“It’s complicated,” said our driver more than once, as we discussed different issues – the Gilets Jaunes, Notre Dame, the bitter reaction to philanthropic giving from France’s wealthiest citizens.
It took only two days after Notre Dame’s flames had been extinguished for President Macron to announce that France’s greatest gothic cathedral would be rebuilt in only five years, adding, oddly, that it would be “even more beautiful.”
Neither a five-year timeframe nor “even more beautiful” is likely to happen, writes Michael Lewis in the WSJ.
Mr. Lewis senses danger now that the restoration after the fire is in the hands of bureaucrats. Also making him uneasy is, in the desperate scramble to keep these two promises, much might go awry. “What happens now might well be more destructive, and less reversible, than the events of April 15.”
Many who watched the lofty central spire fall into the flames assumed that the building was a total loss. But the cathedral consists of two virtually independent structures, a timber-framed roof above and a sturdy shell of space beneath, enclosed entirely in robust stone. Its masonry vaults might have passed through the fire unscathed had the collapsing spire not plunged through the vault below.
All this can be repaired, the fallen vaults rebuilt, the mighty roof truss replaced. The key question is the straightforward one of whether the great roof truss is to be reconstructed in oak or steel. The wood trusses of the burned out churches of World War II were often succeeded by steel ones, while more recently the roof of England’s York Minster was replaced in timber after it was struck by lightning in 1984 and set aflame.
Enter Architecture’s Ambulance Chasers
But the French government has opted for spectacle over restraint. There is to be an architectural competition, not only to replace the roof, but to give us a spire, as Prime Minister Édouard Philippe put it, “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.”
Not surprising in today’s age of technology, the internet quickly became awash with jaunty designs for the spire: a spire of light, a vertical apiary for bees inhabiting the roof of Notre Dame, a frozen sculpture of the fire itself, “offensively memorialized in gold leaf.”
What is common to all of them is that they were conceived on the computer monitor and are meant to be seen in the same way. But the visual language of the small screen has its own distorting logic. As in Pop Art, large exaggerated shapes and instantly recognizable forms carry well, and caricature is rewarded.
Currently the restoration of Notre Dame is treating the restoration as an administrative affair under the control of Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, a former army chief of staff.
Competitions, alas, are not won by displays of quiet probity. But historic restoration succeeds or fails by the specific treatment of specific physical materials. The French track record in this area has not been good. The restoration of Chartres Cathedral has been a catastrophe. Having never previously been thoroughly restored it had a gloriously palpable sense of ancientness; it now feels like a facsimile of the original building, re-created at one-to-one scale.
The Spire – One of the Most Inspired Creations of Gothic Revival
Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) left his mark on the cathedral when he added its 19th-century spire; is our century not also entitled to leave its mark? But this is to misunderstand Viollet-le-Duc, whose spire was anything but a personal statement. It rested on a stupendous knowledge of the history and variety of Gothic architecture, and is one of the most inspired creations of the Gothic Revival. His majestic nine-volume dictionary of medieval French architecture has a 46-page article on the subject of crossing spires, for which there is no good English word; the French term is flèche, or arrow. The article concludes with a brilliant analysis of his new flèche for Notre Dame, making it the definitive flèche.
Notre Dame’s Spirit of Rational Materialism
A Gothic cathedral is a collective achievement, the outcome of countless craftsmen working across the centuries toward a common goal; it is not the arena for idiosyncratic personal expression.
Of course, in the end Viollet-le-Duc did leave the mark of the 19th century on Notre Dame, above all its spirit of rational materialism, but he did so inadvertently, as the indirect byproduct of his scrupulous pursuit of excellence.
We will also leave our signature on the building, whether we want to or not, but it should not be the self-consciously contemporary signature of a celebrity architect, seeing in the ashes a chance for a star turn.
Read more here.