President Macron’s speech to the French nation about the fire that destroyed so much of Notre Dame contained a terrible threat: he said that the cathedral would be rebuilt, to be even more beautiful than before. This might seem an innocuous, even laudable aim, but the announcement of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe that a competition would be held to design “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time” should send a chill down the spine of anyone familiar with the efforts of modern architects in Paris, the effects of which can be seen all around the city.
The monumental public buildings constructed using techniques to meet the challenges of our time include the Centre Pompidou, the Tour Montparnasse, the Opéra Bastille, the Musée du quai Branly, and the new Philharmonie, each one of which would gain at least an honorable mention in a competition for ugliest building in the world. The Bibliothèque nationale de France was largely rehoused using the techniques of our time, which included failure to notice that the damp caused by a low water table and sun shining directly through walls of glass were not very good for fifteenth-century books. As for the post-World War II vernacular, with its curtain walls and ribbon windows, it is universally depressing, a single one of its buildings being able to ruin the harmony of an entire street, and in fact often doing so. In central Paris, modern architecture is vandalism; in the suburbs, it is hell.
Viollet-le-Duc’s nineteenth-century spire and other alterations of Notre-Dame were not without their critics, both on aesthetic grounds and those of inauthenticity: but at least he was trying to be medieval. When one contemplates the sheer narcissism of modern architects, particularly of the star variety, when called upon to make additions to older buildings, one cannot help but feel that a strict restoration would be safer—there should be no competition, except among craftsmen and those who can suggest new ways to make old appearances. To let a starchitect anywhere near Notre-Dame would be—dare a nonbeliever say it—sacrilege.
President Macron said that he wanted the cathedral restored within five years—in time for the opening of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. It would be hard to think of a more kitsch idea in the Soviet tradition than this. No one would want the restoration to take longer than necessary, of course, but it should not take less time than needed, either. There is a provinciality in time as well as in place, as Macron illustrates only too well.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images