The Once and Future Notre-Dame de Paris

The cathedral earlier today. Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

The terrible thing about destruction is that it can happen so fast. Almost as soon as the pillar of bilious smoke appeared on the Paris skyline, it seemed foregone that flames would consume the cathedral’s wooden roof, hurl gargoyles to the ground, melt the luminous 13th-century stained-glass windows, and leave a corral of blackened stone. (The final degree of damage is not yet clear; in tonight’s first images, the nave appears to be mostly intact.)

And yet violence can also be slow. This building, a fusion of so many arts, took centuries to complete and began falling apart even before it was finished. Efforts to keep the church intact often caused new wounds, part of a centuries-long dance of healing and damage. The spark that ignited the cathedral Monday appears to have sprung from work being done to repair it.

In 1831, Victor Hugo took a long, dispirited look at Notre-Dame de Paris and uttered a literary howl that shook France. The church, he wrote in the novel that bears its name (and was translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame), “is still no doubt a majestic and sublime edifice. But, though it has been beautifully preserved in growing old, it is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the innumerable degradations and mutilations that time and men have inflicted on the venerable monument … Tempus edax, homo edacior.” Time is a devourer; man devours more.

Collapse and reconstruction are both inscribed in the history of Gothic architecture. In 1940, German bombs tore through Coventry cathedral, which was left as a ruin and replaced by a new structure. In 1944, Allied bombs razed the city of Cologne, and though 14 of them hit the cathedral, it declined to collapse. A few blocks away, the church of St. Kolumba did fall, though; 70 years later, the architect Peter Zumthor embedded its splintered remains into the Kolumba Museum, a reverent and melancholy fusion of the antique and the contemporary. In 1984, fire scoured York Minster, and in the years that followed glaziers repaired the 40,000 cracks it had left in the 17th-century rose window. There is no single proper way to stanch this magnitude of cultural loss.

Buildings of great age and grandeur contain vast repositories of emotion, pooling in the walls and crypts like oil, waiting to geyser into the air. In the 1850s, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the most celebrated architect in France, recalled a dramatic childhood memory of his first experience in Notre-Dame, a synesthetic vision in which sound and structure merged. “The cathedral was hung with black. My gaze rested on the painted glass of the southern rose window, through which the rays of the sun were streaming, colored with the most brilliant hues … All at once the roll of the great organ was heard; but for me, the sound was the singing of the rose window before me … My imagination led me to believe that such or such panes of glass emitted grave and solemn sounds, while others produced shriller and more piercing tones, so that at last my terror became so intense that [a servant] was obliged to take me out.” (At this writing, it’s not clear whether the organ, which was restored in the early 1990s and then again in 2012, or the rose windows have survived.)

That description of spiritual fervor, aesthetic exaltation, infantile fear, or some combination of all three resonates today, not because the building you may have seen on a recent visit to Paris was identical to the one he knew but because it has continued to change. To ancien régime Catholics, it was the seat of Rome’s worldly power in France. To the Revolutionaries of 1789, it was the loathsome source of all that the Church had inflicted on a credulous citizenry. In 1793, France’s Republican government deconsecrated the cathedral and commandeered it as a Temple of Reason, the locus of a secular religion that prized Greek columns and female statues in helmets and long robes but took a dim view of gargoyles and saints. In a city that bore the scars of France’s whipsawing politics, where ideologues invoked the past for whatever utopia they were hoping to fashion, medieval architecture was treated as irrelevant, disreputable, and ugly.

To Victor Hugo, the cathedral’s disrepair was a sign of how thoroughly the French had forgotten their own past. His book launched a revival so sweeping and long-lived that Viollet-le-Duc spent 20 years leading the restoration of Notre-Dame. He saw the project as the wellspring of a new glorious age, mixing history with modern technology. Though he was absorbed in medieval artifacts, he was a thoroughly industrial-age figure, and his advocacy of Gothic style and of iron frames influenced the first few cohorts of American skyscraper builders, including Chicago’s neo-medieval Tribune Tower.

Notre-Dame was an old but living structure, constantly being cleaned, poked, fixed up, and tweaked. It was the gradual, sometimes haphazard accumulation of centuries’ worth of labor. The needlelike spire that collapsed in the fire’s first hours was not the 13th-century original, which had long since been removed by Hugo’s day, but Viollet-le-Duc’s reproduction. The fact that the church wasn’t a pristine relic doesn’t mitigate the loss; it makes it worse.

The challenge now is not whether to rebuild but how. Contemporary technology can help reproduce antique techniques, but it can’t answer a more philosophical question: If the charred pile that greets Tuesday’s dawn is After, then what, precisely, is Before? Surely not the status quo on Monday afternoon, a brittle church of cards already in danger of collapse. Maybe the version that Viollet-le-Duc signed off on in 1864, though that would mean ignoring the many scholars who have criticized his work as fanciful and ahistorical. Which patchings-up get reproduced, and which erased? Should ancient crafts be updated with computer-guided stone-cutting equipment, or tiny shards of glass be microscopically reassembled? Does it make sense to reapply pigments that once gave sculptures a polychrome glow but later faded away, or to wipe away not just yesterday’s layers of ash but also decades’ worth of patina, and scrape right down to pale stone? In 2014, the critic Martin Filler visited Chartres cathedral after a restoration so energetic that he found the results horrifying, “like some funeral parlor in Little Italy.”

These are not new polemics. Even as the renovation of Notre-Dame was under way in the mid-1800s, the architectural sage John Ruskin wrote that the restoration was a form of betrayal. The word “signifies the most complete destruction that an edifice can suffer … It is impossible, as impossible as it is to bring the dead back to life, to restore whatever might have been grand or beautiful in architecture … The enterprise is a lie from the beginning to the end.”

As seen by the painter J.F. Depelchin in 1789. Illustration: Photo Josse/Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

Whether honest and sensitive or garish and crude, restoration is never just about reclaiming the past; it’s about applying today’s values to the foundations that neglect and disaster leave behind. Is it better to leave ruins as romantic reminders that even thousand-year-old buildings can die (like, say, Fountains Abbey) or to re-create a destroyed monument at 1:1 scale (as the East German government did with Dresden’s Hofkirche)? That argument will rage even before the embers have cooled.

There is a point where rebuilding becomes simulation, when all the meticulousness in the world can’t keep the outcome from looking false. And so, if the structure has been too weakened to shore up, the cry may come from some corners to let Paris’s ruined cathedral stand as is and erect a Notre-Dame that is new in spirit as well as in its materials. That, after all, is how past centuries dealt with obliteration: the glorious chain of Baroque churches that loops around Sicily is the aftermath of an earthquake in 1693 that flattened the island’s towns. Maybe the next Notre-Dame should show the future what the 21st century could do.

Meanwhile, even in grief, the cathedral continues to accumulate layers of meaning. Until yesterday, the church was a symbol of Paris as a magnetic city, drawing 13 million visitors a year. Today it offers a lesson in fragility and loss. Perhaps years from now, a rebuilt Notre-Dame could represent the resourcefulness of a society determined to fold its history into the future.

On the Once and Future Notre-Dame