Rebuild, Or Re-create?

April 20, 2019

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. 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 also seem ill-advised. Job one at this stage is to ensure the cathedral’s structural stability. And if French officials are going to hold such a competition, why limit it to the spire? Rushing to heal architectural wounds is risky business. 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. Since the first stone was laid in 1163, Notre Dame has been tweaked continuously. 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, sheathed in lead) was once accused of being unfaithful to the original design. Yet without it, Notre Dame seems incomplete. If the 19th century “improved” Notre Dame, then why can’t we rebuild the cathedral using our own advanced 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. 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 Burgundy. 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. 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. “It was about height and lightness, also the position of the cathedral in the city, marking that important institution,” Murphy said. For Viollet-le-Duc, he went on, “the church was not only a religious institution. He promoted the Gothic as a national achievement rather than as an achievement of the faith.” 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? “I’m attached to his work,” Murphy replied. But “the building ... has a very long history. There’s nothing pure about it. It’s been altered and restored over ... 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.” 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. BLAIR KAMIN is architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune.