Occasionally, the disparate parts of one’s life are tied up in a giant bow. That’s happened to me this week with the inferno at Notre Dame in Paris.
I’ve been thinking about symbolism within building design since my college years. I was a medievalist, studying the allegories hidden within the architecture and art of Christian Europe. Among other, mostly French, buildings, I spent a lot of time looking at and thinking about Notre Dame, reveling in the wit and skill that was visible only if one looked closely.
After college, I proceeded to study “historic preservation,” which has achieved new relevance this week, after the destruction of Notre Dame’s roof and the dramatic toppling of its spire (flèche). There have been numerous articles in the global press about how the fire started and spread. I don’t need to summarize them here, because there’s such an illustrative article in the New York Times.
So suddenly, the expertise required to restore the cathedral, which is “irreplaceable, of course” is of great interest to the world. Rightly so, because this building is one of the premier achievements of Western civilization.
All countries throughout the world are filled with built monuments to their civilizations, including those in Palmyra and other Syrian cities. Many – maybe not all – of these buildings deserve to be cared for and maintained as testimonies of the cultures that produced them; but this is a concept that has eluded a vast number of people within the United States and beyond.
The lack of understanding of this concept has led to many “landmark battles” throughout American communities, as well as to debates over such issues as “property rights.” The response this week to the conflagration at Notre Dame should be considered as a prime case of the public’s “property rights” to the centuries of history and tradition embodied in this cathedral. And the enormous sums of money already committed by some of the world’s billionaires implicitly confirm the public interest in restoring such monuments of civilization. So it’s laudable that we can hope to see Notre Dame restored to something resembling the glory it’s been known for. Among other people, we have the brilliant architectural historian Andrew Tallon to thank for that.
I have one other thought. In 1840, the architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (often known now as “Viollet”) was engaged by a recently formed Commission on Historical Monuments to “restore” numerous churches in France. It’s been well-documented that his work to bring these buildings back to their original design was often… fanciful. So, to look on the bright side, Notre Dame now presents the French government the chance to show us what the building’s Gothic glories REALLY looked like.