Comment Opinion & Features

Don’t let architects ruin Notre-Dame

A statue is removed after the inferno

Notre-Dame has been saved from total ruin by the firefighters. The principal relics and works of art were saved too. Commendable bravery all round.

Now a certain courage will be required of the Archbishop of Paris to save Notre-Dame from those who would rebuild it. Early signs are that he may well be up to the challenge.

French President Emmanuel Macron rallied the nation, or at last rallied himself to lead the national mourning over Notre-Dame, promising to rebuild it – “more beautiful” – within five years.

Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris noted that while the president’s address remarked on the “historical” and “spiritual” significance of Notre Dame, it was a little short on its Catholic identity.

“It would have been nice if there had been a little word of compassion for the Catholic community,” Archbishop Aupetit commented the day after the presidential address, which included neither the word “Christian” nor “Catholic”.

“We are aching very badly because of the loss of our cathedral, he added. “This is Holy Week and we shall have to reorganise our prayers completely. It would’ve been nice if there had been a little word of compassion for the Catholic community, because after all, it’s the Catholics who make the Cathedral of Notre-Dame live: it’s not a museum! If so many people come there, it’s because it’s a living space, enlivened by Catholics. And the word ‘Catholic’ is not a swear word. It comes from the Greek ‘universal’. We are here to proclaim a universal fraternity based on love. It’s really no problem to say just a little word of compassion for Catholics who are suffering.”

Archbishop Aupetit will have to get used to speaking a little common sense to those who would rebuild Notre-Dame. The building itself belongs to the French state, which stole it long ago. The exclusive and perpetual use of the building is granted to the Archdiocese of Paris. So presumably both parties will have to agree on how to rebuild.

The temptation of commissioning a grand building is nearly irresistible in France. That’s why there is the Pompidou Centre, commissioned and built in the 1970s, one of the most innovative, intriguing and ugly buildings ever constructed. Then there are the great projects marking the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the pyramid at the Louvre, and La Grande Arche de la Défense. Both of which are admirable and striking, and judged to be highly successful.

So the urge to add something bold and contrasting – like the IM Pei pyramid at the Louvre – to Notre-Dame will have massive support among the French establishment, and the world of celebrity architects.

It can be done. In Toronto, the extension of the Royal Ontario Museum was accomplished by way of “The Crystal”, a massive glass and aluminium asteroid that crashed into the existing Romanesque building.

It will not be possible to stop the momentum for such an approach unless it is shut down before it begins. And the only way to shut it down is for Archbishop Aupetit to announce, loudly, that the archdiocese wishes Notre-Dame to be rebuilt as it was, with the restoration taking advantage of advances in building materials, electrical, ventilation and fire safety. But the roof and the spire will be the same as it was on the Palm Sunday before the Holy Week fire.

In 2005, George Weigel published The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God. Weigel wanted to explore whether a religiously informed public culture, or a secularist one, better provided for the defence of human rights and the common good. He used the architecture of Paris as his departure point.

In the title of this book, the cube is La Grande Arche and the cathedral is Notre-Dame. Weigel was struck that all the promotional material about the Arche notes that the entirety of Notre-Dame – towers, spire and all – could fit into the Arche.

“Which culture, I wondered, would better protect human rights?” Weigel asks. “Which culture would more firmly secure the moral foundations of democracy? The culture that built this stunning, rational, angular, geometrically precise but essentially featureless cube? Or the culture that produced the vaulting and bosses, the gargoyles and flying buttresses, the nooks and crannies, the asymmetries and holy ‘unsameness’ of Notre-Dame and the other great cathedrals of Europe?”

The clash of the two cultures will now physically take place at Notre Dame itself. Will the cathedral be permitted to maintain it near-millennial identity? Or will Notre-Dame be put literally under the ethos of the cube?

Throughout Catholic history, churches subject to fire and other destructive episodes were rebuilt, often bigger, better and more beautiful. Normally, that would be advisable for Notre Dame. But there is too much danger in allowing the spirit of French monumental architecture to waft in between the flying buttresses. The only solution is for Notre Dame to remain the same – yesterday, today and forever.

Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca