Nôtre Dame de Paris

I. The Late Antique Basilica

The Roman colony of Lutetia Parisiorum was founded on the right bank of the river Seine sometime around 10 BC. After a barbarian raid in AD 275, the town was moved to the largest island in the river and circled with a defensive wall.

The caesar of the western empire, Julian II temporarily moved the capitol of Gaul from Augusta Treverorum (Trier) to Lutetia in AD 357/58. Inside the walled oppidum He built an imperial palace and a Christian basilica over whic h a bishop presided. Valentinian II also resided in Lutetia in the 370s.

The ground plan of the cathedral complex—a long nave with double aisles, probably a non-projecting transept (as of yet unverified by archaeological evidence), a semi-circular apse, and a free-standing baptistry—was closely modeled on the great Constantinian basilicae of Rome. Its scale approached that of its models as well. The cathedral of Lutetia was, surprisingly, larger than the basilicas of more populous and important cities like Lyon, Trier and Marseille.

The church was sumptuously decorated: fragments of color mosaic pavements, giallo antico columns from the nave arcade and Corinthian capitals have been excavated at the site.

In the early Merovingian period, the cathedral was dedicated to St Stephen. As part of the Carolingian reforms, the cathedrals received a chapter of regular canons in the early 9th century. These para-monastic clergymen carried out the bishopric’s day-to-day functions, including teaching in the cathedral school and maintaining the hospice for the needy, the hôtel dieu. Reflecting the canons’ devotion to the Virgin, the area of the church reserved for their use came to be known as Nôtre Dame. By the 10th century, this became a de facto second dedication, with the bishop’s part of the church retaining the original dedication to St Stephen. This dual dedication persisted throughout the high Middle Ages and is reflected in the 13th-century architecture.

In the 6th century, Roman Gaul transformed into the Kingdom of the Franks and Lutetia Parisiorum, abbreviated to Paris, became the fixed residence of the Capetian court in the late 10th century. With many modifications, restorations, and partial rebuildings, the early Christian cathedral of Nôtre Dame remained in use until the year 1160. This church was the oldest and most venerable structure to be replaced by a new Gothic construction.

II. The Twelfth Century

Although a series of repairs to the venerable Christian basilica had been carried out in the 1120s, the canons of the cathedral protested the condition of the deteriorating pile. Louis VII, who believed that a large new church built in a dynamic, contemporary style would reflect the growing prestige and power of the monarchy, chose a new bishop who would take on the monumental task of building a new cathedral for Paris. Maurice de Sully was that candidate and the church he built is Nôtre-Dame de Paris.

III. The Thirteenth-Century Revision

IV. The Nineteenth-Century Restoration

V. The Cathedral of the Future

Nôtre Dame is France’s #1 tourist attraction, making it a site on par with the Sistine Chapel, the Athenian Acropolis, and the Tower of London.  In 2018, 13 million tourists waited in long queues to shuffle through the building. Tourism accounts for 10% of France’s GDP and 10% of the country’s employment. Nôtre Dame visitors generate a great deal of revenue for hospitality and tourism related industries, museums and other historical sites, but none for itself, as no admission fee is charged. Those industries will be adversely impacted by the closure of the cathedral. The impossible restoration timetable promised by President Macron reflects economic, rather than architectural or historical, concerns.

The state-owned cathedral, which receives a woefully inadequate annual maintenance grant from the government, will benefit from the closure. The stresses exerted on the building fabric by the weight, movement, noise and moisture generated by non-stop crowds have rattled the structure from the inside, while the elements did their work on the exterior. The result: surprisingly large chunks of stone fall off the building regularly (which are stored in several sheds in the cathedral precinct). The restoration campaign underway at the time of the fire was one of many partial efforts undertaken to consolidate the crumbling monument in the past 20 years. A long respite from tourism will slow the deterioration and allow for conservation work to proceed on a full-time basis. <br> 

Responding to a survey, 1186 architects, conservators and historians urged the government to abandon the 5-year plan prematurely promised by M. Macronand to proceed with caution. Since the fire, the realities reconstruction are becoming clearer. It will take 4 months to brace and cover the building, which has been weakened and destabilized to the point that severe storm could bring down the nave walls. At that point, a year-long structural analysis could be performed to assess the damage scientifically. It is almost certainly the case that the stone in the upper levels of the building calcified in the intense heat of the fire, thus rendering it incapable of supporting the weight of a new roof. This would necessitate the removal of massive amounts of masonry and the deposition of the clerestory windows. Rebuilding might begin, not end, in 5 years.<br><br>

The stone carving, window glazing, carpentry, and master mason trades have not attracters many new members in recent centuries. Contractors specializing in historical monuments have already warned that the number of artisans skilled in traditional techniques is very small and those skills cannot be taught quickly. The existing labor force qualified to carry out a full-on restoration of a large medieval building would need more like 20 years to complete the job. As these realities come into focus, the magnitude of the repair job becomes clearer. The 150 years needed to build the cathedral from the ground up suddenly seems reasonable, even efficient. 

On 17 April 2019, before investigators had determined cause of the fire and well before any kind of structural analysis had been performed, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced an international competition:  “L’objectif est de «doter Notre-Dame d’une nouvelle flèche adaptée aux techniques et enjeux de notre époque». M. Philippe did not explain how credible proposals were to be generated and judged without any knowledge of the building’s condition. The reference to “contemporary technology and concerns” prompted a slew of unofficial re-imaginings of the cathedral seen in the Dezeen article seen above. These admittedly hastily thrown together designs range banal to idiotic; saddling the cathedral with any a mindlessly contemporary addition would amount to adding insult to injury.

In the aftermath of the fire, French corporations and wealthy individuals awash in sentimentality and aware of a good PR opportunity pledged an excess of € 880 million to renovate the cathedral. Thus far none have made good on their promise. An The zam group, the froends of anotreEsh

  The French government has the luxury of knowing that it can commission the most thorough, careful, and responsible restoration without straining state resources. Returning the building’s appearance to its pre-fire state will require specialized labor and 20 years to complete. Replacing the roof and spire with a “contemporary” structure of the kind suggested by the early proposals would require no specialized knowledge of medieval building techniques and take far less time to complete. This course of action would generate a controversy, which in the end, amoints to free publicity, and once completed, would probably draw large numbers of visitors. <br><br>

Nôtre Dame, however, is a historical monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The French law of 1913 governing historical monuments and the 1964 Venice Charter concerning monuments conservation to which France is a signatory, should prevent politicans from seeking popular solutions.<br><br>

As Victor Hugo lamented 180 years ago, few buildings of such importance have been treated so badly as Nôtre Dame de Paris. History, however, has not been kind to those who neglected, vandalized, or arrogantly remade the building in their own image. Turning the building into a self-regarding, contemporary monument would replace history with the architectural equivalent of a selfie. We already know what we look like; let future generations see what the high Middle Ages looked like.


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