22 August 2020

Washington Post: “The battle for Notre Dame”

The holidays passed without a Christmas Mass in the beloved national icon or a Christmas tree on the public square outside its richly decorated west façade. When I visited in October, I passed by only once, and it was painful to see the great church off-limits. The writer Hilaire Belloc once described Notre Dame as a matriarch whose authority is familiar, tacit and silent. But she now seems not just reticent, but mute.

Repairing Notre Dame was one of the most urgent projects, and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, one of two architects put in charge of restoration, began to undertake extensive and controversial changes. Perhaps no one in the history of the cathedral understood it better — its quirks, structural oddities and weak spots — and no one was more passionately hostile to earlier renovations that had altered its gothic design. But Viollet-le-Duc’s definition of restoration was more like that of a contemporary theater director approaching an old script than a preservationist working with scientific and historical rigor: To restore a building, he wrote, is not to maintain, repair, or redo it, but to reestablish it in a finished state that may never have existed at a given time.

Viollet-le-Duc changed the windows, added decorative elements to the base of the flying buttresses, remade statues, and created wholesale many of the grotesques, chimeras and gargoyles that visitors often assume are the essence of the cathedral’s gothic character. He also built a new spire, out of wood and lead, to replace the one that had been removed in the mid-18th century because it was no longer sound.

Philip Kennicott

Interesting overview of the history of Notre Dame and the transformations it underwent over the centuries. It’s all too easy to assume it has always looked this way when in fact much of its visual style was redefined in the 19th century restoration. After the fire in April last year architects proposed radical redesigns of the spire and roof area, from a glass roof to an urban green space and even a swimming pool atop the cathedral. The final decision announced last month was fortunately more conservative, aiming to rebuild the spire according to Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th century design, using original materials like wood for the roof. I for one would prefer it that way – there is more than enough space in Paris for green roofs and glass structures, no need to convert cathedrals into modern styles that may be out of fashion by the time the reconstruction finishes.

Flames burn the roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019
Flames burn the roof of the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019 Francois Guillot / AFP / Getty

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