Canadians consider Notre Dame reconstruction

Architectural historians and historic preservation experts consider the past and future of Notre Dame.

Image of the remains of Notre Dame Cathedral two days after a big fire partially destroyed the famous Parisian landmark. Photo by Razvan.

On April 15, a fire broke out on the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. When it was extinguished, the Cathedral’s spire and medieval ribbed roof had been devastated, although the main structure was saved, along with the art works contained within the building.

“The shocking tragedy of Notre Dame of Paris should never have happened,” writes architect Phyllis Lambert, founding director emeritus of the Canadian Centre for Architecture. “Renovation is the most dangerous time in the life of a great building over hundred years old. Dry wood invites fire and is tinder to the smallest spark. Ironically, this occurred when a sprinkler system was being installed at the vast Frank Lloyd Wright Hotel in Phoenix in 1973, and in Canada, fire ripped through the chancel and roof at Notre Dame du Sacré-Coeur Chapel in Montreal in 1978. Symbols of civilization cannot be allowed to serve as cautionary tales.”

Domestic and international reaction to the Paris blaze has been swift. On April 16, French President Emmanuel Macron promised that Notre Dame would be rebuilt within five years, in time for France to host the 2024 Olympic Games. The next day, French Prime Minister Éduard Philippe announced an international architectural competition to redesign the roofline of the cathedral. Over $1 billion USD has already been raised for the restoration, with pledges from private companies, institutions, and more than 150,000 individuals worldwide.

But is this flurry of activity happening too quickly? And does it sufficiently account for the monument’s history?

Notre Dame was built starting in 1163 and was completed in 1345. By the 18th century, the Gothic fell out of style, and extensive modifications were made to the building, including the removal of its original weather-worn spire in 1786. During the French Revolution, the cathedral’s contents were looted and statuary vandalized, and the sanctuary was used for food storage. In 1844, 31-year-old architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus won a commission to restore the half-ruined building. The 25-year-long process included the construction of the spire that crumbled during the recent fire.

“The cathedral has been in constant evolution across the centuries,” says Canadian architectural historian Peter Sealy, who lectures at the University of Toronto. “What burnt was partly from the 12th century, partly from the 19th century. Loss and renewal are nothing new for such buildings.”

The visual image of Notre Dame became a national icon for France in the 19th century, with the cathedral’s starring role in lithographic prints and photographic surveys of the era, as well as in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a polemic that argued for the restoration of the deteriorated cathedral. “This was a moment when mechanically reproduced images became widely available around the world,” says Sealy. “These representations played a key role in driving the urge for restoration, and the ideas of how that restoration should be guided by historical knowledge.”

Fact and fiction worked together to spur Notre Dame’s restoration. In preparing to compete for the commission, the architect purchased a set of early daguerreotypes of the cathedral—making him a pioneer in turning to the nascent technology of photography as a visual record. The restoration itself included meticulous historical research into the building. “The architects initiated a new form of ‘scientific’ restoration that was part of romanticism’s incredibly strong investment in the past,” says architectural historian and director of McGill’s Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, Martin Bressani. “History became a sacred repository of truth about culture.”

In the process of his deep research, Viollet-le-Duc came to identify strongly with the Middle Ages, a conviction that included training architects in medieval ways of making. He felt he had developed a true knowledge that allowed him a certain freedom in the restoration of Notre Dame. “A clear example is in Viollet-le-Duc creating his own spire, and feeling that he was authorized because he knew the cathedral so well,” says Bressani. The resulting piece—an elegant,  ornate creation—was a transformation from the original shorter, more plain spire. It is widely considered to be Viollet-le-Duc’s masterpiece.

  A 21st-century competition opens the question of what form the spire should take: the original medieval structure, the version conceived by Viollet-le-Duc, or a new form entirely. For Bressani, a contemporary spire is out of the question. Conservation architect Julia Gersovitz, founding partner of EVOQ, is also concerned about the appropriateness of a contemporary design for the spire. An intervention that stands out from the historic church, rather than deferring to it, risks marking the fire as a too-significant event in the life of the 850-year-old building, she says.

Gersovitz adds that the announcement of a competition has been made far too quickly. “In Canadian conservation, first you have to understand and analyze—then you plan, then you intervene,” she says. “France seems to be leaping past the first two crucial stages.”

Odile Hénault, a key instigator of Quebec’s current competition system, agrees that the announcement of a competition has come too soon: “A competition is only as good as its brief, its competitors and its jury. It is neither a magic wand nor a panacea.”

“Although the French government is known worldwide for its architectural competitions, it is also known for unfortunate decisions based on political agendas,” writes Hénault. “The Bastille Opera House in Paris is perhaps the most blatant example of such a situation. The competition had been hastily launched by newly elected President François Mitterand, who wanted to inaugurate a new opera house in time for the French Revolution’s Bicentennial celebrations in 1989. The anonymous international competition may have attracted 756 proposals, but it led to a decidedly disappointing result (unfortunately involving a Canadian.) Will the 2024 Olympic Games agenda hasten a competition that should be carefully thought through before being launched? Will Macron, in seeking positive publicity, gamble the future of Notre-Dame for his own political agenda?”

The proposed timeline for the restoration is also optimistic, says Gersovitz. “Just sifting through the debris on the ground will take months—it will be complex to reconstruct the jigsaw puzzle of the remnants of the vaults.” She also notes that the stained glass, while apparently intact, will need to be carefully inspected, as the heat of the fire may have compromised the structural integrity of the lead joints and the coloured glass mosaic pieces have gone through thermal shock. “Five years is a call to arms—it can’t be a construction schedule.”