Which Notre Dame Should We Rebuild?
And are they going to paint it?
A few weeks ago Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, unexpectedly caught fire, and the blaze destroyed most of the historic church’s roof, including its famed spire. While investigators continue to search for the cause of the blaze, much of the world has rallied behind the tragedy, with donations exceeding $1 billion. That astronomical figure should be more than enough money to cover the restoration and return to monument to its former glory, but repairing a such a famous historical icon is often a matter of more than just restoring it back to the way it was.
For one thing, contractors and historians will have to decide on which version of Notre Dame they want to revive. The cathedral has undergone many restoration efforts over the years, and was even undergoing repairs at the time of the fire. The original version of the cathedral was completed in 1260 CE, and the cathedral has been modified and expanded several times over the ensuing decades. During the French Revolution in the 1790s, revolutionaries looted and desecrated the cathedral, even decapitating many of the stone statues of Marie Antoinette that adorned the building.
The restoration effort that followed in the 1840s, including the creation of the famous spire that was destroyed by the fire, was led primarily by French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. But as Michael Davis, chair of architectural studies and professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College points out, Viollet-le-Duc took some liberties in his job. “In some cases we know he got some details wrong,” says Davis. “So now, does one go in in the 21st century and take advantage of this opportunity to correct what may have been misunderstood? Or does one scrupulously respect the state of the building as it was the morning of April the 15 ?”
Interestingly, there is no universally agreed-upon set of principles or ethics that guide architectural restoration. Many of the decisions tend to be guided by the current trends and opinions of the day. “It’s amazing how variable practices can be. It really seems to change from century to century or even generation to generation,” says Davis. During previous restoration and repairs on Notre Dame, the flavor-du-jour in modern architecture was brutalism, and consequently the cathedral was left grey, unpainted and austere. But despite the dissonance with our modern conception of how the Notre Dame “should” look, the original medieval version of the building was in fact painted.
As sacrilegious as it might seem to paint Notre Dame, Davis points out that there have been other recent restoration project across France that have done just that. “There was a huge argument and controversy around Chartres Cathedral. The Chartres I was raised on was rather grey and dark. Now it’s very frothy. It’s now sort of a very buoyant peach color,” he says. “Some people think Chartres has been ruined forever. Other scholars think this is great—the original architects didn’t set out to build a dirty building.”
Davis admits he hasn’t heard anybody using the fire as a chance to repaint Notre Dame, but we’re still in the early days of the project. For now, most of the effort has centered around assessing the damage to the masonry and structure of the building. Fortunately for the contractors tasked with the rebuild, Notre Dame is one of the most highly studied buildings in the world. The late Andrew Tallon from Vassar College had previously mapped the entire building with laser scanning techniques to provide a picture of the building down to 1 or 2 millimeters in resolution. Davis, who was friends and colleagues with Tallon, says that the scans could provide insight into where Notre Dame was deteriorating before the fire—“areas where the structure is experiencing some distress, walls tipping outwards, arches deforming.” These laser scanning surveys even provided insights into the minds of previous architects who’d worked on restoring and building the church, helping to explain why certain architectural design choices were made in the past, and again raising the question of which version of the building should be restored.