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On July 9, what for months seemed inevitable became official: the fire-gutted cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris would be reconstructed à l’identique. The government announced that what was, would again be. The cathedral’s oak rafters and lead roof would be replaced by oak rafters and a lead roof. Most important, the celebrated, 300-foot wood and lead spire would be replaced by a spire of the same height, design, and material.
The nation, in the midst of a crisis ignited by the coronavirus pandemic, greeted the news with a sigh of relief. After all, as the newly installed culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot, declared, there already “appeared to be a large public consensus” that an identical spire should replace the one that was destroyed.
Yet Bachelot’s announcement raised a vital question: What has consensus ever done to keep culture alive? This question is especially meaningful in a nation like France, where culture has long been politics by other means. Indeed, under the circumstances, the government’s decision to make the new Notre Dame the same as the old one is more momentous than it might otherwise seem.
On April 16, 2019, leaden plumes of smoke billowed from the cathedral’s charred carcass, and President Emmanuel Macron addressed a shocked nation. In a short and powerful speech, he vowed that Notre Dame would be rebuilt in five years in such a way that it would be “plus belle” than before. Critics derided his declaration as impetuous, and so the president doubled down: on May 24, he acknowledged that his decision was based on “neither detailed analysis nor professional expertise” but said that he nevertheless “fully assumed” his audacious promise. He declared that there would be an international design competition for the cathedral’s reconstruction, and he expected that the winning plan would channel “a respectful audacity, a restoration and an inventive reconstruction, a marriage of tradition and modernity.”
Yet many of the early informal proposals for reconstructing Notre Dame—which included everything from greenhouses to swimming pools in place of the original lead roof—reflected a divorce and not a marriage of the old and the new. These unofficial plans riled traditionalists, and the official design competition stalled. At the same time, a growing chorus of professional and political figures called for a reconstruction faithful to the nineteenth-century cathedral.
What has consensus ever done to keep culture alive?
Not surprisingly, those in favor of a meticulous restoration included parties on the right, ranging from the neo-Gaullist Les Républicains to the extremist Rassemblement National. At the other end of the political spectrum, Yannick Jadot, the leader of the EELV (Green Party), denounced the “regressive nostalgia” of those parties obsessed by a past that never was. The former Minister of Culture and Socialist Jack Lang echoed this concern, insisting that one could balance tradition and innovation.
Macron tried to spin the heated polemics as a sign of political health. “A country that can argue over the shape of a spire for months on end is a country that is not lost.” He was less sanguine, however, when the debate began to crackle within his own government. In November, Philippe Villeneuve, the chief architect of historic sites, delivered an ultimatum. If the president did not plump for an identical spire, Villeneuve declared, he would resign in protest. Upon hearing the threat, Jean-Louis Georgelin, the gruff, retired general whom Macron had tasked with overseeing the cathedral’s restoration, replied that he had already told Villeneuve “several times to shut his trap.”
Even after the coronavirus pandemic broke out in early 2020, Macron continued to insist on his five-year deadline for restoring Notre Dame. But as for how it would be restored, he had become less categorical. “I don’t believe that disarray and delay should be our response to this challenge,” he proclaimed in April. “We must prove ourselves equal to the great constructions which have made our history.”
Two months later, however, Macron finally conceded that this particular great construction would instead be a great reconstruction. Facing a spiraling financial deficit and spiking infection rate, the chastened president chose practicality over audacity and, through a spokesperson, acknowledged that the French would have the spire they seemed to want.
An obvious and oft-acknowledged irony during the national debate was that the destroyed spire was no more authentic than a television antenna planted atop Notre Dame would be. The spire was not the work of the anonymous artisans of medieval France but instead that of a renowned architect of modern France, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. Thanks to this nineteenth-century figure, an ardent romantic and astute architect, Notre Dame has become a site where lay people see a past that never was, and professionals see a past that always was in one man’s imagination.
The irony deepens when one considers the possibility that, were he alive today, Viollet-le-Duc would have shared Macron’s initial audacity. When he was charged with restoring Notre Dame, Viollet-le-Duc was less a preservationist than an idealist, less a restorer than an inventor. Rather like Thucydides, who recreated speeches not as they were, but as they should have been, Viollet-le-Duc restored buildings not as they were, but as they should have been. “To restore a building,” he proclaimed, “does not mean to repair or redo it, but instead to reestablish it in a final state, one that may never have actually existed.”
Notre Dame has become a site where lay people see a past that never was.
Inevitably, contemporaries denounced Viollet-le-Duc as a destroyer whose restorations were little more than confabulations. The denunciations spilled well into the mid-twentieth century, when the respected architect and historian Achille Carlier described Viollet-le-Duc’s restorations as nothing less than assassinations of the past and the architect as “one of history’s greatest criminals.” Carlier spared the restored Notre Dame, spire and all, none of his severity. When you gaze upon the cathedral, he warned his readers, “do not think of the twelfth or thirteenth centuries; think only of Viollet-le-Duc. His cathedral has nothing to do with the Middle Ages.”
Carlier held Viollet-le-Duc’s spire in particular contempt. The cathedral had lost its original, medieval spire in the late-eighteenth century. Convinced that Notre Dame could not be fully restored until the spire was replaced, Viollet-le-Duc based his design on a drawing of questionable historical authenticity. He then added new elements, including statues of the 12 apostles ascending from the base. That one of the apostles, Saint Thomas, bears a remarkable resemblance to Viollet-le-Duc did little to soothe Carlier’s irritation.
The apostles mostly survived the 2019 conflagration, but the decision to recopy the spire means, all too paradoxically, that Viollet-le-Duc’s spirit will not. He wrote that his era was “one of those strange times” that calls upon those “who despair of the present to review the past.”
Viollet-le-Duc restored buildings not as they were, but as they should have been.
Strange times, indeed. Viollet-le-Duc lived through the revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1871. He saw the rise and fall of monarchic, democratic, and autocratic forms of government in France. Extraordinary technological, social, and epidemiological upheavals defined his era. New technologies gave Viollet-le-Duc the material means to build the spire. New diseases, such as cholera, which convulsed France in the mid-nineteenth century, gave him the imaginative basis for the legions of deformed and twisted gargoyles that populate the cathedral’s roof—many more than were there in the Middle Ages. Even while Notre Dame was being restored, the vast parvis in front of it was converted into an open-air clinic and morgue for the epidemic’s dead and dying.
Today, the French are once again living through strange times, from the gilets jaunes to the new coronavirus. How very strange, then, that the leaders of a country that remains in the first rank of nations largely because of its cultural enterprises did not choose to be as audacious as Viollet-le-Duc once was. Building a copy of the spire, one architectural historian remarked, was tantamount to hanging copies of paintings destroyed in a fire at the Louvre. Building anew does not, of course, mean adding masked gargoyles (not only an aesthetic but a practical mistake, as the gargoyles serve as waterspouts for the rain gutters). But it does mean that the cathedral, if it is to fire the imagination of future visitors, must reflect the fire that nearly consumed it. Rebuild it as it was and they will come, but something vital will be gone.
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