The as yet officially unannounced international design competition on how to repair Notre-Dame de Paris after her extensive damage by fire has already spawned a number of predictably ridiculous proposals. One would replace the roof with a swimming pool intended, it would appear, to collapse what the fire did not. Another proposal comes from Sir Norman Foster.
One proposal that eschews the ridiculous, called “A Vision for Notre Dame,” has emerged from three young architects who met at Notre Dame – that is, in architecture school at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. – and now all work in Atlanta. Two of them, Rene Salas and Jacques Levet, are at Historical Concepts and Reinaldo Hernandez is at Peter Block Architects. Paul Knight, of Historical Concepts, who sojourned in Providence early this decade, has helped spread their idea as expressed in the proposal:
Our Hands need our Minds, guided by the Heart. We support the full restoration of Notre Dame as it stood prior to the tragic fire. Our proposal focuses on how the site surrounding Notre Dame can be used during the restoration process. The rebuilding of Notre Dame should be a public process and the site should convey the important meanings of what has existed there, the traditions that contributed toward its development, and the people that materialized and crafted it.
No doubt every proposal intends to restore (or “restore”) the cathedral. Although the forces arrayed against replication are far from insignificant – modernist architecture is a cult as powerful in France as in America – the likelihood is that the spire and roof will be reproduced consonant with their pre-catastrophe appearance. The institutional forces pushing back against a modernist reconceptualization include the cathedral’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site (described by its former heritage director, Francesco Bandarin), France’s conservation community, and the organized artisans who still know how to do the work. France’s workers are quite capable of exerting pressure on its government (which, by the way, owns Notre-Dame).
So that is heartening. But if the restoration of Notre Dame is to reach its greatest significance, it must contribute to a trend toward beauty that may have its heart in Paris but exists throughout the world. The reconstruction of the cathedral must feed momentum toward a global revival of tradition in architecture. Fortunately, the “Vision for Notre Dame” proposal appears perfectly capable of embracing that mission.
Notre Dame’s restoration should engage the public in that effort. In addition to restoring the cathedral and building a temporary communal building, the “Vision” contemplates erecting a craftsmen’s workshop in the square facing the cathedral. The workshop would introduce the public to the work of hand that reflects the values of construction that have atrophied in recent decades dominated by the bogus “machine age” metaphor that has ripped the heart out of architecture. “Relearning the lessons of history, and the wisdoms of culture,” the proposal reads, “will strengthen our abilities to conceptualize a more dignified and human habitat. The progress of society is inseparable from the traditions that we chose to maintain.” In short:
“How many young people will be inspired by what they may see?”
Precisely. Reconstructions of major historic civic, institutional, commercial and ecclesiastical buildings and squares, and new places designed in the spirit that once made cities great, have been proceeding in Europe and elsewhere for decades. The reconstruction of Dresden’s Frauenkirche district and the construction of a popular new town, Poundbury, in the style of old Britain epitomize both sides of that equation. In the United States, new buildings that recapture beloved old styles are increasingly common (most recently the federal courthouse of Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the style of a Greek temple). No project promises to engage the public’s imagination like that of rebuilding Penn Station as originally designed. (“One entered the city like a god,” said Vincent Scully after its demolition. “One scuttles in now like a rat.”)
Architecture is inherently slow, difficult work, as are the preservation and reconstitution of culture and tradition. But it can be done and should be done. It is likely that if Notre Dame is rebuilt in a mere five years, it will be an epic fail. That must not happen.
Work on Notre Dame may be expected to stir a popular yearning for beauty and grandeur in our cities, and not just in Paris. Coming from Atlanta, with its Millennium Gate, “A Vision for Notre Dame” would add boosters to this aspiration for a renewed pride in place that has taken all too many years to regenerate. Let’s wish “Vision” well in the upcoming competition.