Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, an ode to the romanticism of French Gothic Architecture, interwoven into the image of the Paris with its iconic stained-glass windows, flying buttresses, and its tall tapering spire, is one of the oldest buildings in Paris. The landmark has served as a primary model to understand gothic architecture for decades, its image imprinted into the collective memory and synonymous with the city of Paris. Today, its fate stands uncertain in light of a recent fire that destroyed its iconic flèche and roof, which has sparked a debate in the field of architecture questioning whether to design a new future or reminisce its magnificent past.
“To Restore an edifice means neither to maintain it, nor to repair it, nor to rebuild it;
it means to establish it in a finished state,
which may in fact never have actually existed at a given time”
(“Restoration,” Foundations 195, Viollet-Le-Duc).
The church stands on Ile-de-France, it was conceived by Bishop Maurice De Sully as a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary to replace the older church in 1160. The church which was seen in recent times was the culmination of multiple modifications and restorations which were carried out through the years.
The most significant of these restorations were done by the French architect, Viollet-le-Duc whose love for medieval and gothic art echoes through the ages through his works. He saw Gothic architecture as a style with the potential to be adopted as a national style. He believed that memory was the basis of all creative imagination, memory was “passive imagination”. The reasoning one would apply, the ordering principles to this passive imagination was our “active imagination”. He uses this theory to derive an inductive and interpretative approach to order gothic architecture which was often considered chaotic and mystical. He emphasized that medieval architecture embodied and distilled all the principles of nature and created an architectural organism through organic correlation. The realizations to his theories, was the eerie yet ecstatic charm of Notre Dame, highlighting the glory of gothic architecture and its intricacies.
Post the devastations of the French Revolution, when the restoration of the cathedral began; Viollet-le-Duc saw this as an opportunity to invoke the memory of the grandeur of medieval architecture, he saw the potential of gothic designs to remind people of the lost history and restore their faith. Cathedrals in ancient times were an integral part of everyday life, unlike today where they are seen as an edifice to serve ecclesiastical purposes only; earlier, they were meeting places, places for social interactions among the people and were seen as “illustrated bibles” to imbibe faith in people. The tendencies of gothic architecture to have vertical aspiring pinnacles, to portray mysticism with its imagery of gargoyles and to strive to achieve idealism, are all realized in the ‘perfect’ Cathédrale of Notre Dame.
When flames engulfed its glorious flèche and consumed the wooden-ribbed vaulted roof, it created an indelible imprint on the history of the Cathédrale. It is certain that it will be re-built, whether redesigned or restored, the fact remains that the structure immortalizing gothic architecture is forever changed. But, in a history of almost 850 years, change is an inescapable fate for any building, yet what has remained constant is its sanctity and ethos.
The new debates arising over the rebuilding of the church brings us to a crossroads. A discourse between the modernist and the traditionalist, the realist and the romanticist; where one seeks to preserve the memory as best possible, the other seeks to overlay another layer of time upon the remaining structure to create a new future. When Viollet-le-Duc was tasked with the restoration of Notre Dame, he chose to redesign a new spire that would differ from the previous classical style and celebrate gothic and medieval forms. One could argue, that a complete redesign would be in keeping with his approach but, it is crucial to understand the shift that is from classical to gothic versus the shift from a traditional style to the modernist approach.
The church is a physical marker of history, it exemplifies certain time periods and architectural styles, the purist’s approach would be to rebuild, to restore its former opulence.
Although, since it would prove difficult to recreate the structure using the same materials and techniques prevalent in those days, one would have to resort to modern construction techniques; which again, would challenge the integrity of the restoration.
This brings to question, why not do a complete redesign in that case? Bring a fresh approach that symbolizes a new prevalence for the structure in the 21st century. Formalize the influence of modern times on the building and add a significant milestone in its historic timeline.
This approach forces us to examine the very fabric which makes Notre Dame iconic and if changed, will it be able to retain its iconicity or be lost within the multitudes of steel and glass edifices.
The concerns for compromising its originality, redesigning it to change its identity; debate over its need for a new identity are on one side. Retaining and restoring it to its former glory, maintaining its character and continuation of its place at the heart of gothic architecture is on the other side. While there are contradicting opinions about the rebuild approaches, the conformity lies in respecting the great loss incurred. As time progresses, it will be exciting to see the approach the rebuild will take, will the traditionalists be able to conserve? Or will the modernists create a polemic statement? Rest assured, Notre Dame will rebuild to newer heights.