Plans for restoration of fire-damaged cathedral will be 'as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame'

AP Photo/Christophe Ena

Everyone remembers the fire which largely destroyed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral back in April, 2019. The good news was that the interior of the cathedral survived relatively unscathed. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars were quickly raised from around the world to stabilize the cathedral and rebuild the roof. But within days of the disaster there were already people suggesting that maybe it was overdue for an update, one that would make it better suited for a secular country like France.

It appears some sort of update is now on the drawing board. Despite the fact that all of the art inside the cathedral survived, there are now plans to update the interior in ways that one critic suggested were akin to having Disney take over the design:

Under the proposed changes, confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces”.

There will be themed chapels on a “discovery trail”, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, while quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin.

The final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.

“It’s as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame,” said Maurice Culot, a prize-winning Paris-based architect, urbanist, theorist and critic who has seen the plans.

As bad as this sounds, a French newspaper explains the changes are not being driven by the state (which officially owns the cathedral) or by some secular architect. Instead, the changes are being driven by representatives of the church.

…some of these have been confirmed to us by Father Drouin himself. This priest is the liturgist that Monsignor Michel Aupetit – the Archbishop of Paris – chose to reflect on the organization of the liturgical and worship spaces of the restored cathedral. Mr. Rimoux is a light sculptor and works on the lighting project for the dark Gothic setting of Notre-Dame de Paris.
The priest and the architect spoke about Notre-Dame during programs or conferences broadcast on the internet. On May 12, Father Drouin intervened, by videoconference, in a meeting organized by the Catholic Teaching of Paris. Perhaps unaware that the meeting would be webcast, the liturgist presented some extracts from the cathedral restoration project classified as “ confidential ”. During his speech, he unrolled the breadcrumb trail that inspired the redefinition of the spaces of Notre-Dame. He mentioned in particular a ” catechumenal path ” (*) whose goal would be to evangelize tourists who will start visiting the cathedral again after its reopening. For the priest, before the fire, “Twelve million visitors” came each year to Notre-Dame with “multiple motivations” , among them many were “of non-Christian culture” or even “post-Christian.”…

The project revealed in the spring of 2021 by the liturgist of Notre-Dame showed the aspect that the renovated chapels could have had. Two alternatives were presented: the conservation of the stained-glass windows of Viollet-le-Duc and the affixing of abstract pictorial works on the walls. Or the substitution of old stained-glass windows with new ones dedicated to modern subjects, while retaining the current appearance of the walls.

It sounds like any plans to alter the stained glass were already ruled out by the state so that’s not going to happen, but that still leaves a lot of new features:

In an interview he gave to the program “Le Jour du Seigneur” published on July 11, 2021 on the internet, the architect Patrick Rimoux had mentioned luminous writings, dedicated to biblical passages, projected on the walls. These projections could be accompanied by a sound diffusion which would accompany the visitors along the catechumenal course. He had spoken about it to Father Drouin in the spring. These inscriptions were also mentioned by Christian Rousselot, the director general of the Notre-Dame Foundation who confirmed to our British colleagues a “ discovery trail for visitors. ”.According to him, visitors admire paintings and symbols without necessarily understanding their meaning, and words are as important as images and sculptures, so it would be ” planned to project certain words and expressions in Mandarin, French or Spanish and English “.

On the one hand I don’t think you can fault Christians for wanting to use a highly trafficked cathedral to evangelize. On the other hand, adding projectors, “sound diffusion” and abstract pictures to the walls isn’t really in keeping with a “restoration” of an 800 year-old cathedral. It really does sound like something Disney Imagineers might come up with.

We’ve already been through one round of this. Initially there were plans to host a contest open to architects for a new take on the roof of Notre Dame. But that plan was quickly shelved as most people, including donors, wanted a true restoration of what had been lost, not a brand new approach. So now that these plans for an updated interior have leaked, I guess we’ll see what the reaction is.