Ever since its rooftop and spire were destroyed in the 15 April fire, Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral has become a particularly malleable symbol, used by everyone from atheists to Catholics, protestors to politicians, the French to Americans, in order to push forward their own sociopolitical agendas.
Yellow-vest (gilets jaunes) protestors, for instance, have taken President Emmanuel Macron’s dubiously optimistic claim that the cathedral will be rebuilt within five years as evidence that he cares more about a building than about their constant and increasingly impossible set of demands, propelling them to continue their protests even through the Easter weekend. Stateside, after three historically black churches in Louisiana burned down (or were burned down – police officials found ‘suspicious elements’ in each) in under a fortnight, a number of American pundits lamented that too few cared about these churches compared to Notre-Dame, even though, since the Notre-Dame fire, the GoFundMe campaign to rebuild them spiked from USD$50,000 in donations to currently over USD$2.15 million, eclipsing its USD$1.8 million goal and seeming to prove that there has been an outpouring for both the French landmark and the American churches.
But nothing has riled up the political flames of the Notre-Dame situation quite like the discussions over how it might be rebuilt. For starters, it’s set to be expensive: pre-tax estimates range between USD$330 and USD$670 million, according to the Union of French Construction Economists. Up to a billion euros is estimated to have already been pledged, dominated by wealthy French business families, like the Pinaults, Arnaults, and Bettencourts.
The principle debate, however, surrounds the style of the renovation.
Macron’s claim of five years, if he holds to it – and he might: Paris is hosting the Olympics in 2024 – would almost certainly guarantee a modernized reconstruction, if for no other reason than the speed and efficiency that a modern reconstruction would permit.
Just finding and shipping materials appropriate for a reconstruction that matches the cathedral’s original Gothic style would likely last far longer than five years. Given that there were 13,000 beams made of ancient oak in the ceiling, all of which burned, that’s about 3,000 trees of a kind that don’t exist plentifully anymore. When Notre-Dame was originally built, ‘it was possible to find huge amounts of beautiful strong oak, but overuse of the material led to the destruction of many of Europe's oak forests,’ Emily Guerry, a senior lecturer in Medieval European History at the University of Kent, said in an interview. ‘The ability to find around 3,000 more big, strong trees in the next two decades is going to be tricky.’
Two decades! Macron’s five-year proposal would therefore be all but impossible if the renovations adhere to the church’s original materials. Even the cathedral’s stone, which originally came from quarries in Normandy, would take years to source, let alone to put in by hand, according to Guerry, who estimated that the total reconstruction time could be close to 40 years.
This timeline, though, is only relevant if the reconstruction is done in a way that is faithful to the original building. Last week, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said the French government would be launching an international competition to design and implement a new spire, and Macron, for his part, said he would not be against ‘a contemporary architectural gesture.’ Marine Le Pen and those on the Catholic and conservative right pounced on this, trying to depict Macron as disrespecting French history. Over a news story about Macron’s ‘contemporary’ comment, Le Pen tweeted ‘#TOUCHEPASNOTREDAME’ (‘#Don’tTouchNotreDame’).
Several of the floated ‘modern design’ ideas sound outlandish. Take the one proposed by Conc3rde, a Dutch design company, which suggested 3-D printing the parts that were lost in the fire. Using the ashes from the fire, the design firm claimed it could create a ‘3-D printable powder’ that would visually match the original materials. ‘The powder will have the colour of the Parisian stone yellowish grey, mixed with the charred remains of the wood,’ reads the company’s proposal, which they publically posted on Medium. ‘We can then use this powder, together with the existing 3-D scans, and directly 3-D print the lost parts of the Notre Dame.’
Ultimately, it will be the political calculus of an already largely disliked president that will determine the future of a 12th-century building – a particular shame. If the French government, which technically owns Notre-Dame, decides on a contemporary design, they will be making a serious error in failing to grasp how the historical significance of Notre-Dame is largely wrapped up in its original architecture, in the ability to touch and to see that which was made centuries ago – a portal to another world. Whatever they do though, I hope the words ‘3-D scanner’ aren’t involved.
Main image: The steeple and spire engulfed in flames collapses as the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral burns on 15 April 2019 in Paris. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt