Anyone who doubts the power of architecture should think again. Since a devastating fire swept through Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on Monday, there has been an outpouring of emotion from every corner of the world. The sight of one of the most iconic structures on Earth going up in flames left people everywhere in a state of disbelief, heartbroken and grief-stricken. In Paris, shocked crowds gathered in their thousands to sing, pray and share their sadness and sense of loss.
The 850-year-old cathedral is a part of life for every Parisian. But this is a building whose impact is felt well beyond the French capital and, indeed, France itself. People from around the globe travel to see the 12th-century structure. Last year alone, 12 million tourists walked its halls and ogled its flying buttresses, its carved surfaces and its magnificent stained glass windows – rose windows – that would have been the wonder of the age when first installed centuries ago.
Photo by Pixabay
Little wonder why the cathedral is one of Europe’s most important cultural, religious, social and architectural icons. Very few buildings inspire such strong emotions. Its age and beauty make it unique. It’s hard to think of another structure that has such power. When Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s marvellous 1909 Glasgow School of Art was struck by fire, first in 2014 and then again four years later, the international media covered both disasters. But people relate to Notre Dame on a deeper level; it is a sublime architectural masterpiece that simultaneously speaks of the power of beauty, if no longer faith, as it makes us ponder the transience of human existence.
We are mere visitors to a landmark that has been around since time immemorial, and which we assumed would be around forever. Notre Dame seems almost geological in its permanence. It is part of the topography. Sitting at the heart of Paris, the point from which all other features in the city are measured, it is arguably the most significant building in that country.
More than anything, the fire was a painful reminder that nothing lasts forever, nothing is permanent. Even a monument like Notre Dame, a national treasure, a defining part of French identity, is vulnerable. Little wonder the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has pledged to rebuild the cathedral in five years. That may be pushing it a bit, but the outpouring of money from France’s richest families and people everywhere will help. In just days, almost $1 billion has been pledged.
But the history of Notre Dame, which was built over the course of decades, and is almost always under construction, reconstruction or renovation, demonstrates how a building such as this possesses an organic quality; it has changed many times as it’s been expanded, altered, repaired, damaged, vandalized…
In the 21st century, however, rebuilding will be harder because the skills required no longer exist, and if they do, are hard to find. The stained glass, for example, was made using natural materials no longer used. Stone and wood carvers are still around but not exactly thick on the ground. Even the oak beams that supported the now collapsed roof will be difficult, if not impossible, to get. Most old-growth trees in France have long since been cut down.
And let’s not forget in 11th-century France, builders had no choice but to use the best materials – PVC, MDF, plastic and drywall weren’t yet available. At the same time, a structure like Notre Dame was constructed by hand. It is sculpture as much as architecture, art as well as engineering. By contrast, contemporary buildings are assembled from products chosen from catalogues. That’s partly why 21st-century architecture has become so heterogeneous, why cities have all started to look alike.
Perhaps it’s worth looking to the history of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the extraordinary cathedral designed by celebrated Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. Construction began under a different architect in 1882, and when Gaudi, who took over the following year, was killed in 1923, less than a quarter of the building was complete. Nearly a century later, the cathedral continues to take shape, now under a different architect. In other words, the Sagrada Familia is the work of many authors.
Photo by Enrico Perini from Pexels.
Notre Dame, which was begun in the 1160s, has been damaged, ransacked, and altered countless times. The spire that collapsed in the blaze wasn’t added until the 1840s, 700 years after the original foundations were laid. Already French officials have announced they will hold an international architectural competition to design a new spire. Will it resemble the lost steeple? Or will it be a frankly 21st-century piece? That remains to be seen, but one can rest assured there will hundreds and hundreds of proposals from architects the world over.
This week’s fire means that the evolution of the Notre Dame will continue well into the future. We don’t know how or when the cathedral will reopen, but when it does it won’t be the same place it was on Monday morning. But it will still stand. It will still be iconic. People will still want to see it. Parisians will return. Tourists will once again show up in droves. The heart of the city that lies at the heart of France will continue to beat.