Flames Without Consumption. The Fire at Notre Dame and the Role of Architecture
Everyone will remember where they were and who they were with when fire engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral. While the cathedral burned, all humanity was stricken to the heart by such an inexplicable but nevertheless all too real loss. What hidden, dramatic mechanism made the collapsing spire reawaken memories of other falling towers thousands of kilometres away?
In the aftermath of the fire, with the cathedral’s remains still smouldering, we’ve witnessed an incredible chain of events that have mainly served to emphasise the identitary nature of architecture. Television channels broadcast vigils held around the site of the disaster, while hundreds of millions of euros were collected for the building’s reconstruction. And while Eugène Viollet-le-Duc became a kind of ad hoc model for future “celebrity architects”, the French government announced an international competition to restore the cathedral to its former glory.
Without even waiting for emotions to subside, seething Internet forums feverishly added fuel to the flames, once again making the architect’s profession the object of heated debate. The full scope of the invitation to tender is not yet known, but there has already been criticism of the neo-Gothics (just in case they seize control of the slippery undertaking) and the French government, for having organized the competition. It’s not even known for sure whether the cathedral’s stone structure has been damaged, but a row has broken out about whether there is any room for contemporary architecture, or even for architects, in the reconstruction process.
In less than a day, the already turbulent world of Twitter was bubbling with memes about a thousand possible proposals. Arguments about whether to rebuild or modernise the spire have been just as heated as those heard in the run-up to big sporting events. Few people suspected that architectural hooligans also exist outside the “critics” subspecies. Nobody – and least of all architects themselves – imagined that architecture was still important to people.
But it is important. Because built heritage is one the most enduring signs of social cohesion for human beings.
In a country as old as France, everything has happened before. Its architectural precedents are as solid as gothic stonework. A competition was also organised after a fire broke out in Chartres Cathedral, in 1836, and the result was a beautiful metal structure that now forms part of the city’s heritage. Even the issue of rebuilding using new techniques has been extensively debated in the past. We can be sure that the future winner of the rebuilding contract will make the cathedral roof visitable, lighter and fireproof.
But the problem highlighted by the Notre Dame catastrophe is not just one of rebuilding or redesigning the roof and the spire. It doesn’t even concern the role of the architect. While the cathedral burned, thousands of cities nervously eyed their own churches, cathedrals and monuments. What would have happened if our church, our heritage, had burned down? Would there have been the same philanthropic drive to collect money for its reconstruction? We often forget that heritage is more than just a pile of old stones, a lucrative tourist attraction or a meagre budget allocation.
Notre Dame reminds us that its architecture is a symbol, for each one of us, for Europe itself and, arguably, for the whole of the Western world. Perhaps it’s one of the few symbols that we feel really exists of something that has become so jaded that it’s no longer recognised as such: culture. Whatever happens with Notre Dame will necessarily involve architecture as one of the few disciplines, together with music, that are capable of uniting individuals in support of a higher cause. What we do with our heritage will determine our future collective identity.