Notre-Dame: to innovate or not to innovate?

When a destructive blaze tore through the Notre-Dame in Paris, the devastated city and its beloved building were flooded with support from across the world. But opinions in France now stand divided: should the city carefully restore, or instead rebuild afresh, the iconic gothic cathedral?

In April this year, a fire started whilst extensive maintenance was carried out on main structure of the cathedral. Firefighters recovered the renowned art collection but were unable to save the 19th-century wooden spire, which tragically collapsed.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron, swiftly declared that France intended to “rebuild the Notre-Dame so it is even more beautiful than it was”. He insisted the cathedral would be back to its best “within five years” as well, just in time for the 2024 Olympics.

Rather than unifying his country, Macron’s enthusiastic attitude sparked widespread criticism and has been viewed as a symbol of his “gung-ho” approach to politics.

An open letter to Macron, signed internationally by 1,169 architects, curators and professors, was soon published in the French newspaper Le Figaro. The letter advised the president not to rush forward with rebuilding and to “listen to the experts, let’s recognise their knowledge, and then, yes, let’s fix an ambitious deadline for an exemplary restoration.”

In response to Macron’s statement, the French Senate passed an additional bill calling for the redesign to exactly mirror the lost architecture. Public polls in France also suggest that more than half of the population want the cathedral back to how it looked before the fire.

Yet Macron recently approved an international contest calling for innovative architectural designs for Notre-Dame’s central structure and spire. Proposals range from installing a swimming pool or greenhouse on the roof of the cathedral, to replacing the iconic spire with a beam of light and even a wind-turbine.

Architect Alexandre Chassang, designer of the famous Apple Store spaces, proposed an ethereal needle-like glass spire. “We’re not obliged to rebuild identically,” stated Chassang in a Twitter post, “we should not copy the past by mimicry.” 

However Raphaël Glucksmann, a centre-left writer and campaigner, has strongly condemned Macron’s controversial competition. According to Glucksmann, a completely modern restoration would “destroy the soul of Notre-Dame”.

But the debate is no less complicated if restoration, rather than innovation, is the answer. Over the past 850 years, Notre-Dame itself has been vastly rebuilt and adapted to suit contemporary tastes and attitudes. The cathedral structure was adapted well into the 14th century, rededicated later in 1789 and the wooden spire was only added after 1840.

Paul Binski, Professor of Medieval Art at the University of Cambridge, wonders if it were to be faithfully conserved “should it be restored as it was 100 years ago, or 500?”

Across France many other historic cites are in dire need of conservation too and this ongoing debate, despite its divisiveness, has vitally shone a light on the importance of protecting heritage for the future.

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