Can French politicians make Notre Dame great again?

PARIS — It has been two months since a fire at the start of Holy Week destroyed the roof of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral. The large gothic structure now sits, enveloped in scaffolding, as a part of the low-rise Parisian skyline. The 300-foot spire that once appeared to stretch out to heaven is missing. These are constant reminders of that April 15 blaze and the hard work that lies ahead.

Rebuilding the ornate cathedral will be a painstaking task. Estimated to cost in the billions, Notre Dame has also become a pawn in a broader political fight that has divided France and much of the continent. In a country so politically polarized — the outcome of the recent European election was another reminder of this — the fate of Notre Dame very much rests in the hands of the country’s warring lawmakers.

There has been much speculation since the accidental fire over what will happen to the 12th century structure. A symbol of European Catholicism and Western civilization since the Middle Ages, a tug-of-war has traditionalists and modernists divided over what is the best way to rebuild.

“I think that some of the proposals are quite interesting, in particular, the notion of creating a very large glass skylight. If that were done to be a modern version of stained glass, I think it could be absolutely beautiful,” said architect Brett Robillard. “Stained glass was something of the first ‘films’ with light moving through pictures. So I think there is real poetry there to see modern technology paid homage to something so embedded in the religious spectrum and fill the spaces with beautiful light.”

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A PEDIDOS, EM PORTUGUÊS "Apenas um propósito religioso! Nossa proposta para a restauração da Catedral de Notre Dame é usar um único elemento, o vitral (Vitrail). A maior característica gótica, utilizando materiais da mais recente tecnologia. Toda a cobertura é feita em vitral, incluindo a torre, com transparência para o lado interno, através da abertura das abóbadas, deixando apenas as estruturas de arcobotantes. No gótico, o vitral significa a conexão da terra ao céu, e dentro da catedral a iluminação natural se multiplica em cores através do colorido filtro dos vidros. À noite, a iluminação interior torna-se uma grande cobertura retroiluminada. Um único elemento usado, vitral. Sem grandes características arquitetônicas, sem elementos de intervenção (redesign), sem ego de arquitetos e sem aspirações artísticas. Acho que temos que respeitar a característica da Catedral e especialmente o significado dela! A mais importante característica do nosso projeto é o significado interno e não o externo! A maior característica gótica é o vitral e o seu significado para o interior! O que importa para a Catedral é o ambiente interno e seu significado. O vitral transforma a iluminação interna, este é o significado maior do estilo gótico! A cobertura de vitral feita por vários artistas importantes da França e do mundo é a representação do futuro da humanidade, símbolo da união dos povos e da paz. O vitral é a conexão do passado, da história da Catedral, do estilo gótico com o futuro! A restauração em vitral é apenas o que não pôde fazer no passado e hoje temos a tecnologia para isso! Uma cobertura grandiosa que podemos dizer que é uma coroa para a Catedral, uma coroa divina (La Couronne Divine). Amém" Alexandre Fantozzi @notredamedeparis @alexandre_fantozzi @carvalho.juf @aj6studio #notredame #notredameparis #paris#france #aj6 #aj6studio #notredameproposal #morewithless #vitral #stainedglass #vitrail#arquitetura #architecture#architettura #saintgobain#saintgobainbr #glass #verre#lilysafra #restauration #notredesign #restoration #fantozzi #alexandrefantozzi #design #designer #iluminationdesign #stainedglasswindows #manhattanconexion #divinewreath

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Should Notre Dame be restored it to its former Medieval glory or reflect a more modern aesthetic? This is at the center of the fight. Despite the debate, the country’s senate recently passed a resolution stipulating that the cathedral must be rebuilt to the “last known visual state.” While the senate measure is just a first step, exactly what it means for the restoration of the spire and roof also remains open to debate.

In the days after the fire, The Guardian quoted the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, stating that the hope was for “a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era.” It is there where some gaudy renderings started popping up on Instagram. The bill, however, did strike a blow to those in the government who wanted to use an international competition allowing them to consider less traditional options.

President Emmanuel Macron called for “an inventive reconstruction,” although he has not offered up any specifics. On the other hand, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a member of the Socialist party, has said she backs an identical restoration, calling herself “conservative” on the issue. However, that hasn’t stopped some architectural firms from throwing out some wildly imaginative plans, including the construction of a public swimming pool on the cathedral’s rooftop. 

“Some of the proposals I’ve seen — the swimming pool for example — are hard to take seriously,” Robillard said. “Overall, I think that the building already has a legacy of being adapted and renovated through different ages, so doing something that is representative of our present day is not only appropriate, I think it’s the right thing to do. Creating something that is mimicking the past is, in my opinion, never a good strategy.”

Macron has said — and the senate bill confirmed — the plan is for the cathedral to be rebuilt in time for when the French capitol hosts the Summer Olympics in 2024. It remains an ambitious timetable. Notre Dame has been the property of the French government since 1789, although there is an agreement in place stipulating that the Catholic church has exclusive rights to its use. At the same time, over $1 billion has already been pledged through a series of large and small donations, although architects and preservation experts have warned against speeding up the restoration process.

Despite Macron’s stance to quickly want to rebuild, the issue has not helped him politically. Yellow vest protestors, who have taken to the streets against the president since last November over increased taxes, have used the accidental fire in their latest street demonstrations. At one recent protest, one of the protestors carried a sign that read: “Millions for Notre-Dame? What about for the poor?” Another sign — a reference to Victor Hugo’s famous novel — read: “Everything for Notre Dame, nothing for Les Miserables.” In solidarity, some right-wing politicians, in an effort to strike a more populist tone, have questioned Macron’s accelerated timeline and motivations for wanting to spend so much money on the cathedral’s reconstruction.


Academics are also unhappy with Macron. Last month, a group of researchers and scientists said they want a part in the cathedral’s restoration and use it as a chance to learn about the past. They have created the “Notre Dame Project,” which the group of 50 researchers said would work to identifying “conservation and restoration needs in terms of science and technology and develop studies in broader topics relating to the monument as well as how the event was felt within society.”

“This catastrophe is, in the end, a privileged moment for research because we’ll have access to materials that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to access,” said Martine Regert, deputy scientific director at the Paris-based Institute of Ecology and Environment at the French national research agency CNRS.

The agency said it opposed the bill because it allowed the French government to bypass city planning and strict environmental rules. The French parliament, meanwhile, continues to debate the issue. Another version of the bill, passed by the National Assembly, has a modification in it regarding tax breaks for donations made to the restoration. As a result, the dueling bills have increasingly created discord between lawmakers. The bill can only become law once reconciliation is reached by both chambers.

For a country that has seen a rash of church vandalism, Notre Dame’s fate matters. Only an estimated two percent of French Catholics attend Mass each week, which means that France’s attachment to secularism has resulted in its churches being typically empty. But Notre Dame attracts lots of visitors — an estimated 12 million do so each year — and that could become a tourism problem for Paris in the coming years.

When officials proposed a plan earlier this spring that called on excess funds meant for Notre Dame be diverted to build houses of worship for other faiths, right-wing political parties made a fuss.

The Diocese of Paris, which has little say or sway in the restoration process, will hold a special Mass at Notre Dame this Saturday — featuring just 20 prelates and other church officials — in a “side chapel with a restricted number of people, for obvious security reasons.” The service will take place to coincide with the two-month anniversary of the fire. The diocese is also awaiting a response from authorities over whether it can re-open the plaza in front of the cathedral to the public. The plan, the diocese said, is to hold prayer services there in the evenings.

Overall, the political fight over Notre Dame that has engulfed France is less about religion and aesthetics and more about bureaucracy and process. Caught in the middle is the Catholic church and those who choose to visit and pray there. Nonetheless, the bickering has undermined Macron’s timeline and thrown into chaos what Notre Dame will look like once a plan is agreed upon. The cathedral’s future remains a question mark. A bigger question, some say, is whether a nation so attached to this cathedral can rebuild it properly when so few of its citizens actually worship in it.

In a rebuke against adding any modern touches to Notre Dame, Jorge Otero-Pailos, the director of historic preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, questioned the whole idea behind a contest to design the fallen spire. In a piece for The Art Newspaper, Otero-Pallos  commented that “heritage is a bottom-up social process through which we make and remake our society.”

“If you thought the fire was bad,” he added, “wait for the damage from the spire that will come out of the competition.”