pedestrian and green area would place this enchanting historical building in our time. Restoration then does not have to be the recovery of a vestige of the past. It can, on the contrary, restore our historic conscience by helping us to understand how historical buildings transcend and encompass our ephemeral lives on this planet.

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