Notre Dame fire is devastating – but iconic cathedral will live on

Edifice joins long list of culturally significant buildings with history of destruction

The history of beloved, culturally significant buildings is inextricably connected to a history of destruction – and very often fire. Less than a century after building of the present Notre Dame began in 1163, fire damage is thought to have prompted the remodelling of parts of the cathedral. The Gothic structure replaced an earlier church that had been built on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter. By the 19th century the building was in a state of deep neglect: almost a ruin and lacking its spire.

A complete restoration in the 1850s by the architects Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc reversed the cathedral’s dire situation. Viollet-le-Duc also added a replacement spire in the style of, though more elaborate than, the original.

By this stage, the medieval spires of the Amiens, Reims and Rouen cathedrals had already been destroyed – Rouen’s by fire caused by lightning in 1822.

Notre Dame, before Monday’s fire, was not a 12th-century time capsule, but consisted of layers of remaking and reworking – in the case of Viollet-le-Duc’s work, based on careful, loving research and a deep respect for the methods of the medieval builders. Which is not to minimise the tragedy and loss involved in the terrible damage to this numinous building, but rather, to suggest that there is hope: Notre Dame can, and surely will, live on.

On 19 September 1914, Reims cathedral – another edifice of huge symbolic importance to the French nation, where generations of monarchs were crowned – was hit by German shells, setting wooden scaffolding on fire, melting lead in the roof and causing fire to consume wooden fixtures and pews. The cathedral sustained yet more damage through the first world war, but its ruins rose again after a huge post-war international effort, to which Rockefeller millions contributed. It reopened in 1938.

“Nous rebâtirons Notre-Dame” (we will rebuild Notre Dame), promised the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Donors such as the billionaire luxury brand owner François Pinault have already pledged funds.

But many questions lie ahead. What, precisely, will rebuilding mean? To what extent could, or should, the damaged parts be re-created precisely? In any case, what might “re-creation” consist of in a building that to a degree mingles the medieval and the 19th century, and serves a society so different to that of the 12th century? What modern building materials and methods should be introduced? How could a cathedral’s spiritual atmosphere be evoked afresh? Should the restoration retain traces and memory of the fire damage – for example, in the way the architect David Chipperfield, in his celebrated work on Berlin’s Neues Museum, preserved some of the scars that the building sustained during the second world war?

The damage is seemingly not so complete as to require the radical solution offered in the case of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, when a medieval edifice was replaced with a bold new building in a fresh baroque style after the 1666 fire. But it is certainly possible that a rebuilt Notre Dame could, and perhaps should, contain architectural and artistic gestures that speak of our own time.

There are lessons to be learned about buildings and shared cultural memory. The causes of the fire are unknown and will be until the proper investigations are completed. What is well understood, however, is that complex, multi-layered historic buildings that are undergoing building or restoration work – as was the case for Notre Dame – are at particular risk from fire.

No city understands this better than Glasgow. The School of Art, Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s masterpiece, was gutted by fire for the second time last summer during the final stages of its rebuild, after a first fire ravaged the school in 2014. The causes of the blaze have not yet been – and may never be – precisely determined, though it was recently reported that investigators were considering the theory that linseed-oil soaked rags, used to treat the school’s wooden panelling, may have been to blame.

The cost of neglect of buildings can be unspeakable: the Museu Nacional in Rio, for example, which was destroyed by fire last summer along with most of its contents, had been starved of funds and was palpably incapable of protecting its collections, which represented the memory of a nation.

View of the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the fire
View of the facade of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the fire. Photograph: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA

Some observers, within hours of the Notre Dame tragedy, have turned their attention to the dilapidated and dangerous state of the Palace of Westminster. Its restoration, which may cost more than £3.5bn to renovate and make safe, has been delayed through political inaction for years. Some may feel that if the Houses of Parliament, where fires break out regularly and is monitored 24 hours a day, were to burn there would be little to mourn. But people might feel rather differently if the worst were actually to happen. The sight of Parisians lining the Seine bridges to watch the flames on Monday night recalled similar scenes – the night of 16 October, 1834, when Londoners gathered to watch, aghast, the medieval Palace of Westminster burn down.

Whatever happens to Notre Dame, the restoration has the capacity to be an act of archaeology and study as well as an act of remaking. Researchers would have the chance to learn much about the building that would in turn inform its future. It could be a training ground for a new generation of craftspeople and a cradle of art. France already shows signs, by sheer force of will, of transforming this moment of grief into a moment of optimism.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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