Notes on Notre Dame

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Still from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , 2004

The April 2019 fire of Notre Dame received more coverage than any fire in history. The question of what to do with the building going forward started just days after the fire, a debate not too uncommon around reconstruction projects. 

The reactionary consensus is to rebuild the cathedral as it was, stone for stone. This is an incredibly difficult and tedious process, never mind the practical problems of making the spire and the roof again in flammable materials of wood and lead. Since the news, many architecture firms have come out with their ideas about how to rebuild the church. It is a cornucopia of nauseous green roofs, crystal shards and comical fantasies; none coming even close to recognizing the historical burden and the exemplary force the addition has to carry. The history and memory associated with a cathedral like Notre Dame, now transformed from time, by time and with it, is a challenging task to address. But address we must. The discussion surrounding the rebuilding of Notre Dame will have a considerable impact on future projects of the kind because of the popularity the issue has gained.

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"One ignores what happened, the moment it is resurrected"

History does not like to be erased. There is certainly no denying the power of motifs, words, symbols and realities, but revivalism has great potential for subversive damage. What would then be the nature of an architecture that is in sufficient tension to the remaining building and one that does not dissolve into a pastiche. No one has the answer, yet. The most appalling way to treat a historical landmark is to erase the history of the building's dismemberment. Because then the symbol of what it represented prior to the events holds more power than history itself. It cannot redeem itself and achieve transcendence, just because it was preserved and revived. One ignores what happened, the moment it is resurrected. It can never die. Never fall in the grave to be revered. To make the cathedral as it was, revive the spire in its exact form is ensuring its stagnation. 

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Plan du quartier de Notre Dame, 1875 - 1882, lithograph, 24 x 30 cm

What about the green roof proposals that we see left and right? It is not contestable. It is difficult, at the least. Because you can't criticize a green roof for its misplacement and come out of it looking like a good architect. 'Good' meaning, progressive or ethical, willing to sacrifice the personal cause for a higher one. Green roofs are neutral and dumb. They have no architectural effects and no canon to fall back on. It does not fall into coherence or tension with the building. The building becomes indifferent to its addition and we lose the potential of architecture's occurrence. Why would one pay such a high price for something that is essentially just a shed with pretty green things as a hat. Might as well just fill a concrete slab on top of the building and puncture for light. So is the glass roof the answer? Glass has been interpreted by many to be synonymous with mass production and mindlessness of the new world. It is the phallic guilt of the modern city. So our old structures, our homes, our true identity, which stopped just before the first glass building stood on the skyline, contesting the Eiffel, must be protected. We must in the horror of generic, everyday and pedestrian use of the glass protect the edicts of stone from it.

 

But glass is also neutral in many ways. It can't be pinned down to some timeline and is very lucid in its effects. Transparent, opaque, private and reflexive. Perhaps it is this anxiety of dirtying the sacred with the very human experience of glass that produces such hatred towards it. If the crystal's play of light is too modern, it is also too revealing; its a scandal. We're afraid to drench our symbols with the loose and changing effects of glass. It simply too much contrast to please the conservatives and is too reflective for the liberals to be comfortable. 

The materials are secondary in some respects. The new, or the next, should reinforce the memory of the old; not by emulation but by suggestion. When we rebuild our symbols it is not possible for us to define, but only to experiment. When Duchamp recontextualized the everyday objects, he did not want the fountain or the bicycle wheel to be what he asked it to be, It was indeed an experiment to displace the current and not try and point the direction it should head. The roof's design therefore does not have to follow some accepted meaning, but to experiment with the displacement, in order to create tension and introspection. 

"The erasure of the past is more than just a material loss, it is also a psychic wound. Totalitarian rule relies on such erasure. It abhors history, which resides in time, and replaces it with myth, which is eternal. Baathists and ISIS have both tried to erase history to create subjects whose submission is absolute, unmoderated by external attachments."

- Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

'Syria's Monumental Loss'  The New York Review of Books

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Bicycle Wheel (1951), Marcel Duchamp 

A city needs a constructed history which involves careful investment and time. The argument for making the building exactly as it was is a problematic one, for the reasons mentioned above. But some arguments are worth considering. The making anew of the same image, a reconstruction would take a lot of effort, skill and time. Factors which are historically associated to feats of grandeur and power. A construction process which involved intricate skill with a niche set of talent is rare in the modern cities. Why can't there be an addition which employs these factors? A story for our century as the beneficiaries of the great monuments. This project wouldn't resurrect the pre-april Notre Dame but make a new one. The skill does not have to be local in order to feed some image of contextual or authentic work, rather it has to be one of deep dedication to establishing a connection with the existing cathedral's motifs or meanings. This would certainly one way to move forward with the project and one which does not risk golloping by history. 

.. Or certainly the cathedral could be left as it is right now. No roof, No spire and no rebuilding. Only as the purest, most radical.

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In its condition.