The rebirth of a Gothic icon
Design therapy seems to be part of Notre-Dame’s recovery, but what does an ideas competition reveal about its future?
The April 15, 2019 fire at Notre-Dame de Paris might not only serve as a caution against failed protocols, a paean to brave firefighters, or even a caveat to bad luck. It might also serve as the most public and accessible debate about architecture in a generation that will echo far beyond the experiences of 13 million or more people who will attend the site to observe the damage this year. This debate has largely centered on stewardship by voices in a global design community, even if its interpretation seems to divide observers.
It took mere hours after the fire for French President Emmanuel Macron to declare that the roof and spire would be rebuilt. In the following weeks, designers and provocateurs offered up swimming pools and discothèques as options for the roof in the spirit of innovation, which fueled an international debate about probity and Parvis Notre-Dame at the symbolic heart of the country.
It seemed as if the debate had concluded when French senators added a clause on May 28 to a National Assembly reconstruction bill that forbade radical changes to the cathedral’s appearance in an effort to quell voices who wished, as Macron did, to encourage creative solutions to the singular problem of saving Notre-Dame.
This being France, however, debates tend to linger on for a while, and the National Assembly traded versions of the bill (and barbs) with the Senate over this issue of aesthetics and integrity, while also ironing out several thorny issues related to building codes and how to accommodate nearly $1 billion in donation pledges. On July 16, the final bill passed by a large majority of 99 to 33 (with eight abstentions): the Ministry of Culture will work to preserve the historic and architectural “interest” of the cathedral, but will not prescribe the “form” of the new roof or spire. In other words, the door seemed to be propped open for creative solutions for the near term. It would be anyone’s game.
In the meantime, there has been one serious proposal—not for the cathedral, per se, but for a temporary worship space. Le Pavillon de Paris, Gensler's concept for the forecourt of Notre-Dame de Paris, is basically an airy, luminous box that seems to hover over the cobbles. Its cross-bracing on the exterior is backlit by a soft inner glow, and the sanctuary within offers parishioners the steady hand of daily mass amid the din of street life.
But, in the end, it’s still a box that, if constructed, will be a welcome salve for parishioners and a useful way to diffuse nearly 13 million annual visitors. The idea was commissioned by Notre-Dame’s Bishop Patrick Chauvet in May to accommodate up to 800 worshipers with flexible seating and a unique focal point: behind the temporary altar, its eastern wall opens to reveal the damaged cathedral beyond—part stage-set, part beacon, part memento mori, part cautionary tale.
What, then, for Notre-Dame, itself? While the debate will continue in the coming months, there are a few early ideas proffered not by French architects, but by a global cadre of designers.
Bucking “big-name firms and closed-door meetings”
In the weeks following the fire, the small, independent publisher GoArchitect launched an ideas competition open to anyone to reimagine the damaged and lost parts of Notre-Dame. “We can't leave this up to the big-name firms and closed-door meetings,” the competition brief read. “Notre-Dame was a cathedral for the people and its future should be influenced by the people. This design competition will do everything in its power to demonstrate to the decision makers that designers from all over the world deserve a chance.”
“Notre-Dame was a cathedral for the people and its future should be influenced by the people." -GoArchitect's "People's Notre-Dame Competition" brief
More than 30,000 people reportedly voted on 226 project submissions before the competition ended on June 30, and the winning proposal by Chinese designers Zeyu Cai and Sibei Li, called “Paris Heartbeat,” featured a new spire composed of hundreds of mirrors (that, when viewed from the inside, offers a kaleidoscopic view of the city outside). At the spire’s peak, they encased a time capsule, to be opened every 50 years, and held in place by magnetic levitation.
What’s the big idée, here, anyway? For Cai and Li, designers at the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it is about the reflective power of glass so that “people can see the city around [them] with the portrait of themselves at the focal point,” according to Cai and Li. “Space and time tangled together in this illusory space.”
One wonders if illusory space will require 3D or 4D glasses, or how queueing would work for 13 million people to pass beneath a giant kaleidoscope where the altar is supposed to be. One wonders how the church would function under these conditions at all.
“In our personal understanding,” says Cai, “the ultimate meaning for people to go to church could be [to] find a leading voice, and this voice may finally come from people themselves.”
But, the reflexive power of hubris isn’t new to the Île de la Cité, nor is it new to Notre-Dame, as the work of Eugène-Emanuel Viollet-le-Duc illustrates. Can “the people themselves” know best when it comes to the future of Notre-Dame?
Pour le peuple, par le peuple
In addition to Cai and Li’s winning proposal, GoArchitect “People’s Notre-Dame Competition” announced five other finalists who hail from Canada, Japan, the UK and the US. When you look at their entries in relation to nine additional honorable mentions, one thing is abundantly clear about the Gothic apotheosis Notre-Dame: opus francigenum, once France’s greatest export, is no longer sacred, but fungible.
Consider the license these finalists and honorable mentions took: An infinity pool surrounded by runic follies; a roof garden billed as a “floating forest;” a sharp, Brihadisvaran spire clad in actual feathers; a, thin, conical spire encircled by an iridescent double-helix.
Geometry in Medieval France was not just a practical way to speak a universal architectural language. It was a professional calling card for architects, and their mastery of geometry ensured the structural and aesthetic correctness of the buildings they created. To invent a new roof and a new spire at Notre-Dame runs counter not just to the cathedral’s historic context, but to the precision of geometrical correctness, itself.
But, for competition finalist Rogerio Carvalheiro, Assoc. AIA, innovation and context aren’t mutually exclusive, but complementary. His untitled concept centers on an inflatable, translucent fiberglass roof supported by a stainless-steel frame, which resembles the lost roof in form and has the benefit of being luminescent, inside and out—as an interior lighting source and as a giant lantern for the neighborhood. Carvalheiro, an architect based in LA and a vice chair for the West Hollywood Planning Commission, chose not to replace the spire at all, but instead he proposed a holographic projection to take its place.
"During the day, the purists can have their church, with the projection switched off, and at night, the modernists—I call them modernists— can have their spire,” he says.
Notably, Carvalheiro's proposal is intended to be a temporary way to protect the interior of the building while a more permanent solution can be secured for the 800-year old cathedral.
"In the end, this cathedral belongs to France and to Paris and its people, but we live in a global world, and I see Notre-Dame the way I see the Taj Mahal or Big Ben, which have become part of our global culture,” he says. “If 13 million visit Notre-Dame each year, that’s 13 million annually sharing a collective experience and relationship with the cathedral. As a global citizen, I have been moved by this building over the course of my life multiple times. And that inspired me to act.”
In conjuring “the people,” Carvalherio, as well as Cai and Li, have also conjured an important fact about iconic buildings like Notre-Dame: What is public is really quite personal, and what feels personal to us about a shape or an image or an experience is multiplied by however many members of the public visit each year.
This tacit agreement between two worlds—public and private—points to another truth, according to GoArchitect CEO Joshua Sanabria, “Most of what Notre-Dame is—it’s a really good story that includes Disney movies and actual history, and everything in between.”
Sanabria conceived the competition in response to proposals published online by architects and designers trying to make sense of the April 15th fire and what, if anything, a new roof and spire could represent. GoArchitect sells themed notebooks and at least one children’s book, Norman’s Architecture Adventure, authored by Sanabria. Sponsoring a competition and capturing the resulting designs was a creative decision for the designer with an M.Arch. from Andrews University, as well as a practical one.
“Anytime you see a strong emotional reaction, it’s a signal from a business perspective,” he says. “Notre-Dame comes down to political decision making, and I was curious about what people really wanted. So, I figured, let’s open it up—let’s make it free—and let’s open it up even more to let people vote.”
Sanabria launched a Kickstarter campaign in July to publish a hardcover book featuring all 226 entries, but the campaign’s $27,500 minimum for contributions was out of reach, although he managed to get about one third of the way to his goal. On August 15, he scrapped the campaign and scaled down the book to feature the top 50 entries, which Sanabria is currently selling on GoArchitect’s site. Even if he’s had to amend his plans to publish the results of the competition, Sanabria remains optimistic that how Notre-Dame is perceived as a larger-than-life story in and of itself will be just as important as how it’s regarded as a historic cathedral in the middle of the Seine River.
“It’s visited by millions of people every year. I bet few of them are French. So, it has a larger than life, iconic, symbolic power, and it touches people from everywhere,” he says. “They can rebuild it as it was—that’s fine, okay. But, if they don’t, it should involve some consideration for how people see and use it in today’s environment.”
Is the past a foreign country?
After returning to Paris in 1800, just four years before the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte on the steps of Notre-Dame, François-René de Chateaubriand lamented, “the graveyards with never a cross and the headless statues of saints.” The last chapter of Notre-Dame’s story before the April 2019 fire began at this moment, after the craven but justified revolutionaries spent the better part of a decade sacking the city and maiming anything remotely having to do with officialdom. “Walls had been brought down and shacks built upon the girdle of market gardens,” writes the historian Alistair Horne, in the Seven Ages of Paris. “A worn, wrecked and exhausted city, Paris now smelt more of filthy mud and sewage than she had at the worst moments of the Middle Ages.”
Notre-Dame, itself, had been vandalized almost beyond repair and continued to be neglected for years after the revolution by its new owner, l'état, until Victor Hugo’s portrayal of the courageous Quasimodo Sunday appeared in 1830 to wide acclaim. The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the love story and Romantic tragedy before it became a Disney movie, was not only popular with readers, but galvanized what can only be considered the birth of the modern preservation movement in France. Less than a decade later, the government launched a competition to restore its façade, handily won by Viollet-le-Duc and his colleague, the architect Jean-Baptiste Lassus. So began another story within a story—an imagined Medieval past cast in iron and carved in stone, which became the basis of a new cathedral, of sorts. This is the story we know today, and the story that was irretrievably altered on April 15.
With stories as potent as this—and perhaps there is none more potent than Notre-Dame’s—can we write future chapters upon this palimpsest? All it takes is one good idea, it seems, but a better story might be the conversation it creates.
“My neighbors in Los Angeles, who are from France and live in Paris some of the time—they respect my proposal,” says Carvalheiro. “But, they also can’t let go of what’s appropriate [at Notre-Dame]. “For me,” he says, “my proposal is an idea. It’s the start of a dialogue that can raise possible solutions.”
William Richards is a writer and architectural historian based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Revolt and Reform in Architecture’s Academy: Urban Renewal, Race, and the Rise of Design in the Public Interest (Routledge, 2017) and the forthcoming Living in Nature: Bamboo Houses and Design (Princeton Architectural Press).
Zeyu Cai and Sibei Li