After a slew of desecrations and arson of Catholic churches and monuments in France, many people leaped to the conclusion that the April fire in the iconic Notre Dame de Paris must have been a terrorist attack. While many questions remain, the official position of the French government is that the destruction was caused by an electrical short circuit triggered by renovation work. The fire may have been an accident, but President Emmanuel Macron immediately seized the opportunity to do what would have truly been architectural terrorism: rebuild the Notre Dame in a progressive style. Fortunately, the French Senate has struck him down.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, Macron invited architects across the world to submit their ideas for a new roof and spire “consistent with our modern, diverse nation.” Proposals were soon flooding in with designs of glass and steel. They included a swimming pool, an eco-garden, and a windmill; Tom Wilkinson, history editor at Architectural Review, even wanted to replace the spire with an Islamic minaret, because “why not?”
This eagerness to destroy the past is part of the progressive creed. Design critic Stephen Bayley said that “a replica Notre Dame would be a terrible failure of nerve” and that “it would be a travesty to rebuild a badly damaged Notre Dame as a facsimile of the original.” Imagine if someone broke a leg and the doctor declared that it would be a travesty to restore the badly damaged bone as a facsimile of the original. It’s such an absurdity that it is hard to conceive.
The underlying value premise is that everything old is worthless, and value only lies in what is new. In this worldview, there is no continuity across time. Nothing is meant to last. Everything is simply part of one fashion trend after another – a constant churn.
There is, however, a case to be made for making subtle changes and improvements in restoration work. The spire that burned down is only 175 years old and was built as part of a renovation and restoration process, as Notre Dame had fallen into disrepair. The spire was a new addition and, in fact, was a reimagining of the Gothic past as seen from the 19th century. Although the structure was not original, it was executed so respectfully and faithfully that the modern eye cannot imagine it has ever looked any different.
Stronger, fireproof structural material such as steel or carbon fiber could be used subtly as a modern skeleton to hold up a restored past. Rather than a glass roof as many have proposed, subtle use of modern electrical lighting could be utilized to emphasize a restored ceiling. Modest upgrades of this kind would be in line with a conservative approach to progress that would satisfy the criterion of restoration and preservation.
The French Senate put an end to the progressive dream of replacing a Medieval icon with the latest design fashion. It voted to restore the cathedral to its “last known visual state” before being devastated by the fire. That means no swimming pools, windmills, or minarets.
The decision was likely in part monetarily motivated since Paris is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, and Notre Dame one of its greatest attractions. However, it makes sense that the Senate also struck down Macron’s progressive plan because there is a conservative and populist wind sweeping across Europe. People are growing increasingly wary of the gradual erosion of Western civilization. The French are a proud people who have done much to preserve their culture and language. Why would they not also protect their cultural icons?
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