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Notre Dame Fire

Notre-Dame restoration competition raises new controversy

View of the rear of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a massive fire devastated large parts of the gothic structure in Paris, 19 April 2019.
View of the rear of Notre-Dame Cathedral after a massive fire devastated large parts of the gothic structure in Paris, 19 April 2019. Reuters/Philippe Wojazer

The French government’s announcement of an international architecture competition to rebuild the parts of the Notre-Dame Cathedral destroyed in a fire last week has both inspired contemporary visions and drawn calls to rebuild exactly what was lost.

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The French capital has a track record of approving innovative, often divisive and occasionally despised modern and contemporary structures to sit among its centuries-old buildings and monuments.

Some, like I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, Renzo Piano’s Pompidou Centre and Gustave Eiffel’s eponymous tower have won widespread acceptance over time, while others like the Montparnasse Tower and Arche de la Defense being slower to catch up.

The prospect of a contemporary overhaul for the damaged parts of the 850-year-old Notre-Dame Cathedral, which sits at the centre of Paris and is the most visited monument in Europe, was bound to raise old debates opposing innovation and tradition.

Many want the authorities to simply replace the spire conceived and built in the mid-nineteenth century during a 20-year restoration project overseen by famed architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who was responsible for preserving many monuments emblematic of French history today.

While President Emmanuel Macron’s administration said all options were on the table, its announcement of the competition suggested it was more than willing to turn its eye towards modern designs.

“The international competition,” said French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, would help to decide “whether we should build a new spire, whether we should rebuild the spire designed and built by Viollet-le-Duc in identical fashion, or whether we should endow the cathedral with a new spire adapted to the techniques and challenges of our era”.

A statement from Macron’s office showed the executive would not be opposed to reaching beyond Viollet-le-Duc’s design.

“Since the spire was not part of the original cathedral, the President of the Republic hopes there will be some reflection and a contemporary architectural gesture might be envisaged,” it read.

Glass towers dominate proposals

A number of proposals have circulated so far, many of them employing glass architecture.

Jean-Michel Wilmotte, architect of the Russian Orthodox Church of Paris, suggested in an interview that a glass spire would serve as an architectural echo of the Louvre Pyramid.

The firm Godart + Roussel from the French city Dijon has proposed a glass ceiling with brass panels and a space for tourists to visit.

The Times newspaper in Britain has produced a graphic based on ideas for the roof proposed by various architects.

Glass towers dominate satirical proposals, too

Some of the myriad satirical proposals also offered visions of gigantic glass spires.

Other satirical proposals mocked the donations pledged to rebuilding efforts by some of France’s wealthiest cosmetics and luxury brands, oil companies and banks.

Still others were just plain silly.

‘Some kind of contemporary art thing’

The announcement of the international competition and its openness to innovative proposals sparked a wide range of criticism, with some feeling efforts should go rather into restoration and preservation.

“It’s by respect for the works that restorers that the world’s most beautiful paintings remain visible in all their original splendour,” reads one petition. “Imagine if the Mona Lisa were restored according to the principles of Cubism?”

French architects Denis Valode and Jean Pistre lambasted the culture of high-profile celebrity architects often associated with such projects and called for the contest to be cancelled.

“We don’t need ‘starchitects’, who dream of using the devastation of the cathedral to their advantage, to impose contemporaneity on the pretext that we have to move quickly,” the architects told the Journal du dimanche newspaper.

“Organising an international competition must be absolutely avoided.”

Stéphane Bern, Macron’s special envoy for heritage and a journalist specialising in nobility and royalty, also denounced “the delirium of certain architects, lurking in the shadows”.

Right-wing newspaper Le Figaro conducted a poll in which 70 percent of 35,000 respondents said they opposed any contemporary style design.

François-Xavier Bellamy, heading the European election list for the right-wing Les Républicains party, called for “a bit of humility” before the structure, whose original builders were mostly anonymous.

Opposition to all things modern inspired a hashtag “#touchepasànotredame” (“Don’t touch Notre-Dame”), notably used by Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party (RN).

Jordan Bardella, leader of the RN’s campaign in next month’s European elections, also called for a “stop with the delirium” on French media and expressed reservations about replacing the destoryed parts of the cathedral with “some kind of contemporary art, modern art, sort of thing”.

Viollet-le-Duc, between innovation and tradition

Eugene Viollet-le-Duc is famous for meticulously detailed work preserving and restoring cathedrals, monasteries and palaces damaged during the French Revolution and left in disrepair for the first half of the 19th century.

He worked on Notre-Dame from 1845 to 1865 and left extensive documentation through letters, work diaries, maps, blueprints, watercolour drawings of architectural entails.

But for all the nostalgia for the spire lost in the fire, Viollet-le-Duc himself has been derided for being too interventionist in his restorations, and the Notre-Dame spire was his own signature on a monument that was already seven centuries old when he worked on it.

Like everything Viollet-le-Duc produced, the Notre-Dame spire bore the hallmarks of 19th century architectural and aesthetic sensibilities, informed and inspired by science and knowledge of the Middle Ages.

“It’s possible to respect the spirit [of the original] but be imaginative,” former Culture Minister Jack Lang told AFP Agency. “Viollet-le-Duc was inventive in his own right.”

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