While the sight of Notre-Dame de Paris on fire a month ago shocked the world, the cathedral has been under siege many a time—and has been rebuilt and restored at great length more than once. Preservationists have extensive records of earlier restorations and the best technology for the task at their fingertips, so restoring the cathedral could be straightforward. But it isn’t. The debate over how Notre-Dame should be restored, and by whom, is only just beginning.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said he wants the structure rebuilt “more beautifully” and finished within five years, a mandate presumably related to the fact that Paris will host the Olympics in 2024. Lord Norman Foster has applauded Macron’s plan, calling it “an acknowledgment of that tradition of new interventions and a pledge for its continuation.” The cathedral, after all, was the site of one of history’s most noted interventions when the church was dubbed a Temple of Reason during the French Revolution, which nearly destroyed it. And that’s only the latest and most visible such episode.
While, yes, “our” Notre-Dame is merely the latest iteration in the long life of the building, other philosophies of restoration and preservation aim to recreate structures in their Golden Age, albeit perhaps with less flammable materials.
Frank Matero, University of Pennsylvania architecture professor and chair of historic preservation, suggests a slow renovation without a new architect’s stamp on the design. “I think the problem is that architects want their intervention to be visible,” he says. “They see the creative act as highly visible. But the best restoration is that which is invisible.” More than half the French agree with him, with only one quarter in favor of contemporary architectural embellishment.
The five-year deadline may also be impractical for a host of reasons, among them the guild system governing artisan construction and restoration work in France, Matero says. And even if the physical work could be completed in that time, there is emotional work to consider. “Usually you need some temporal distance before creating something of lasting meaning,” he says, pointing to the 9/11 memorial in Lower Manhattan. That decision was debated for years before the reflecting pool was finally chosen and constructed.
Putting aside the matter of when, the more immediate question is who should design any interventions to Notre-Dame’s appearance—if, indeed, anyone should. Days after the fire, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition for fresh ideas for the cathedral, and designers rushed to create original renderings and post them to Instagram. They range from the tasteful and restrained, to the borderline inscrutable, to social experiments never intended to be built.
Among the more serious are designs from Spanish architects POA Estudio and Sao Paulo–based Alexandre Fantozzi. Both use glass, giving the structure a lighter, brighter feeling while hewing to the Gothic style.
“Instead of trying to replicate the original roof, we understand that the fire is part of the history of Notre-Dame, therefore it shouldn't be camouflaged,” Julio Rufián Andújar, founder of POA, told AD via email. “We recreate the original volume occupied by the spire, in an ethereal materiality.”
Fantozzi’s design, meanwhile, replaces the roof and spire with stained glass in its entirety—a gesture the architect himself calls “grandiose.” The multicolored glass will let in natural light while bathing visitors in colorful beams, creating a visual component that Fantozzi says connects earth to sky. The new roof will be “a divine crown” for the Notre-Dame, he says.
Other architects have even more dramatic plans for the spire, from swimming pools to contemporary sculptures in bronze that would appear to memorialize the fire, rather than the church where Napoleon I was crowned in 1804.
Two designs that have attracted online attention would make Notre-Dame’s roof into public space.
Studio NAB envisions a greenhouse atop the cathedral. Founder Nicolas Abdelkader says their design was the result of reflection on the drama of Notre-Dame and a desire to avoid “simple architectural response,” which can be “soulless.”
While Ulf Mejergren Architects, a practice based in Stockholm that self-identifies as “adventurous,” suggests a swimming pool on the roof to replace all that highly combustible medieval timber. Practical and fun, or an affront to French, not to speak of Catholic, history? Wherever you land, you must admit there’s little risk of a pool burning down.
One architecture shop has taken a page from the post-9/11 book and suggested a stream of light forever reaching into the Parisian sky.
There are also ideas about as likely to be approved as demolition plans. French designer Mathieu Lehanneur’s rendering lit Instagram on fire with its depiction of the fire. He did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but told The New York Times that the rendering was initially meant as a provocation, to highlight “the absurdity” of trying to rebuild Notre-Dame exactly as it stood in the 19th century. Now, a few weeks since his mock-up hit the Internet, he’s decided he’s serious about it (“the flame is actually a very strong symbol in the Bible,” he says).
But does a 12th-century cathedral need any contemporary architect’s stamp on its outward appearance? Or would creativity be best deployed in Notre-Dame’s interior, where design and materials innovations could render the structure virtually fireproof?
For some who’ve thrown their hat into the restoration ring, it hardly matters. Cypriot designer Dakis Panayiotou, who directs a practice called Kiss the Architect, responded to the tragedy with what he calls a “fictional” design.
Panayiotou says he was watching television when the Notre-Dame news interrupted programming. "I felt like reality and fiction merged into one, like a special effect scene of a sci-fi movie," he tells AD via email. "I know this is happening a lot more in the modern world of post-alternative facts but this was especially unnerving. The scale and the historical impact of what was happening was so intense that I started laughing through nervousness."
Panayiotou’s design, therefore, is more of a performative comment on this moment in time, which he hopes will “soften the horror of a cultural loss.” It’s not supposed to suggest an actual direction for restoration plans, but rather to “set a different set of rules.”
Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest