The year here has been one scorched by searing heat and tensions reaching boiling point. The full force of rage and frustration exploded on the street with the continued demonstrations of Les Gilets Jaunes. Initially sparked off by rising fuel prices, the flames of anger were soon fanned by all forms of social, economic and political injustice. This feverish atmosphere seemed to prime the country for the surge in climatic extremes which have surely been some of the clearest manifestations of global warming. However, the image that burnt itself in me is that of Notre-Dame cathedral, engulfed in flames in mid-April.
This was not a human tragedy, comparable to the inferno of London's Grenfell Tower, for example, where the cruel sequence of events led to a devastating loss of life, in unspeakably awful circumstances as the tower was rapidly transformed into a monstrous blazing torch, ensnaring its inhabitants. Notre-Dame de Paris was something else...
The successful realisation of each work and its survival to the present day is heavy with past sacrifices. Each piece in any cathedral bears its weight in blood, sweat and suffering. Not only were the workers directly involved expected to give their all, but the commoners too, since they were required to pay taxes and tithes to finance these projects, despite their peasant status. From the beginning of its construction in the 12th century, throughout the centurIes up to the extensive restoration work in the mid-19th and beyond, Notre Dame’s history is a long litany of tales of toil and hardship but one also of the glory, beauty and the depth of human creativity and resiliance – both cultural and spiritual. We will never know anything of the lives of these thousands of individuals who contributed to the existence of the cathedral, but their common voice is carried through every detail of the building. In this way, a vital essence of all these beings has been caught and preserved – like an insect in amber - thus creating intransience that reassures us, yet points to our own mortality. Indeed, for the majority of us, our time on Earth will leave little lasting trace, mere footprints in the sand that are destined to be effaced. The cathedral, like the other great edifices of history still standing today offers a ‘whole that is more than the sum of its parts’, to borrow Aristotle’s words. It has created a bond of humanity and spirituality between past, present and future. To behold such an edifice is a humbling experience and therefore to see its destruction is tragic.
On the fateful night of the 15th April, Notre Dame was ravaged by the flames and the subsequent water that doused these; both posed an obvious direct and immediate threat to the entire structure. Without the weight of the roof, parts of the vaulting and the subsequent weakening of the stonework, the intricate equilibrium of the cathedral was fatally disrupted. The whole construction of any of the great Gothic cathedrals is strong through the mutual interactions of all its parts – wherein horizontal force is met and counterbalanced by vertical thrust. Once this play has been compromised, stress is redistributed and the entire structure is at risk of imploding. Notre Dame no longer has the weight of its spire and roofing to act as ballast to withstand the horizontal force of wind, whilst the flying buttresses now exert an unbalanced thrust inwards. This has meant that since April, all measures have been taken to avoid the collapse of Notre Dame rather than commencing concrete restoration work, especially given the extreme heat during this summer’s heatwave which has further stressed damaged masonry. Added to these key considerations, are the major concerns over the hazardous debris that has contiminated not only the area directly surrounding the cathedral, but also the streets around the Ile de la Cité. As tons of lead melted in the blaze, many toxic particles became airborne and were spread freely in the wind, contaminating buildings, soil and the water of the Seine. This exposure to high-levels of lead pollution naturally presents a risk to the on-site workers and local residents of the adjacent streets and will require extensive decontamination measures. In view of these titanesque obligations further compromising a cash-strapped government, spending millions of euros on returning Notre Dame to its fomer glory may seem delusional. It is argued that the cathedral should be secured structurally, but left as a symbolic ruin. But what would it symbolize exactly? Unlike Notre-Dame de Reims, which was devastated in the early stages of the First World War and then heralded as the emblem of the martyred city and country, the cathedral of Paris was the victim of fire. Notre-Dame de Paris did not fall victim to a force majeure or an act of God – but by a presumably preventable incident which was then dramatically compounded by a set of clumsy failures in communication. To say this was unfortunate would be an understatement, but the cause of the fire cannot be attributed to a ‘great’ event, merely a series of errors. So what now?
The weeks and months have now passed; the billowing smoke has long since subsided, the ashes have settled and now scaffolding envelopes the damaged structure like crazy webs, whilst the limbs of giant cranes lean across like predatory spiders. Deprived of its impressive roof and spire, the nave has now become a charred hulk.
From the exterior, the whole structure indeed ressembles an empty vessel - la nef (nave) being the old term for navire or ship, it is now apparent why. The distinctive form of the cathedral apse that stood majestically over the Seine, has been likewise truncated. The gutted interior of the cathedral is still too dangerous for workers to clear rubble, although robots have been able to carry out some work. Meanwhile, the parts of the masonry and sculptures that were intially lined up, like corpses on the parvis in front of the cathedral in the days after the fire, are now securely hidden from sight. Long lines of barriers encircle the grounds, obscuring the view of this crime scene without a criminal. High above, the row of kings gaze down from the main façade, as they always have done, yet now they seemed stunned and glassy-eyed… .
From the outset, money literally poured in overnight as the public mourned the devastation of one of the most important symbols of French history and culture, not to mention one of its greatest places of Catholic worship. Within days, millionaires and key figures in the corporate world were vying with each other to pledge the highest sums of money in order to raise up this 850-year- old edifice, in phoenix fashion. The readiness to give such vast financial backing to this cause soon drew indignation from many quarters. It was remarked that these bottomless coffers which had remained tightly-shut for social issues of a more contemporary nature, were spontaneously thrown open for an ancient monument that had perhaps done its time. Funding Notre Dame’s restoration is now almost perceived as some elitist gesture, for the benefit of the Happy Few. This saddens me since this restoration work should not be considered as being pitted against social causes, in an open competition for financial hand-outs. It is not a case or either/or, wherein the two are presented to the benefactors to select their ‘worthiest’ mission. How many of the wealthiest beings on Earth squander their money without donating anything to any cause whatsover, unless you cite the narcissistic endeavours of their conspicuous consumption?
Surely if these billionaires donated such vast sums, that should, in theory at least, have freed the government’s funds to concentrate on balancing social inequalities. To point out the fact that poverty exists in the streets just beyond Notre Dame seems facile since it always has done, ever since the very first stone was set, however unfortunate that may be. Further afield, the cathedral of Saint Denis is now surrounded by some of the poorest living conditions in the capital but that does not mean the monument is involved in the perpetuation of this sorry state of affairs. If necessary restoration work is refused these ancient monuments, what will remain of our cultural landscape and heritage? Fastfood outlets, bland franchises, discount stores and the like, standing next to banks, estate agents and so on?
Although financial backing is not an obstacle to the Notre Dame conservation project at present, the coming months and years will surely be scattered with doubts and practical stumbling blocks of great proportion. The most significant of these is perhaps finding a manner in which the building should be restored. There is no obvious, ready-made solution. Naturally, traditionalists would like to see Notre Dame resuscitated and brought back to its former pre-fire glory. However, this raises a few points. Many people consider that it would be an error to embark on a restoration project that would faithfully replicate the design of Notre Dame – even if extensive laser imaging from 2015 provides a highly-detailed digital template of the edifice. It is believed that a replica would not be true to the organic spirit of Notre Dame or the cultural history of the capital. A redesign would therefore be more fitting for a past revisited and paid due respect in a unique manner. After all, much of the structure lost was in fact designed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc, in the latter half of the 19th century. The innovative 750-ton central spire covered in lead and the vaulted roof were thus ‘fake’ Gothic since they had themselves replaced the original 13th century work. Viollet-le-Duc himself had incorporated certain modern practices in this undertaking, and in so doing seemed to anticipate the ideas of composer Gustave Mahler - “Tradition is tending the flame, not worshipping the ashes”.
Meanwhile, in the tradition of former French presidents who have embarked on cultural projects, Emmanuel Macron appears to see Notre Dame as his opportunity to leave his political and personal mark on French history. He stated that at the end of an initial five-year deadline the world would discover a "creative reconstruction" of Notre Dame, representing "an alliance of tradition and modernity, a respectful audacity". That particular time slot, set to coincide with the hosting of the 2024 Summer Olympic Games, has been shown to be unrealistic, but ambitious plans are still held for restoration work under Macron. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an international architects' competition for designs in order to replace the 19th century spire. Several highly-original proposals were put forward – most of which are indeed imaginative, audacious and highly inappropriate. I won’t even bother to include any images of the ‘whackiest’ of these, as most seem to be a bid to get world-wide attention and some kind of shock-value acclaim for the individual ‘designer’ prepared to make irreparable changes to this iconic edifice. Buildings such as these, as indeed most artifacts, have been bequeathed to us all collectively by History, and we are duty-bound to honour and pass them on to future generations.
Why are we then talking about mediatized projects which appear to be acts of self-promotion, peddling the whims of personal tastes? Why bother with these ‘exciting’ present-day statements when we could be concentrating on state-of-the-art technology and modern materials to lift the cathedral up again, as in the case of Reims cathedral in the inter-war years? With the financial backing of billionaire American John D. Rockefeller, the whole roof of the Notre-Dame de Reims was replaced by a structure supported by an incredibly innovative concrete framework, invisible between the roof and the internal vault ceilings it supported. This is not so disimilar to the predicament of Notre-Dame de Paris which has lost the original frame that was built upon a complicated lactice structure of centuries-old oak beams - known as ‘the Forest’. Fortunately, Notre-Dame de Paris has the status as a Unesco World Heritage site and a law enacted by the French Senate, concerning the regulation of the restoration work, now has an addendum specifying that this should preserve the "last-known visual condition" of the monument, including the spire. The stained-glass windows will probably be restored and/or replaced too, since many have suffered thermal shock due to the extreme contrasts in temperature during the firefighting. This is indeed an opportunity for contemporary artists, just as it has been in Reims since the First World War. Over the years, generations of master glass artists from the Atelier Simon(Marq) have worked on the cathedral windows, and those of certain churches around the city of Reims. Other artists have contributed too - namely Marc Chagall, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva (Eglise St Jacques) and Imi Knoebel. I am still trying to be won over by the work of that latter maître verrier however...
I don’t know what will happen over the next few months or years. We must hope that this monumental work of restoration will be undertaken by the most capable panel of professionals who understand that they have been entrusted with the task of marking our collective respect for this great edifice for now and posterity. I am not sure what lesson we can draw from the fire in Notre Dame, except perhaps to appreciate what beauty we have, from the most sturdy-looking structures to the most delicate. Before seeing Notre Dame in May, I came across the poppies in Le Jardin des Plantes - the flower beds were aflame!