“Building Notre Dame”

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One of the identical rose transept facades at Notre-Dame. (PBS)

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.

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Gargoyle of Notre-Dame. (PBS)

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.

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View of the roof and spire, with the saved towers at left. (PBS)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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3 Responses to “Building Notre Dame”

  1. malcolmmillais says:

    Dear David

    It seems PBS is not available outside the US, well not in Portugal anyway.

    best wishes

    Malcolm

    Às 03:42 de 02-05-2020, Architecture Here and There escreveu: > WordPress.com > David Brussat posted: ” 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 ” >

    Like

  2. LazyReader says:

    Old Adage: You don’t miss something til it’s gone
    THE critique of the modernists is defiance of conventional norms.
    Art Deco is classical now, but a century ago, was the New modern at the time, more outlandish than the classical. Took design cues from China, Japan, Persia, Wright, etc.
    And made use of materials that did not exist just a few years prior..
    – Stainless steel
    – Nickel/chrome
    – Shagreen
    – Plastics
    – Aluminum
    Begs the question “What could classical architects today do with contemporary materials”
    Titanium, composites, carbon fiber.
    Classical or not there’s an entire Host of new building materials out there that’ll revolutionize construction.
    – Self Healing concrete: Produces calcite when it forms a crack to repair the damage
    – Graphene: carbon atoms arranged in hexagonal sheets, only 5% of steels density it’s 200 times it’s tensile strength. Bridge cables that don’t rust.
    – Laminated timber: renewable building material made by mixing epoxies with gluing wood for MUCH stronger columns, houses with Category 5 hurricane resistance. Much higher water/fire resistance than normal wood
    – Transparent aluminum: Once only in star trek, now reality. Aluminum oxynitride is merely Al2O3 mixed with nitrogen in it’s bonds to produce a ceramic that can be polished transparent. Windows with bullet proof rating.
    – Metal foam: metals that have been aerated with bubbles to the texture of a sponge and compacted and hardened. Weigh half that of metal panels of the same thickness. Revolutionize the cladding industry. Titanium foam, water/rust resistant roof panels.

    Why bring it up?
    Also don’t forget Cast Iron architecture a century and a half ago allowed the replication of classical designs in mere hours of production and installation. Mass produced need not mean mass conformity. Those that insist classical is too time consuming and expensive forget modern Technology has in a double edged sword fortunately/unfortunately eliminated most of the labor and time sensitive “Craftsmenship”. Also don’t forget Cast Iron architecture a century and a half ago allowed the replication of classical designs in mere hours of production and installation. Mass produced need not mean mass conformity. If notre dame were made of cast/machined titanium, besides lasting practically forever……would we notice unless we touched it.

    Like

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