When I heard the news of the fire that swept across the roof and spire of Notre-Dame (April 15), my first feeling was incredulity. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I needed to actually watch the news—and, like everyone else, await the announcement that the fire had been put out. Since I work closely with our fire departments on various projects, I trusted that the blaze would be contained as quickly as possible.
Looking at those images as an architect, I did not feel “sad.” I was not crying about the loss of a symbol; rather, I was looking at a building and its potential. Our firm does mostly reuse and renovations. So, our work usually starts with trying to assess what is left, analyzing what can be done, calculating how long it would take, figuring out how to organize the construction site installation, cranes and protection/preservation solutions. We have become focused on envisioning scenarios and shapes, creating, making things happen, and finding ways to make a building’s life bloom again.
Personally, I don’t look at the destruction of the cathedral’s roof and spire as pieces of history that are lost. To me, the true Notre-Dame is fully alive still. The architecture has been undergoing transformations throughout the ages, and this fire represents yet another adventure in the structure’s architectural evolution. What has been lost is mostly the last renovation by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (the architect responsible for the 1859 redesign that included the spire toppled by this week’s fire), and some of the carpentry from the 13th century. The building itself is still standing, with almost all of its stones undamaged and also, luckily, most of the stained glasses and the relics unharmed.
However, what it represents in the people’s mind will have to evolve. Some of images of the profile of spired church along the Seine will fade—like those of bouquinistes (booksellers), painters and the storied past of the Latin Quarter—or be relegated to memory or history books. But, change has been a constant for Notre-Dame. A little more than a century ago, the cathedral was standing in a maze of streets. The plaza in front of it wasn’t created until the 19th century.
What is important is that Notre-Dame will live on in a way that can’t be erased by fire. It is not just an architectural icon; it is part of history—from royal coronations to the liberation of Paris. But it is also a place that draws people together, whether Parisians, tourists, heads of all international governments or the pope). These are the aspects of Notre-Dame that have to be kept top of mind. They convey a lot of major ideas: freedom, faith, union, communion, happiness, commemorations, universal love…ideas have to be kept alive.
There has been a lot of debate about what should be done and a great deal of controversy about how quickly nearly $1 billion was pledged for the restoration. I think the shock of that swift fire touched the people in their daily life. Suddenly, they realized that life can be turned around in the blink of an eye, and they needed to do something about it, to console themselves. As the quickest way to feel useful is to offer money for the reconstruction. People use this generosity as a catharsis, and a way both to have a good conscience and, perhaps, to battle the fear of death or of too radical of a transformation. We human beings are creatures of habit. Passing by the same familiar buildings every day is reassuring.
I know that many people have criticized the outpouring of donations for the reconstruction, saying that $1 billion could go a long way toward feeding people and doing other kind of good work. I don’t think that we should staunchly oppose rebuilding Notre-Dame, or other gathering places around the world that have been destroyed. Nor should we ignore human needs. We have no choice but to address both issues. Yes we have to take care of starving people (and in fact many benevolent French people—religious and non-religious–are doing that on a daily basis), and yes we need to rebuild a monument/cathedral that is at the same time a symbol of the Catholic faith, but also a symbol of French grandeur and architecture, and the country’s history. It also happens that the monument is the most visited in Europe, i.e. it is also part of an economical key industry: tourism. Its reconstruction will give employment opportunities to thousands of people, from the unskilled to the most highly-skilled workers. France has the good fortune to have both qualified contractors for this kind of work, and a legal/fiscal system that encourages the preservation of historical monuments for fiscal reasons. Here again, the economic purpose serves a historical/artistic purpose.
So, how should the cathedral be rebuilt? This has been the debate forever. Just remember how many churches were transformed from romanesque style to gothic a few centuries later or how many castles were modified because their purpose (a fortress became a residence, or a museum) evolved with the ages. To me every option is possible, as long as the result is beautiful. That reminds me of the terrible intellectual battle about the Louvre in the 80’s. Looking at I.M. Pei’s model, I thought it was truly logical for the visitors to have only one entrance (as a student, I used to have to go to three different entrances to be able to see or draw various collections of art before the renovation). Clearly, not everyone shared that view. But, when I saw the glass pyramid for the first time, I was taken by surprise and was moved to tears to see how beautiful it was.
Sometimes, loss or the need to change shows us possibilities to explore new ideas, new functionality and new ways of addressing people’s needs. It will be interesting to watch how that shapes the next evolution in the life of Notre-Dame.
Fabrice Knoll is the cofounder (along with his brother Didier) of the Paris-based architecture/interior architecture firm that bears their names, KNOLL Architectures.