Notre Dame Six Months On: Between the Material and Digital Worlds
“What we do with our heritage will determine our future collective identity.”
Santiago de Molina
On 15 October, six months will have passed since the fire that destroyed the medieval roof and the 19th century spire of Notre Dame Cathedral. The days which followed the disaster witnessed intense debate among architects, experts … and also among the not so expert. Santiago Molina spoke of Notre Dame’s symbolic nature and defended the role of the architect in future reconstruction projects. El Barroquista argued for minimal, prudent interventions, favouring projects that manage to rebuild without reproducing what was there before and without hiding the scars. But, obviously, calmness and common sense are not easy to find amid the howling media. José Ramón Hernández talked about the ludicrous proposals touted on the social networks, resoundingly exposing their patriotic zeal to the light of reality. Ben Sixmith smacked those proposals right between the eyes with a (rather weak) discourse on style entitled “Keep the Modernist Away from Notre Dame”, while Jaume Prat’s response was once again to vindicate the role of architects and architecture in the future reconstruction.
“Notre Dame is an idea, an idea that originated in one, or just a few, heads which, regardless of name or qualifications, thought like architects”
In the midst of all this turmoil, another news report emerged: the videogame company Ubisoft, one of the businesses that donated money for the reconstruction, was also going to provide access to the digital models they had used to reproduce the cathedral in Assassin’s Creed Unity, a 2014 game set during the French Revolution. Once again there was heated debate, this time between defenders of the videogame and those who decried its anachronisms – like the inclusion of Viollet-le-Duc’s spire almost a hundred years before it was actually built. Ubisoft, however, drew attention to the work process rather than the end product, highlighting the work of Caroline Miousse, a specialist member of the company’s team who spent almost 5,000 hours studying all available documentation on the monument in order to recreate it stone by stone. Miousse, in turn, praised the work of art historian Andrew Tallon, who did a series of 3D scans and point clouds of Notre Dame using technology even more advanced than that of Ubisoft.
The work going on today at Notre Dame seems to be focussed on its historical reconstruction, but we won’t know the details of the project until the end of 2020. This type of intervention touches on De Molina’s and Prat’s discourses on the future and the symbolic dimension of the cathedral as a heritage asset. If, looking beyond its masonry, Notre Dame’s architecture is an idea, then the spatial phenomena it has spawned – including those taking place in digital space – are worthy of attention. Things like “Assassin’s Creed” had purely recreational, entertainment-related motives, but they are also grounded in architectural and historical research of the first order which it would be wise not to lose sight of: research that one day we’re bound to need again.