Notre Dame and Preservation Philosophy

Marie and I have each taken a stab at discussing the fire at Notre Dame, but it seems there’s more to discuss. The implications of the damage and restoration may well be news for the next twenty years.

Even as people are trying to stabilize the masonry and remove the tangled mess of scaffold from the top of the building, the debate about restoration continues. Even if the calls for a modern architectural treatment of the replacement roof and spire are ignored, exactly what should be rebuilt? I’ll jump ahead to the answer: there is no answer. Different countries interpret the international agreements on preservation differently, and the preservation community’s views of those agreements have changed over time. There will not be unanimous agreement; there may not be a general consensus.

The interior of the cathedral is a relatively simple theoretical question. Since the bulk of the sanctuary is intact, there’s no reason not to restore it as it was. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that restoring the relatively small amount of damaged stone vaulting at the attic is also not controversial. The issue that seems to have people upset is what to do about the roof and spire.

The picture above is from 1852 or 1853, and is notably missing the crossing spire, because the old one had been removed and Viollet-le-Duc’s replacement had not yet been built. That history matters because, not that long ago, there were complaints about the fakery of the 1800s spire, but now rebuilding it has become important to many people. I’m sure there’s not much overlap between the people upset about the spire before the fire and those upset about its possible replacement since, but both groups have a point. The general public image of the cathedral includes the 1800s spire, not its unphotographed predecessor. Should public image matter? Yes, if the purpose of preservation work is to save people’s sense of history and community. Of course, if a new and different spire were to be built, people would get used to it: the Eiffel Tower was not universally loved when it was built, but it’s now a symbol the people of Paris accept for their city.

The building has been altered and restored, allowed to decay and then fixed, multiple times since the 1200s. Putting aside the fact that “restoring back” – the practice of fixing an important date for a building and getting rid of more recent interventions – is less popular than it once was, what would the proper date for a building like this even be?

Finally, what values do we want to preserve? Should old trees be cut down to provide a one-for-one replacement of the original massive roof timbers? That might be true to the original construction, but is it true to the values of our society today? One suggestion that makes some sense to go with the fakest of the fake: a new roof and spire that look like the popular 1800s-inflected image but are constructed using modern materials and the greenest possible construction.

I’ve reached a point where I don’t even want to decide for myself exactly what I think should be done. I want the building stabilized and repaired; I want the repair to follow some defensible logic. I want as many of the people of Paris to agree with the solution as is possible.

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