PARIS — earlier this month, the French basic tasked v overseeing the repair of Notre Dame confirmed some disastrous news: even now, nine months ~ a catastrophic fire in April ruined the cathedral"s spire, roof and some of its vaults, that fate continues to be uncertain. "The cathedral is quiet in a state of peril," Jean-Louis Georgelin told the French broadcaster CNews.

There has actually been put in order anguish in France. The holidays passed there is no a Christmas massive in the lovely national icon or a Christmas tree on the general public square outside its richly decorated west facade. Once I visited in October, ns passed by just once, and it to be painful to view the great church off-limits. The writer Hilaire Belloc once defined Notre Dame together a matriarch who authority is familiar, tacit and silent. But she now seems not simply reticent, however mute.




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As the public commission top by Georgelin met because that the very first time in December, it to be clear that the nation was still much from any kind of consensus on how the cathedral will be restored. Main earlier, Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect that the country’s historic monuments service, said in a broadcast interview the he would certainly resign fairly than enable a contemporary spire — together proposed by French chairman Emmanuel Macron — come be constructed atop the cathedral’s roof. In response, Georgelin told the architect come “shut his gob.”

the comment made international news, return in France the wasn’t the end of character because that public conversation of architecture and also preservation.


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Parisians fish top top the financial institutions of the Seine flow in Paris close to the Ile de la Cité, the island on i beg your pardon Notre Dame sits, ~ above the very first Sunday of feather in 1947. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)


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Onlookers was standing by as flames engulf the roof of Notre Dame top top April 15. (Geoffroy van der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)


Parisians fish top top the banks of the Seine flow in Paris near the Ile de la Cité, the island on i m sorry Notre Dame sits, top top the very first Sunday of feather in 1947. (Agence France-Presse/Getty Images) Onlookers stand by together flames engulf the roof the Notre Dame ~ above April 15. (Geoffroy van der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)


“This debate is classic,” Philippe Barbat, director general of heritage in ~ the French to adjust of Culture, stated in one interview critical fall. “Do we reclaim it together close as feasible to what we recognize by examining the historic context the the building, or execute we shot to make something an ext creative?” Barbat cites the glass pyramid in ~ the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei together a modernist treatment at the love of among the city’s sacred social spaces, as an example of the latter.

And readjust is classic, too. Return there have actually been centuries during which the design of Notre Dame stayed mostly the same, particularly after the major construction work was finished in the middle of the 13th century, it has actually undergone significant transformations throughout its history. Together France, and also much of the remainder of the world, contemplates what will come to be of the cool cathedral, it’s clear that the final result will it is in an amalgam: of history and fantasy, the 12th century and the 21st, the imaginary structure seen in art and also described in literature, and a heap of stones that has been made and also remade for practically nine centuries.


On one island in the Seine, in the love of the ancient city that Paris, the land wherein Notre Dame would be developed had been specialized to religious worship for centuries.

In 1160, Maurice de Sully, a excellent administrator, was elected bishop of Paris and almost immediately began plans for a big cathedral, specialized to the Virgin Mary.

to clear an are for Notre Dame, various other structures, consisting of the cathedral that Saint-Étienne, were progressively dismantled.

through King louis VII and Pope Alexander III in attendance, the very first major phase of construction began with the laying the the cornerstone in 1163.

through 1182, much of the cathedral’s choir — the liturgical core of the building, then booked for the priest — through its iconic flying buttresses sustaining its high walls and also roof, had actually been completed.

end the following decades, job-related on the nave thrust the cathedral’s spine to the west.

by 1220, the basic form of the at an early stage cathedral was essentially finished.

beginning in the mid-1220s, lot of Notre Dame to be remade come be more in line with modern architectural tastes. The two western towers to be finished and a spire was added to the crossing of the nave and transept. The last significant phase of the original building ended in the mid-14th century, more than 150 years after it had actually begun.

through the so late 18th century, the original spire to be removed prior to it can collapse indigenous decay.

The cathedral stayed without a spire until 1859, as soon as one designed by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc was added as component of considerable 20-year renovation. End the following 160 years, alterations and also repairs continued to be made.

together Notre Dame has actually been rebuilt and also repaired over the centuries, there have actually been numerous cries of sacrilege. Shortly before the French Revolution, it to be whitewashed, leading one prominent critic to grumble that the edifice had actually “lost its venerable color and also its imposing darkness that had commended fervent respect.” and beginning in the 1840s, after years of tiny maintenance, thin use and also sometimes misguided efforts at repair, it to be “restored” so extensively that plenty of historians involved think that it together a 19th-century church, no a medieval one.

among the most far-reaching transformations was probably precipitated by a fire in the 13th century, perhaps similar to the one in 2019, in the roof an are above the vaults. Whether the damage forced the cathedral’s stewards to rebuild, or was just a an excellent pretext to upgrade the building, no clear. However the adjust was extensive.


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Tourists visit Notre Dame in July 2016. French chairman Macron is likely to be the one who decides the new type of the cathedral, although it’s unclear exactly how much he will defer come experts, traditionalist voices, the Catholic Church and also preservationists. (Matthieu Alexandre/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)


“Having been approximately for a only sixty years, Notre Dame had currently been eclipsed,” Dany Sandron the the Sorbonne and the so late Andrew Tallon that Vassar write in a forthcoming book around the cathedral, based in part on their substantial laser measurement of Notre Dame before the 2019 fire. Elsewhere, in 13th-century France, brand-new cathedrals were being built, and old ones disassembled and also reconstructed, to make them taller, lighter and more vertical, and also to introduce much more light, together if they to be made from taut curtains that glass, not hefty columns of stone. And so Notre Dame’s clerestory home windows were enlarged, the roofs changed and the flying buttresses reconstructed, back the cathedral remained relatively dark in spite of its fashionable update.

The second radical change dates, in part, to 1831, once Victor Hugo published the novel recognized in English together “The Hunchback the Notre Dame.” The book, collection in the 15th century, was a phenomenal success, and the church itself was a major character in the drama that love, lust and betrayal. Hugo intended the novel come ignite interest in France’s heritage of gothic and medieval architecture, and also he succeeded. Notre Dame, then in a state of tomb disrepair, was rediscovered, and various federal government committees and also commissions were created to help the country resolve what we currently call social heritage and also historic preservation.


Repairing Notre Dame was among the many urgent projects, and also Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, among two architects placed in fee of restoration, began to wear extensive and controversial changes. Maybe no one in the background of the cathedral taken it much better — that quirks, structural oddities and weak spots — and also no one was much more passionately hostile to previously renovations the had altered its gothic design. However Viollet-le-Duc’s meaning of reconstruction was an ext like the of a contemporary theater manager approaching one old manuscript than a preservationist working v scientific and also historical rigor: “To reclaim a building,” the wrote, “is no to maintain, repair, or redo it, yet to reestablish it in a finished state that may never have actually existed at a provided time.”

Viollet-le-Duc adjusted the windows, added decorative facets to the base of the flying buttresses, remade statues, and also created wholesale plenty of of the grotesques, chimeras and gargoyles the visitors regularly assume are the significance of the cathedral’s gothic character. He likewise built a brand-new spire, the end of wood and lead, to change the one that had actually been gotten rid of in the mid-18th century due to the fact that it was no longer sound.

Those transforms rapidly ended up being embedded in the public memory the the building. I recall receiving a postcard native Paris that confirmed a standard image: the Eiffel Tower, with among Viollet-le-Duc’s gargoyle numbers in the foreground. However it didn’t comparison old and also new, merely two visions the the 19th-century remake of the city.


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“Le stryge,” or “The Vampire,” an 1853 etching by Charles Meryon, shows among architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s grotesque Notre Dame figures. (Rosenwald Collection/National gallery of Art)


one of the most famed images the 19th-century France to be an 1853 etching by Charles Meryon called “Le Stryge,” or “The Vampire,” which shows an additional of Viollet-le-Duc’s grotesque Notre Dame figures, the tongue sticking the end contemptuously as it watches end a fantasy the old Paris. It aided to define the curiously Parisian feeling that the city’s significance is woven the both beauty and squalor, the it teems v contradictions and also harsh contrasts, as in a well known poem by Charles Baudelaire: “Brothels and hospitals, prison, purgatory, hell/Monstrosities flowering like a flower …”


In the feather of 2019, the many recent renovations to the cathedral to be underway. Scaffolding to be erected about the spire to do repairs, and also days before the fire, 16 statues in ~ the basic of the spire to be removed.

top top April 15, a substantial fire broke out. Over number of hours, flames raged and eventually ruined Notre Dame’s spire, roof and timbers within. An official cause has still no been determined, although early speculation centered on an electrical source, or a discarded cigarette.

after the fire, debate began nearly immediately around the cathedral’s restoration. Must it be went back to its exact pre-fire configuration? should the 19th-century spire it is in rebuilt? Or should it it is in updated for the 21st century and also beyond?

~ the fire, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, a Paris museum that has Viollet-le-Duc’s invaluable collection of full-scale architectural casts of historical French facades and medieval sculptural elements, presented models, sculpture and also other objects related to Notre Dame. The museum displayed the complex legacy that Viollet-le-Duc, who was for lot of the 20th century taken into consideration a fantasist, a Walt Disney-like number who developed his own version of historic architecture. But he likewise was a meticulous observer, and the documentation the left behind might be vital to restoring Notre Dame.

“We understand we deserve to construct it precisely like that was,” says Francis Rambert, director of the museum’s architectural design department. He is standing in prior of Viollet-le-Duc’s design for the wood spire, a small-scale sculptural marvel in itself. “But the concern is, carry out we should sacrifice all those trees?”


The spire and also the hardwood have end up being intertwined speed points the seem to divide French opinion not into clearly opposed ideological camps, however into myriad fragmentary alignments the opinion, as facility as one of the cathedral’s climbed windows. There are ecological issues, aesthetic issues, cultural issues, patrimony issues and financial issues.

Is wood necessary? would certainly lighter materials be better, or do the vaults require the heavy weight of timber to do them secure? Is satisfactory hardwood available? in ~ one allude last year, a Ghanaian firm even readily available to dredge up giant trees preserved and strengthened by submersion when land was flooded because that a dam in Africa in 1965.

The present debates and also controversies have uncovered a deeper admiration for Viollet-le-Duc and also his architectural alters than might have been obvious a quarter century ago. “Was that some kind of genius or someone that was a megalomaniac?” asks Barbat, the federal government heritage director, who adds the opinion around Viollet-le-Duc has changed markedly due to the fact that the 1990s, with farming acknowledgment that his transforms have become component of the cathedral’s history. Indeed, once a damaged part of the church’s Porte Rouge to be repaired recently, among Viollet-le-Duc’s facets was meticulously reproduced, a sign that preservation now contains older, 19th-century reconstruction efforts.


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Notre Dame, which was partly ruined when fire damaged out beneath the roof top top April 15, is pictured ~ above Jan. 6. (Philippe Lopez/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)


In the end, it will most likely be Macron who determines the new kind of Notre Dame, although the unclear how much he will certainly defer to experts, traditionalist voices, the Catholic Church and also the involves of preservationists. French presidents normally want to put their stamp on Paris, such together Georges Pompidou’s assistance for a modern social center, which eventually came to be the center Pompidou, a bristling postmodern architecture masterpiece, or Francois Mitterand’s championing that I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid project. Macron, young, arrogant and also determined to graph a brand-new middle course v the error lines of French politics life, has his perfect signature project: the reconstruction of an ancient building through a modern twist.

“As for the decision itself, I would certainly say that only the president have the right to answer this,” Barbat says. “He to be really involved since the night the the fire as soon as he was existing at the cathedral. Most most likely he will certainly speak about it through the head of the , basic Georgelin, but additionally the minister that culture. Afterward, ns cannot answer specifically what he will decide alone in the loneliness of the presidency.”


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Philip Kennicott

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. He has actually been on staff at The post since 1999, an initial as classical music critic, climate as culture critic.


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Aaron Steckelberg

Aaron Steckelberg is a an elderly graphics editor that creates maps, charts and diagrams that administer greater depth and context to stories over a wide selection of topics. The has worked at the article since 2016.


About this story

Illustrations that Notre Dame’s building and construction are based on research from Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral and also Columbia University. Edited by janice Page and also Amy Hitt. Copy edited through Carrie Camillo. Graphic edited by danielle Rindler. Photo editing and enhancing by Moira Haney. Design and advancement by Aaron Steckelberg and also Junne Alcantara.


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