On April 15, 2019, the world watched captivated as restless flames consumed the famed cathedral of Notre-Dame. As tongues of fire ravenously pierced through the smoky haze, crowds of onlookers gathered before their beloved cathedral to join in hymn and sorrow. Notre-Dame was burning: fueled by the timber construction, it’s roofing, and spire eventually falling through. Yet, as nations helplessly beheld the spectacle, there was also a subdued awareness of history; the inevitable unpredictability of the fire alluding to something more than themselves.
Whether out of cultural chauvinism, religious concerns, or for the newly marred beauty, most simply lamented the futile loss. Nearly a year later after the devastating event, it is exactly this universal outpouring of grief which continues to incite the simple question, why? Why did this one building unite, not just a nation, but a world, in mourning?
“This incandescent wound also reveals the emotional dimension carried by architecture and how its universal cultural value, its unique symbolic force, and its mythical dimension nourish the arts, literature and every individual’s own, personal geography.”- Dominique Perrault
Although officially a secular country, France inexorably remains one of Roman Catholic origins. The presence of the Church has come to represent reassuring stability, and so sacred spaces have become architectural visualizations of divine presence. Today, Notre-Dame remains “one of the most important ecclesiastical foundations of Gothic Europe”. Moving through the vast spaces of cascading light through the stained-glass windows, is to enter a transcendent realm; a symbolic manifestation of Abbot Suger’s evocation: “Deus est lux, God is light”. Whilst the ingenious engineering of Notre-Dame once metaphorically reached for the heavens, the structure will always serve as a historical record for the generations of those who labored by hand to construct the cathedral. It is here that Notre-Dame, both inspirational and aspirational, secures its positions as a simultaneously sacred and secular icon.
Although the Gothic cathedral has survived several vicissitudes at the hand of mankind, the French Revolution in 1790 ultimately left it in a considerable state of disrepair and neglect. In 1831, Victor Hugo penned the novel Notre- Dame de Paris (published in English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), an act of historic preservation for an architecture that had fallen from its pinnacle to a now un-glorified, vulgar monstrosity. Hugo’s novel invited a mass readership to intellectually engage with their own culture and past, and consequently, partake in defining the French identity. In doing so, his narrative became inextricably embedded within the architecture; a figurative and literal tale of “heroic inner beauty”. The deafening success of the novel ultimately transformed existing Gothic buildings, such as the cathedral of Notre-Dame, into national symbols. As a result, Notre-Dame was no longer merely a sacred relic, but a part of the national and individual identities of France – for Parisians today, Notre-Dame is kilometer zero, a measure for all distances across the city. However, it is the emotional response generated by the fire which attests to the fact that this concept of a ‘nation’ continues to hold great significance.
As expected, given our contemporary media influences, the tragedy has become highly politicized and polarising – in this case, regarding the issue of reconstruction. Within two days of the fire, France’s Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, announced an international design competition for the cathedral’s spire. This was then later contradicted by the French Senate’s stipulation that it was to be restored to its “last known visual state”. With the opportunity to build anew, rhetoric continuously alludes to the cathedral as a “work-in-progress”, referencing the changes which preceded its current state – particularly Viollet-le-Duc’s replacement spire for Notre-Dame, now lost in the fire. In an era of crisis and persistent doubt, faithfully rebuilding Notre-Dame would certainly restore a sense of permanence that many desire. Yet, it is also pertinent to remember Victor Hugo’s sentiment that Notre-Dame was authored by the people, for the people. And as evident through the abundance of architectural responses, from architects and non-architects alike, there is a clear democratic interest in the cathedral’s future.
For some, there was an inexplicable need to find meaning and reason in the flames which destroyed Notre-Dame, and thus, the fire was believed to prophecies the future purification of the Church. Similarly, this cyclical apprehension of history – one of creation, destruction, and rebirth – was undeniably grounded within Hugo’s Notre- Dame de Paris. However, perhaps it was not the material loss of the architecture itself that united a world in grief, but rather, what it symbolized. For an architecture that had somehow immortalized itself, and in doing so, transcended time, it represented hope. Hope in the infinite possibilities of human imagination and endeavor. Hope in the collective spirit. Whilst Notre-Dame now stands in a fragile state, what has endured is a reminder that it has been rebuilt before. But more importantly, it can, and will, be done so again.