In reactions to the burning of Notre-Dame de Paris, one can see a sadness that is distinct from the direct horror of destruction. Unlike warzones such as Syria, or tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire, the grief surrounding Notre Dame is less about human pain and more about the role these structures play in creating our sense of permanence. They give us a taste of temporal continuity that outlasts our lives, and so what to do when they are destroyed is a question with existential overtones.
Thankfully, from what we can see at this point the cathedral has had a lucky escape: the conflagration has burned away most of the timber roof, the spire has collapsed, and some vaults have been punctured. But images from the nave show the interior largely undisturbed and the magnificent rose windows still in place beneath, and it seems that unlike the Glasgow School of Art or the National Museum of Brazil, whose interiors and contents were both gutted last year, the loss has been limited.
But even so, the temptation has been to quickly reach for the metaphor. Any building on fire is a potent symbol, and so far I’ve seen attempts to tie the fire to Emmanuel Macron’s unpopularity and the Gilet Jaunes movement, Brexit and turmoil in the EU, and climate change. More sinisterly, alt-right figures have insinuated skullduggery, feeding off the strange link often made between architectural tradition and racial purity. For them, the burning cathedral represents Christianity – whiteness itself is under threat from “others”.
Macron has already promised to do what it takes to repair the cathedral, and as part of a UNESCO site the will and means is presumably there. But which particular version of a heritage building to restore, and what that might mean, are very difficult questions, especially when those who built the cathedral are long deceased. Misunderstandings can become canonical – take for example the shimmering paleness of neoclassicism, based on complete ignorance of how Greek marble architecture once appeared.
Medieval buildings like Notre-Dame present many problems like these. The primary issue is simply how long they took to build. The grand building projects of medieval Europe involved travelling teams of masons who would work on projects for generations, often moving on when work slowed in any one place, and thus different designers and clients guided projects that were consistently worked upon for many hundreds of years. Notre-Dame itself was reasonably swift by the standards of the period, the bulk of the work taking a mere century or so from the 1160s onwards, and it has a consistency of form that many buildings (such as the jumble that is Canterbury Cathedral) lack.
Even after consecration, the great cathedrals were subject to centuries of bodging and patchwork, leaving them filled with much that would now strike us as anachronistic. Changes in liturgy and architectural style led to great alterations in interior arrangements, and before heritage and preservation became concepts, people would have understood buildings like Notre-Dame as important working parts of the city infrastructure, which just happened to be hundreds of years old.
But the 19th century saw huge changes in the understanding of cathedrals. The combination of new industrial wealth, a new “scientific” approach to archaeology, and a moralistic attachment to medieval architecture led to a spate of works on medieval buildings, which were increasingly deteriorating in newly polluted city air. Architects like George Gilbert Scott in the UK were responsible for transforming hundreds of churches into idealised versions of themselves, frequently with little genuine understanding of the architecture in question.
France’s equivalent was Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, an architect and theorist who worked on Notre-Dame from the 1840s. He ripped out ostentatious Louis XIV marble interiors, created neo-gothic altars, and inserted new windows. He added piles of statuary to the exterior (including his own likeness as St. Thomas) and designed a completely new spire and fleche, whose collapse gave us the key image from the fire.
This practice, known as “restoration” as opposed to “preservation”, was even then widely criticised by figures as diverse as John Ruskin and Marcel Proust, but it has left us today with something we now generally understand as great medieval architecture. You might say that what was damaged yesterday was a fairy-tale vision of what was once a far more dynamic structure, but this inauthentic form still has an important role to play as an icon of French history. Today, Notre-Dame de Paris may stand in ruins, but we’ll likely soon see it returned to how it recently stood: long-lasting, but oddly out of time.