Rebuild or reimagine? Preservation questions plague Notre Dame.

This post was written by Nancy Johnson, Curator and Archivist and Chelsea Dowell, Director of Public Engagement.

Decisions, decisions….

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The spire atop Notre Dame Cathedral was destroyed during the April 2019 fire.  Photo:  Geoffroy Van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images.

Recent news reports have revealed the next chapter in the ongoing story of Notre Dame de Paris, the massive 12th-century cathedral at the very heart of the French capital. In April 2019, the landmark suffered a devastating fire. Before the flames could even be extinguished, preservationists and admirers of the Cathedral began raising critical questions about the beloved building’s future. Now, the most controversial issue centers on what to do about the cathedral’s spire. Measuring 800 tons and 305 feet tall, the lead-coated structure crashed through the roof to the floor during the blaze.

This decorative spike was not original to the cathedral. The first spire was built between 1120 and 1230 and was removed in the late 1700s after being badly deteriorated. In 1859, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc designed the replacement. So although it is not original to the building, the newer spire is by now quite historic, and an iconic piece of the cathedral in the eyes of Parisians and sightseers from all corners of the world.

Following the fire, French President Emmanuel Macon promised that Notre Dame would be rebuilt in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. He announced an international design competition that would invite plans for “a contemporary architectural gesture,” that could make Notre Dame “even more beautiful.” Instead of rebuilding the 1859 version of the spire, Macron promised something new and different to be added in its place. 

Macron’s statement echoed the philosophy of many architects and historic preservationists today. In recent decades, additions or modifications to historic structures have been clearly and loudly modern. A new glass building now joins two early 20th-century structures at the Morgan Library in Manhattan; a shining glass dome now sits atop the war-damaged Reichstag government building in Berlin. The prevailing theory is that architects today should not try to trick the viewer into thinking an addition to a historic structure is part of the original – they should be honest about the time in which their addition was built.

The Morgan Library’s recent addition unites two historic buildings with an ultra-modern design.

Despite Macron’s enthusiasm and scholarly opinion, the plan was met with opposition. Many architects, preservationists and academics were skeptical; a survey of the French people showed they favored a reconstruction of Viollet-le-Duc’s design over the prospect of something new.

While the debate raged, plans for a contemporary addition to Notre Dame came in from around the globe: from the Stockholm studio of Ulf Mejergren Architects, a giant, cross-shaped roof-top swimming pool; from British architect Norman Foster, a glass roof typical of his work that was topped with a crystal spire; an enormous greenhouse and forest from Paris-based Studio NAB; a roof and spire made completely of stained glass from Brazilian architect Alexandre Fantozzi; and a mammoth carbon-fiber flame covered in gold leaf meant to memorialize the fire from French designer Mathieu Lehanneur.  

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Contemporary proposals for the Notre Dame restoration. Top right, moving clockwise: stained glass roof and spire by Alexandre Fantozzi; a rooftop swimming pool by Ulf Mejergren Architects; a golden flame from Mathieu Lehanneur; greenhouse enclosed in glass from Studio NAB.

Early on, the French government intervened. The Senate proposed a bill requiring the design to be faithful to the cathedral’s “last known state,” which meant the 19th-century Viollet-le-Duc design. Finally, President Macron gave in. On July 9, 2020, more than a year after the fire, plans to recreate the spire were announced. Macron announced a compromise – a “contemporary gesture” would be made in the “redevelopment of the surroundings of the cathedral.” So, modernity for the area around the catherdral, but not within it.

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Glass blocks filled the space for a large rose window in the sanctuary from 1944-2010. Photo:  Kate Milford

In the case of Notre Dame, the preservation decision was fraught, especially because the design of the architectural element to be replaced was well known and endlessly photographed. Inserting a contemporary element in a landmark building is a tricky business. But, in fact, that’s exactly what we did at the Museum at Eldridge Street. 

When our restoration was completed in 2007, the building looked as glorious as it did when it opened in 1887. Except for one thing. On the east wall above the ark, four columns of modest glass blocks took the place once occupied by a 16-foot diameter stained glass rose window. Why wasn’t it restored along with everything else? We had no record of what the window originally looked like! No photographs, no drawings, and nobody who remembered clearly. Nothing. We knew the glass blocks were the result of an economical repair made in 1944 when a financially strapped congregation was forced to address the deteriorating original window. But it looked odd. It no longer fit in the newly restored sanctuary.

What would you do? Leave the glass blocks as a marker of that piece of the building’s history? Guess at what the original looked like and try to recreate it? Or invite artists to come up with a contemporary replacement?

Our Board of Directors decided to invite artists to submit new ideas. The move that was not without its own controversy. But in the end, they unanimously agreed on one design – by contemporary artist Kiki Smith and architect Deborah Gans. Their window was modern but echoed historical decorative information from the walls and ceilings of the sanctuary. The window continues the motif of gold five-pointed stars on a field of blue and is anchored in the center with a Star of David. It was a bold choice.

Even if there were a lot of nay-sayers before this new window was installed in 2010, there are few now.  If the sanctuary was said to be “gasp-inducing” before, it is awe-inspiring today.

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The contemporary window design by Kiki Smith and Deborah Gans replaced the awkward 1944 repair of the damaged original design. Photos:  Peter Aaron

Still, it’s impossible to silence every nay-sayer. Ironically, Viollet-le-Duc was criticized during his lifetime, and long after, for his restoration philosophy. (Battles about appropriate restorations have been waging for centuries!) He wrote extensively on the subject, advocating for “rational” design that was clear about its materials, construction and time period. He believed in the “form follows function” idea long before 19th-century architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase. Viollet-le-Duc thought builders should be honest about the time period in which they were designing and make clear distinctions between the original part of a building and their own, newer, portions. That wasn’t always a popular belief! And critics felt that he didn’t always practice what he preached. That Viollet-le-Duc spire that France plans to rebuild? It was panned at the time of construction! Critics felt it was too Gothic, too gaudy, and not historical to the rest of the cathedral’s design. And that’s a claim that plagued many of Viollet-le-Duc’s projets. Sometimes to achieve a “rational harmony” in his restorations, Viollet-le-Duc added non-historical design elements. To him, the overall beauty and function of a building was more important than achieving complete historic accuracy. In that way, our Museum’s board followed right along with his philosophy. At Notre Dame, Viollet-le-Duc built something new and honest to the time period in which it was being built, within a much older structure. And his main objective was a visual harmony and beauty rather than historicism. That was our own thinking exactly.

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The 1859 Viollet-le-Duc spire design in a drawing by the architect and a recent, pre-fire photograph.

But that won’t be the route they take this time at Notre Dame. It takes people a long time to get used to a new addition on a well-known structure, but with time, many such additions do go from reviled to revered. Viollet-le-Duc’s spire sure did. The debate in France is understandable, especially considering how beloved and iconic that iteration of the cathedral was. At Eldridge Street, if we had known what our original East Window looked like, that may be what visitors would see today. But we are thrilled to have this very forward-looking addition to our historic space. It was a risk worth taking. And boldly claims a place for the 21st-century in our building’s long and storied life. 

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