Notre-Dame de Paris: NO to the Haste of Politics, YES to the Patient Time of Restoration

by Andrea Pane

Scientific Director Compasses Magazine

A substantial part of the cathedral of Notre-Dame is not anymore. A few hours of fire, inexplicably started and recklessly uncontrolled, have destroyed centuries of history. The courage of firemen and the strength of stone have saved the structure, but much – too much – is lost forever.

Someone has written that the damage is not so serious and in part it is true, considering the dismay we all felt, that night of April the 15th, in front of the fear of waking up the next day and finding only the exterior shell of the great cathedral standing.

But this doesn’t mean that what has been lost did not have an inestimable value: wooden structures that for the most part dated back to the 13th century, later additions all congruent with the traditional Gothic construction and, above all, parts restored or reconstructed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, among which the famous flèche – the spire – which constituted (it is difficult to use the past tense, but unfortunately it is so) a piece of history of the 19th-century stylistic restoration. An intervention, that of Viollet, internationally well-known and a topos of the basic education of any architecture student.

The works realized by the famous architect between 1844 and 1864, first in collaboration with the oldest and most authoritative Jean-Baptiste Lassus, then on his own, now represent a piece of history of the Parisian cathedral as significant as the previous stratification and it is not admissible to consider their loss a “lesser evil”. A brilliant and learned architect – still waiting for a full reassessment of his multiform and complex personality, especially in France, although new publications and some exhibitions have proliferated on the occasion of the 2014 bicentenary1 – Viollet-le-Duc had carried out the restoration of Notre-Dame with love and dedication. He decided to rebuild the flèche only after Lassus died in 1857, completing it between 1859 and 1860 with a mixed structure in wood and embossed lead. The result, which is, after almost a century and a half, fully stratified in the palimpsest of the factory, was that of an architecture on the architecture, realized with wide “inventive” margins, but on the basis of a rigorous knowledge of the style, which made it a fundamental page for understanding the 19th-century neo-medieval culture. A «fantastic Middle Age» – to use the famous title of the volume by Jurgis Baltrušaitis2 – which fascinated as much as the authentic one, today even more than before, because of the deeper understanding, reached by the current generations, of the historicist culture that crossed the whole 19th century until the first decades of the 20th.

This is why the loss of the entire roof and of the flèche of Notre-Dame is a very serious damage. I would say that it is worse than the rift in the two cross vaults of the transept and of the main nave (although it is structurally very serious), because it is possible to deal with the latter using the well-established Restoration tools. Of course, even in the case of the vaults, difficult choices will have to be made on the reconstruction modalities, which shall at the same time ensure compatibility of materials (stone with stone) and recognizability of the intervention (different surface treatments or undercut technique). In this way, the future generations will remember the event of April the 15th as a warning and will not be deceived by the false restoration, being always able to recognize the ancient from the new, as for over a century and a half the principles of the discipline have sanctioned, also codified in international documents. But the choices concerning the roof and above all the flèche will not be easy at all: on one hand, because of the difficulties in finding the necessary quantity of timber, in order to use the same material as the original one (which is way more preferable than steel for reasons of compatibility with the walls), on the other for even more complex methodological and formal issues.

A few hours after the fire, with the rubbles still smoking, voices of some more or less famous archistars have already raised, along with that of many aspiring architects, who have expressed their opinion on how and whether to rebuild the roof and the flèche, also making improbable projects. Lured by President Macron’s announcement to entrust the reconstruction to an international architecture competition and – more importantly – to bypass the heritage code and procurement rules, architects from all over the world have tried to play with Notre-Dame, using the powerful three-dimensional simulation and photo-insertion tools that we all have today. Several proposals have come up, such as the reconstruction of the roof and the spire in steel and glass – like a revived Crystal Palace by Paxton – advanced with slight variations by both Norman Foster and Massimiliano Fuksas, or unlikely greenhouses, up to other absurdities that it is not even the case to comment.

This is not the right answer to such a complex problem. If this game can entertain creative architects, who after all care very little about Notre-Dame, inebriated by yet another opportunity to express their own accomplishments, it does not entertain at all the ones who deeply knew Notre-Dame, who studied it, who investigated it, who loved it. All those who still feel the pain of the wound opened by the fire of April the 15th in a monument of exceptional importance, both symbolic and architectural, cannot be interested in the formalist exercise of the most bewildering hypotheses for the reconstruction of the roof, and their immediate sharing through social media. It is an exercise that denies the most elementary feeling that arises towards a destruction like that of Notre-Dame: the pietas for the monument, which must come long before any project looting, a pietas that this looting must prevent and limit.

Weren’t perhaps the many experiences of the second post-war period – suffice it to mention Santa Chiara in Naples – or the more recent and controversial ones of the Fenice in Venice and the cathedral of Noto, to remain in Italy, or those of the Frauenkirche in Dresden and the Neues Museum in Berlin, enough to demonstrate that on these issues there is a complex and profound debate, which cannot be ignored, or else we would repeat the same mistakes of the past? The case of Notre-Dame, fortunately, is very different from many of those we have just mentioned: the survival of a large part of the wall structure allows a restoration of the destroyed parts that does not involve the falsification of what has irretrievably disappeared, but neither the relinquishment of a reproposal of the original configuration of the roof. But to do so it is not necessary, nor appropriate, to turn to the star system of architecture.

Archistars, brilliant in many cases, tend to leave their signature behind every work and above all they (almost) never have a proper experience in restoration, a patient and silent work, very different from the media circus that accompanies all their extraordinary projects. This is why it is not to them that we should turn, but to the highly specialized world of architectural restoration, which, in France and throughout Europe, boasts extraordinary excellences envied all over the world. For at least two centuries, there has been a culture of conservation, care and patient attention to every trace that the monument still carries with it, along with the recognition of the ones it has lost, and this discipline is called Restoration, despite the nuances of meaning that characterize this word at the various latitudes of the world. And it is the discipline of Restoration that today, above all, has to take the floor in relation to the fate of Notre-Dame. Certainly not the more or less creative architects who, however, have never investigated the construction history of a Gothic cathedral, its materials, its complex structural behavior. Used to deal for centuries with complex problems like these and above all to discuss them dialectically, the restorers are the only subjects to be involved in a dramatic and absolutely emerging case like that of Notre-Dame, assisted by all the competences that for decades have been collaborating with them: architecture and construction historians, materials scientists, structural engineers, chemists.

Faced with a serious patient like Notre-Dame in Paris, first of all we need diagnostics, knowledge, patience, and not packaged and formalist solutions, generated by computers in a handful of hours. And not only the exponents of the Restoration culture are convinced of this, but also all the people with common sense. A great French archistar, Jean Nouvel, author of dozens of internationally renowned buildings, correctly invited the administration to be cautious: «Laissez le temps du diagnostic aux historiens et aux experts avant de vous prononcer sur l’avenir du monument»3, he wisely observed. This was stated by Jean Nouvel, a man inclined to seduce the general public with architectural forms, and in this sense his exhortation is even more significant.

Seizing the common sense of these reflections, numerous pleas have circulated these days to call for caution, patience, respect for ordinary procedures, in order to start, first of all, the diagnosis and recognition of what survives and what is destroyed, before formulating any hypothesis of intervention. Some of them were signed by the most authoritative exponents of French and European restoration culture, along with architectural historians, intellectuals, scholars, all dismayed at the idea that the fate of a universal monument like Notre-Dame could be decided in such a hurry.

We hope that President Macron and all the authorities responsible for making decisions in this matter will seriously consider these pleas. Because Notre-Dame, perhaps more than any other building in France, is really what is called a universal heritage. Entrusting its destiny to an individual, however brilliant, would be the most serious of errors. This is what we wrote a few weeks ago, preparing this article. Unfortunately, the French National Assembly approved the special law for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame on July the 16th, with 91 votes in favor, 8 against and 33 abstentions4. After a lively parliamentary debate, during which many opposing voices have been raised about this provision, the approved law fixes the completion of the restoration works of Notre-Dame at five years, just in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024. «We must accept that the time of reconstruction is not that of politics or events», the opposition thundered, but without changing the intentions of President Macron. However, what appears most serious is that this special provision allows a derogation from environmental and heritage laws. It really seems a paradox that denies common sense: to restore a famous monument like Notre-Dame, it is necessary to derogate from the laws that regulate and control restoration. But perhaps common sense is no longer hosted in our times.

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