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Notre-Dame: A Personal View

On 15 and 16 April 2019 Notre-Dame de Paris, a jewel of Gothic architecture, of France, of Western civilisation, of collective memory and now of common grief, was the focus of the world’s attention.

Hundreds of millions of people sat transfixed to their devices as this world heritage site was burning, with live coverage charting every minute of the inferno as it tore through the building, smoke billowing into the night sky. Viewers watched the fire climb the roof of the Cathedral, joist by joist.

More people watched this fire ‘live’ than perhaps any other comparable single building fire in history. Has there ever been such a raw and immediate outpouring of emotion and grief for a fire in which no one was killed? We now know that the vast majority of the Cathedral, its holy relics, towers, rose windows, and other treasures have been saved. We actually knew this within 24 hours of the fire starting.

The modern news cycle is so rapid, and our opportunities to ‘emote’ or declare our unfiltered opinions are so many, that the world had fully expressed itself on this fire before it was out. Notre-Dame’s obituaries were being published, its importance eulogised and our sorrow elegised in real time. The first fire alarm sounded at 6.20pm. The Cathedral Spire collapsed live on television at 7.50pm. By 8.50pm the Paris Public Prosecutor had announced a formal investigation into the fire. By 10.55pm the Crown of Thorns and the Tunic of St Louis were among many priceless treasures rescued from the blaze and the Fire Service announced that the general structure of the Cathedral had been saved. Less than one hour later, the French President declared it was France’s destiny to rebuild.

What does this outpouring of unfiltered emotion tell us? It tells us that we really care about the things that define our culture. That we care about beauty and excellence. It also tells us that we don’t feel up to the standards that have been set for us. That terrifies us. American architecture critic Paul Goldberger has written that architecture is not about buildings, it is about everything else. It is about community, confidence, expression, memory and the future. Good architecture is also about delight. The reaction to this fire demonstrated this.

A common thread in our reaction has to do with excellence. How we just don’t know how to deal with the loss of unique and precious heritage. It has to do with belief, confidence, certainty, patience, beauty – qualities we feel we lack today. We were transfixed because we know we can’t replicate what was lost. To begin with, there may not be enough oak trees available in Europe to rebuild the roof – we would need 1,300 individual oaks of the right size and seasoning; they require planting and can’t be summoned up by fiat. Europe does have the skills to repair what was lost, the carpentry, the metalwork, the roof cladding is all achievable again. That is not in question. But we don’t have the patience for the planning and the work. On top of that, the French President has decreed that there isn’t time. He would like the Cathedral reopened before the Paris Olympics in 2024: comfortably within his much hoped-for second term.

For Christians, and Catholics especially, the emotion is almost existential. Notre-Dame is a metaphor for the Church, assailed from within and without by collapse of faith, by clerical scandal, by a theology of diminishment, by mediocrity and by pervasive relativism, just as for almost everyone else the fire is a metaphor for the decline of high culture and, indeed, the pervasiveness of mediocrity and relativism. As Julian Barnes might say, we may not believe in God, but we miss Him. Notre-Dame is a church and the rebuilding must focus on this building as a sacred space: Paris does not need another museum or gallery. No one wants an empty vessel. Is Versailles more wonderful as a building than Buckingham Palace? Clearly it is. But it is not a living, breathing palace; absence haunts the building.

So what exactly has been lost? The majority of the church’s wooden carving and furnishings have been lost or extensively damaged. As for the rest of the Cathedral, it will take many months to give a detailed answer – its stone vaults, walls, tracery and structure have been compromised and will need to be stabilised. Fallen debris will contain much of value. We know for certain that we have lost the nave roof, which contained the timber from some 1,300 oak trees in its attic. This area, referred to as ‘the forest’, contained trees which would have covered some 130 acres of ground. French cultural heritage expert Bertrand de Feydeau has said that France simply does not contain enough mature oak trees of the right size to replace the roof to its original plan. That it would take a global search simply to find enough wood to rebuild the attic demonstrates the scale of the loss. In the UK, one hundred members of Historic Houses, which represents independently-owned notable houses and gardens, have pledged to donate trees – Hutton-in-the-Forest, Scone Palace, Castle Howard, Holkham Hall, Powderham Castle, and Firle Place have all volunteered to help. Perhaps lessons from the rebuilding of Rheims Cathedral after the First World War may serve as precedent. There, the roof structure was renewed in steel, but in the form of what was lost.

We have most definitely lost the famous spire, or flèche, and many of the artworks which adorned the roof and its crossing. We have also lost the wonderfully delicate stone vaulted crossing of the transept beneath ‘the forest’. The skill required to replace this exists, but it would take many years – the self-supporting interlocking stone vault was a marvel. It is likely that Notre-Dame will be rebuilt in a manner and with materials familiar to current architects and builders. Perhaps they will favour something new, charged with light and ‘lightness’ – probably wonderful – but very different. ‘Lightness’ is ultimately qualitative: yes, it concerns physical weight, but what it really talks to is composition, space and the use of materials. Buildings which control light and introduce space, two thing humans need to survive, are pleasing to us. Curved surfaces deal with light particularly well. A curved form will generally appear lighter than a corresponding square or rectangular form of the same volume. Glass is an abundant material but it still holds transformative qualities for us. In a church famed for its stained-glass windows and the play of light and shade, this could be magical. It will be different by necessity as much as by design.

I do not oppose an innovative solution and reimagining of the roof. A diversity of styles and materials is completely natural in an 850-year-old building. Will the new spire be a vision to behold? I am sure it will. The French are good at this stuff. All types of new qualities will emerge in the building. Lots of traditionalists will grumble, just as they did when I. M. Pei designed the magnificent Louvre Pyramid. The spire we have just lost was an 1850s replacement of an earlier spire. It was technologically innovative and bold for the time. If the new one is similarly innovative it will soar higher and more gracefully that the old one ever could.

We are not upset because of the impending ‘battle of the styles’. We are upset because whatever we build at Notre-Dame could, in theory, be built anywhere. What we have lost is irreplaceable, and our neglect almost certainly caused the fire. We have been found wanting. We weren’t asked to build Notre-Dame, just to try not to burn it down.

Alain de Botton writes in his Architecture of Happiness that ‘we are drawn to call something beautiful whenever we detect that it contains in a concentrated form those qualities in which we personally, or our societies more generally, are deficient.’ We are drawn to things which carry our missing virtues, which show us what we lack as much as what we like.

In this instance our yearning is twofold: the first yearning is for certainty, confidence and excellence. We will struggle with this. But we also seek harmony, safety, light and calm amidst the terrifying shifting plates, randomness and noise of our times. This we will do better at: It is an environmental and emotional need rather than a spiritual and intellectual one. Abstract art and modern architecture are well-placed to respond to this. Geometry, clean materials, light, plasticity, pattern. But out thirst will be half-quenched.

It is fifty years since Kenneth Clark stood on the Pont des Arts in Paris, gazing at Notre-Dame: ‘What is civilisation? I don’t know … but I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.’ Clark went on to foretell how people felt on 15 and 16 April. That civilisation is fragile. It can be destroyed. Its enemies are fear, exhaustion, banality, boredom.

This fire is an extraordinarily, emotionally-charged opportunity. A book could be written about the great art which have risen out of such fires. If it wasn’t for the 1666 Great Fire of London, we would not have Wren and Hawksmoor’s City churches. We would not have ‘New’ St. Paul’s. The key theme would be that people want you to do a good job. The rebuilding of the churches of Dresden after the bombings of World War Two is a good example. The Frauenkirche in Dresden was rebuilt over thirteen years, starting with sixteen months of painstaking sorting of wreakage and rubble. It is a glorious reconstruction, healing a deep sense of loss that was created when something of value was taken from the city. The church has 2.5 million visitors per year. In Liverpool, the approach taken to building Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral after the war was very different. Sir Edward Lutyens’ design was abandoned as too ambitious, Adrian Gilbert Scott’s scaled down version was similarly abandoned, and finally the modernist concrete and aluminium edifice of Sir Frederick Gibberd was built. It was built over five years, had structural and quality problems from the start, is known as Paddy’s Wigwam and attracts 350,000 visitors a year. We do not often love things which are expedient, or compromises. It doesn’t matter how big, light or shiny they are.

How would we feel if the current Jeff Koons exhibition in Oxford went up in smoke? It would definitely be a loss. But truth be told, we would probably get over the loss of his original works very quickly (we have lots of reproductions). But we would mourn the loss of the Ashmolean for the rest of our lives. It is irreplaceable and full of treasures that are irreplaceable. How would we feel if we lost the Shard or the current Serpentine Pavilion in London? We would get over it quite quickly. This is not to say they aren’t wonderful. But we can build new ones, and quickly.

We can’t just order up another Notre-Dame. The money pledged is already probably more than enough. What is needed is decades of patient and loving work. Victor Hugo knew this, specifically of this church: ‘Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries.’ During this fire we saw a thing of transcendent beauty, built for a higher purpose, hovering on the brink of destruction. We realised that beauty really does matter and we started worrying about the future: architecture is never really about the building; it is about everything else.

STEPHEN WITHNELL is a DPhil candidate in Architectural History at Campion Hall. He believes that two and two are four, that a triangle is a three-sided figure, and that bricks should be put together well.

Artwork by Ellie Murray


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