PBS has broadcast a brilliant documentary, “Building Notre-Dame,” on the construction, over some 800 years, of the cathedral in Paris. We all know that the building arose as the cutting edge of architecture in the Middle Ages, and that a year after the April fire that destroyed its roof, its spire, and weakened much of its structure, its redpair has been delayed by physical and aesthetic controversy. PBS’s film puts this work into the context of repairs and renovations to the cathedral during and since the middle ages.
It was discovered, after sixty years of building, at a stage of near completion, that the structure had no gutters, no drainage system. It had no way to collect and distribute rainwater – water being the most dangerous natural enemy of architecture. So they hollowed out the church’s flying buttresses so that 7,000 gallons of rainwater in an average storm would shoot out the mouths of the gargoyles, away from the church walls. Engineering the new water system enabled the walls to be raised by six feet, remounting the roof, reconfiguring the windows and their stained glass in a much larger format, larger than ever, painting the statuary and, eventually, adding architect Eugène Violette-le-duc’s famous spire.
“They kept changing their minds,” says Ken Follett, author of the novel Pillars of the Earth, first of a masterful three-volume series. “They had no sense that they were working in an old tradition. They were working at the cutting edge of technology.” He also has a nonfiction book out on Notre-Dame. Victor Hugo’s fictional The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, published in 1831, stirred up public support to save the cathedral.
It is the conceit of today’s architects that they are applying technology to architecture for the first time. What, did something click with the modern era? No. Architects started to conceive of buildings as machines, which is fine, but decided that they needed to look like machines. This was their mistake. They treated function and design as opposing dualities. Beauty was rightly offended and fled, or was ejected from, the project of architecture.
These are my words, not those of the producers of the documentary. Indeed, the documentary gives one instance of the cathedral builders’ applying the virtue of patience to correct one of their more potentially deadly errors. After the portals and two heavy bases of the towers were complete, it was discovered that they were tilting forward, under the strain of thousands of tons of stone walls and statuary. So what did they do? They waited for the ground to reach compression and the tilting to stop, which it kindly did (after how long the docu doesn’t say; nor does it say whether prayer was involved, but rather gives credit to “chance”). They built the towers straight up from there. It worked. You can still see the tilt of the base today.
The documentary opens a view to the complexity of what must be done to restore the beauty of Notre-Dame for tomorrow. I am sure that what has come before will ensure that history is respected by the principles of repair. You cannot watch this film without shuddering at the schemes afoot among modernists today, but you cannot understand this documentary without feeling confidence that the good, the true and the beautiful will prevail.