Architects and historians wonder: Maybe the new Notre Dame should be less "overburdened" with Christian meaning

I don’t share Michael Brendan Dougherty’s faith but I do share his impulse in reading this Rolling Stone piece: “I promise right now. If you try to rebuild it as a ‘secular’ Notre Dame, reflecting the political priorities of 2019, I will do my damndest to see that the next fire takes it all down. I won’t come alone.”

Imagine believing that our tawdry, meaningless age might improve upon the grandeur of the old cathedral. And yet:

[F]or some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times…

Although Macron and donors like Pinault have emphasized that the cathedral should be rebuilt as close to the original as possible, some architectural historians like Brigniani believe that would be complicated, given the many stages of the cathedral’s evolution. “The question becomes, which Notre Dame are you actually rebuilding?,” he says. Harwood, too, believes that it would be a mistake to try to recreate the edifice as it once stood, as LeDuc did more than 150 years ago. Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making. “The idea that you can recreate the building is naive. It is to repeat past errors, category errors of thought, and one has to imagine that if anything is done to the building it has to be an expression of what we want — the Catholics of France, the French people — want. What is an expression of who we are now? What does it represent, who is it for?,” he says.

Catholicism: “Overburdened with meaning” since 33 A.D. What del Real and Brigniani really mean, I take it, is that the structure’s religious significance has long since faded in post-Christian France, overtaken by its significance as a witness to 800 years of French history. Why not acknowledge that gradual desiccation forthrightly by turning it into a monument to, well, nothing in particular? One might imagine it becoming a monument to France writ large, to bolster the fading belief that a common French cultural identity still exists. If Notre Dame can’t make Catholics of its admirers, perhaps it can at least make Frenchmen of them. But that’s the opposite of what the pomo critics have in mind. Their point is that too much of France’s cultural heritage is contemptible. The opportunity to remake Notre Dame is their opportunity to remake that heritage as well. As Dave “Iowahawk” Burge said after reading the Rolling Stone piece, “Boy howdy, that’s some straight up Year Zero sh*t right there.” Indeed.

I saw this tweet a few hours after being knocked for a loop by the RS story and it took me a millisecond to recognize it as parody:

Funny and horrible, although horrible in the opposite way of what the del Reals and Brignianis intend. They don’t want to commercialize the space, they want to reappropriate its religious meaning to instill reverence for the values of the modern multicultural secular state instead. It would be ludicrous to retain a fully Gothic structure to celebrate modernity so I’m picturing some Frankenstein contraption where the Gothic facade remains but the interior and exterior are replaced to whatever extent possible with abstract sculpture and spare, minimalist spaces — the sort of tedious dreck which, although technically modern and “new,” is by now so familiar that it feels more archaic than Notre Dame does.

Emmanuel Macron is promising that the renovation will be finished within five years, which is a bald-faced lie and itself a pitiful reminder of modern feebleness. Even if the reconstruction didn’t require years of expert training for artisans before it could commence, which it does, bickering over the “identity” of the location and bureaucratic pitfalls will inevitably push the timeline out much farther. It’s a cathedral; almost by definition it can’t be built or rebuilt quickly. Why make a vow about France’s can-do spirit to get this done when the result is destined to be that France cannot, at least not in this timeframe?

Speaking before Macron’s announcement, Emily Guerry, a professor of medieval history at England’s University of Kent, anticipated restoration work on the 850-year-old icon would take around two decades

Jean-Claude Bellanger, secretary-general of Les Compagnons du Devoir, an organization that provides training in manual trades, told Le Parisian newspaper that the niche nature of the work would require an influx of new talent…

A decade is necessary to train some of the specialized workers required for such a project, Bellanger added.

Assuming they plan to replace the wooden roof, they’ll need literally an entire forest for the timber. To match the damaged stone properly, it’ll need to be quarried in Normandy by hand. Critics who want to secularize the space will no doubt use all of that to their advantage: “We can have the site under reconstruction for decades by foolishly trying to re-create the original structure or we can do our own thing with modern materials and be done much sooner.” Why would coming generations that don’t remember Notre Dame as it was and thus have no emotional attachment to the old structure object? The only forces that might be capable long-term of insisting on restoring Notre Dame to what it was are (a) a Christian revival in France, which seems unlikely, or (b) a nationalist takeover, which is far more likely but would bring with it some of the typical cultural and political ugliness that always comes with Euronationalism. And if it does end up as a nationalist project, it’ll be as much a political monument to the nationalists themselves as it will a Christian monument. What will a non-nationalist Catholic think of Our Lady if it becomes a symbol of Front National?