Churches catch fire. They are subjected to aerial bombardment. They sink beneath floods, they are bulldozed. They are struck by lightning, shaken by earthquakes, and buried by volcanic ash. In the wake of such events, a number of possibilities present themselves. As sacred buildings – often ones attributed with great cultural and aesthetic significance – they are rarely abandoned to the forces that ravaged them. Even if they are left as ruins, they are shored-up, often garnished with a garden, to function as a memorial to the catastrophe. Sometimes, the ruins are adapted or added to, thereby retaining a material trace of the events that had destroyed them, as in the case of Coventry Cathedral, or the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche in Berlin. Or they are rebuilt in their entirety, as with the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which was reconstructed after the reunification of Germany (the East Germans had left it as a ruin for 50 years – things change, even in the afterlife).
The case of Paris’s cathedral presents little difficulty in this regard, at least in some quarters. “We’ll rebuild Notre-Dame even more beautifully,” says Macron, and shortly afterwards the French government announced a competition to design a new spire. While this may sound like a characteristic piece of presidential hubris, I can’t say I ever thought it the most beautiful cathedral in the world. The rose windows, yes, great, but they have been saved, and the parts that were destroyed were largely recent additions, it seems. So beautification may indeed be possible. Why not reach for the stars, like M. Macron?
The question of rebuilding ‘even more beautifully’ raises as many questions as it answers
But then the question of rebuilding ‘even more beautifully’ raises as many questions as it answers. By whose standards of beauty? Will we follow the path embarked upon by Notre-Dame’s nineteenth-century restorer, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who thought a kind of caricature the route to Gothic fidelity – the bigger, the more grotesque, the truer (truer, he claimed, than the building as it had come down to us)? Will Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche thus be re-erected, not at his already exorbitant 91 metres, but at, say, 500 metres? And why not cover it with gold?
Like all great designers, on the other hand, Viollet-le-Duc was a pony with more than one trick. Not just a fabricator of ersatz Gothicry, he was also a dreamer of bizarre, incongruous, and utterly unforgettable fantasies of structural engineering. The designs for new buildings that appeared in his Entretiens sur l’architecture featured huge metal members, undisguised by crockets or tracery, holding up stone vaulting. Might we not follow his example and install a pinnacle composed of monstrous tubular struts? Perhaps Richard Rogers, Viollet-le-Duc’s faithful adherent, would oblige. He could even paint them fuchsia if he wanted – a bit of garish polychromy would not be out of place among the work of his predecessor.
Might there not be something in the idea that truth is beautiful?
Or, if neither fantastic medievalising nor structural virtuosity will do, how about turning to the beauty propounded by some other adaptors of Notre-Dame, the Jacobins? For them the beauty of truth, as revealed by human reason, trounced divine revelation and its celebration in stone. And so they turned to the opposite of Gothic, the classical tradition, for a tonic. After emptying Notre-Dame of royal effigies (in the process they sliced off the heads of the disciples, whom they’d mistaken for kings), the revolutionaries adapted the church for the celebration of a new cult: that of reason. For a ‘fête de la raison’ held across the nation on the 10 November 1793, a large, white ‘mountain’ was erected within Notre-Dame, and at its summit, a little Grecian temple engraved with the slogan ‘a la philosophie’. From within this building emerged a woman draped in revolutionary tricolour, the personification of liberty, to receive the adulation of the crowds.
Victims of the state could be memorialised by replacing Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche with – why not? – a graceful minaret
This may all seem a bit silly now – Alain de Botton take note, there’s nothing more fatuous than a temple of atheism – but might there not be something in the idea that truth is beautiful? Not necessarily tectonic truth of the sort preached by Viollet-le-Duc’s descendants, but a more political kind of truth, and hence a more political beauty. To rebuild ‘even more beautifully’ in this regard could mean, for instance, transforming Notre-Dame into a memorial to the generations of peasants who were exploited to fund it, and the heretics murdered by its client. Or, if the barbarism of which this building is a document has grown too cold to trouble us, why not a monument to a more up-to-date form of political truth? How about, in this instance, a monument to le gilet jaune inconnu, complete with a dayglow spire? Or if that seems a little frivolous, what about the approximately 100 Algerians who were killed by the French police while protesting the Algerian War in 1961, many of them thrown into the Seine at the foot of Notre-Dame? These victims of the state could be memorialised by replacing Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche with – why not? – a graceful minaret