PARIS – As Notre Dame cathedral rises from the ashes, a tug-of-war is being waged over its transformation.
A public commission tasked with overseeing the restoration has started its discussions, and the only thing that everyone agrees on is that there’s nothing close to a consensus.
In an interview in December, Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect of the country’s historic monuments service, said that he would resign rather than allow a modern spire — as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron — to be built atop the cathedral’s roof. In response, the French general assigned to lead the restoration, Jean-Louis Georgelin, told the architect to “shut his gob.”
“This debate is classic,” said Philippe Barbat, director general of heritage at the French Ministry of Culture. “Do we restore it as close as possible to what we understand by analyzing the historical context of the building, or do we try to make something more creative?”
And what tradition is traditional? Although there have been centuries during which Notre Dame stayed mostly the same, it has undergone major transformations throughout its history.
And there were arguments about those, too. Shortly before the French Revolution, it was whitewashed, leading one prominent critic to grumble that the edifice had “lost its venerable color and its imposing darkness that had commended fervent respect.” And beginning in the 1840s, after decades of little maintenance, sporadic use and sometimes misguided efforts at repair, it was “restored” so thoroughly that many historians came to think of it as a 19th-century church, not a medieval one.
An earlier fire
One of the most significant transformations was precipitated by a fire in the 13th century in the roof space above the vaults. With new cathedrals being built to make them taller and to introduce more light, Notre Dame’s clerestory windows were enlarged, the roofs changed and the flying buttresses reconstructed, although the cathedral remained relatively dark.
The second radical transformation dates, in part, to 1831, when Victor Hugo published “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Then in a state of grave disrepair, the cathedral was rediscovered. The public demanded that it be restored.
Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, one of two architects put in charge of project, ordered a series of extensive changes. He changed the windows, added decorative elements to the base of the flying buttresses, remade statues and created 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.
Viollet-le-Duc left behind extensive documentation that might be essential to restoring Notre Dame.
“We know we can construct it exactly like it was,” said Francis Rambert, director of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, a Paris museum that includes Viollet-le-Duc’s invaluable collection of full-scale architectural casts. “But the question is, do we need to sacrifice all those trees?”
Spire a sticking point
The spire and the wood have become intertwined flash points that seem to divide French opinion not into clearly opposed ideological camps, but into myriad fragmentary alignments of opinion, as complex as one of the cathedral’s rose windows. There are environmental issues, aesthetic issues, cultural issues, patrimony issues and financial issues.
Is wood necessary? Would lighter materials be better, or do the vaults need the heavy weight of wood to make them secure? Is satisfactory wood available? At one point last year, a Ghanaian company even offered to dredge up giant trees preserved and strengthened by submersion when land was flooded for a dam in Africa in 1965.
In the end, it probably will be Macron who determines the new form of Notre Dame, although it’s unclear how much he will defer to experts, the Catholic Church and preservationists.
“Most likely he will speak about it with the head of the (commission), Gen. Georgelin, but also the minister of culture,” Barbat said. “Afterward, I cannot answer precisely what he will decide alone in the loneliness of the presidency.”