It Ought to Be Gothick

Image: wikimedia.org/British Library
Image: wikimedia.org/British Library
Christopher Wren’s bell tower was added to the Christ Church gatehouse at Oxford in 1681. Photo: flickr.com/Timothy Burling
Christopher Wren’s bell tower was added to the Christ Church gatehouse at Oxford in 1681. Photo: flickr.com/Timothy Burling

In 1681, the great Christopher Wren was called upon to add a bell tower (today known as Tom Tower) to the unfinished gatehouse of the Great Quadrangle of Christ Church in Oxford. The college had been built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey 150 years earlier in the castellated Late Gothic style that was then popular. By 1681, such architecture was definitely out of fashion and Wren, who was Britain’s leading architect and an active proponent of Renaissance classicism, might have been expected to add a classical tower to Christ Church. Instead, he chose to fit in rather than stand out. As he succinctly explained, the tower “ought to be Gothick to agree with the Founder’s worke.”

I was reminded of Wren during the events that followed the calamitous four-hour fire that destroyed the roof and spire of Notre-Dame de Paris this April. A few days after the fire, the government of Emmanuel Macron announced that it intended to hold an international architectural competition to rebuild the cathedral.

The Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, emphasized that the spire should be restored in a manner “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” President Macron himself promised that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt within five years (in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris), and that it would be an “inventive reconstruction,” a “contemporary architectural gesture” that would leave the cathedral “more beautiful than before.”

The architectural community, reading between the lines, saw an opportunity. Soon, dozens of proposals flooded the internet. Many unknown architects—and a few well-known figures such as Norman Foster—had a go. Since glass is the material du jour, many of the ambulance-chasers proposed putting a glass roof over the nave. Maybe it would be a greenhouse, maybe a viewing platform, whatever. Predictably, the replacement spires tended to be glass shards or steel spikes, although a pair of Italian architects proposed a Baccarat crystal.

The rest of the world looked on in growing disbelief—and concern. The official architect of the cathedral, who had been supervising a painstaking renovation over the past six years, pointed out that a five-year schedule was unrealistic. Le Figaro published a protest letter calling for a more measured response, not an “architectural gesture.” The more than one thousand signatories included a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the two chief curators of the Louvre, and a number of prominent French preservationists.

On May 28, the French Senate, the country’s prime legislative body, passed a resolution stipulating that any rebuilding must abide by existing planning, environmental, and heritage regulations—in other words, no rush. Moreover, the result should be faithful to Notre-Dame’s “last known visual state”—no steel spikes. Before it became law, the resolution had to be approved by the National Assembly.

The debate there was lively, much of it centering on the difference between rebuilding and restoring. “I don’t want it to be more beautiful than before,” proclaimed one deputy, “I want it to be identical!” Finally, on July 16, after the Senate and the National Assembly failed to reach agreement on a common text, the National Assembly, where Macron’s centrist party has a majority, passed a reconstruction bill. The legislation does not address the actual architectural form of the rebuilding, one way or the other.

A Peculiar Art

A few days after the fire, Slate posted a rather silly article titled “Let’s Not Rebuild Notre-Dame.” The gist of the article was that any reconstruction of the medieval building would be inauthentic, so it would be best to leave it alone. “Just like we visit ruined castles, let’s visit Notre-Dame and be conscious that with it, a part of our civilization has gone up in smoke,” wrote the author, a Parisian translator named Bérengère Viennot, “that we must accept it, with its scars and its losses, because that’s what’s left.”

Viennot’s article reflects the common view that great buildings are like inviolable works of art; if an arm breaks off the Venus de Milo you don’t stick on a new one. But architecture is a peculiar art. As soon as a building is finished, it begins to change. Practical considerations intrude, people move things around. Unlike paintings, buildings are left out in the rain (as Frank Lloyd Wright used to say), they weather, things break or wear out and are repaired or replaced. And it’s not just the users and the elements—buildings are subject to natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and fires, as well as manmade destruction such as military bombardment, vandalism, and insensitive alteration. The last is hardly the least dangerous. An owner’s desire to remain up-to-date, no less than a fire, is always a potential threat to an old building.

Buildings last for centuries, and are routinely altered to accommodate changing functions. The Great Mosque of Córdoba, for example, was enlarged three times between 784 and 987 to accommodate the growing population of the city. There was no master plan, but over two centuries successive generations of builders and craftsmen copied what was there, even as they rebuilt the minaret and introduced domes and lanterns. The result, like so many great buildings, is a palimpsest; layers of history—including lots of reused Roman columns—and all the more compelling for it.

The corner stone of Notre-Dame de Paris was laid in 1163. As was common practice, construction began with the choir and proceeded westward—that way mass could be said in the unfinished church. The construction, which proceeded in several bouts, took a hundred years. When the nave was complete the clerics concluded that the altar area was too dark and a transept was added. In the mid-thirteenth century the transept was enlarged and remodeled with lacier stonework and dazzling rose windows. By then the towers of the west façade were complete. They are not identical, although not as different as those of Chartres Cathedral, one of which is Romanesque, the other Gothic.

Over the years, Notre-Dame has suffered many slings and arrows: Huguenot rioters sacked the church in the sixteenth century; in the seventeenth, Louis XIV rebuilt the rood screen, opened up the choir, added a new high altar, and replaced many of the stained-glass windows with clear glass; during the French Revolution the church was looted and its west front was damaged—the sans-culottes decapitated the statues of the Kings of Judah believing them to represent French monarchs. Napoleon had himself crowned in the cathedral, reinstating the building as a national symbol, although he didn’t repair it, just slapped on a coat of whitewash.

An engraving by Jean-Baptiste Scotin shows the interior of Notre-Dame in the early eighteenth century, before Viollet-le-Duc’s renovation. Image: wikimedia.org
An engraving by Jean-Baptiste Scotin shows the interior of Notre-Dame in the early eighteenth century, before Viollet-le-Duc’s renovation. Image: wikimedia.org


The old church was not in great shape, and in the mid-nineteenth century it underwent a major rehabilitation. The work was overseen by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, in many ways the inventor of the modern practice of historic preservation. He removed the neoclassical features added in the seventeenth century, restored much of the stained glass (that work was only completed in the 1960s), and replaced looted statuary. He also built a 300-foot flèche, or spire, over the crossing, the original having been removed in 1786 and never replaced. “To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it,” he once famously wrote, “it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.” This somewhat cryptic statement underlines the paradox of restoration, which is that “completeness” is not a natural condition of architecture, and that a restored building represents something new as well as something old. Viollet-le-Duc’s work on Notre-Dame was sometimes creative, such as the famous roof gargoyles that were not a part of the original medieval fabric. But whatever he did was carried out in the Gothic spirit; “What would a medieval master builder have done?” was his ruling principle.

Why a Question?

So why is there even a question of how Notre-Dame should be rebuilt? To understand, one has to go back to the early 1900s and the emergence of architectural modernism, one of whose founding principles was that every age requires its own unique architecture. As the field of historic preservation developed it adopted the same doctrine: When old buildings were added to, or substantially altered, the new work should be distinct from the old—“of its time” was the phrase often used. That is what Macron meant by “inventive reconstruction.”

The idea that an old building becomes inauthentic if it is seamlessly restored is a credo that has been repeated so often it’s easy to forget that this was not the way that buildings were repaired in the past. It was the custom among the ancient Chinese, when an important building was damaged or destroyed by earthquake or fire, to simply rebuild as if nothing had happened. For example, the largest building in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, was originally built in 1406. Over the years it was destroyed by fire (usually caused by lightning strikes) no fewer than seven times. Each time it was faithfully rebuilt, the most recent reconstruction dating from the end of the seventeenth century. Thus the building that is there today is slightly more than 300 years old, although the design is 300 years older than that. No one has ever called it a fake.

Europeans, while not as dogmatically wedded to tradition as the ancient Chinese, were similarly conservative. When the Doge’s Palace in Venice suffered a major fire in 1577, the architect Andrea Palladio proposed a major makeover. Why not replace the old-fashioned façade, built in the fifteenth century, with something new, something modern, he argued? In Palladio’s case, something modern meant all’antica, in the style of the ancients. But the Venetians liked their quirky Gothic building with its squat pointed arches and colorfully patterned walls, and that is what they rebuilt.

Andrea Palladio’s Classical design for rebuilding the Doge’s Palace in Venice after a fire in 1577 was rejected in favor of reconstructing the Gothic façade. Image: The Drawings of Andrea Palladio by Douglas Lewis
Andrea Palladio’s Classical design for rebuilding the Doge’s Palace in Venice after a fire in 1577 was rejected in favor of reconstructing the Gothic façade. Image: The Drawings of Andrea Palladio by Douglas Lewis


Saint Mark’s campanile, the bell tower that stands in front of the Doge’s Palace, was completed in 1511. In the following four centuries the 400-foot tower survived fires and several lightning strikes until 1902 when, for unexplained reasons, it suddenly collapsed. The collapse was total—contemporary photographs show a mound of debris in the Piazza San Marco. What did the Venetians do? It took them less than a day to decide to rebuild it exactly as it had been before (adding only structural reinforcement and an elevator). Today’s architecture critics would call it Disneyfication, but to the Venetians it just seemed like good sense.

Modern warfare, with its artillery bombardment and aerial bombing, has been the scourge of architecture. During the First World War, Ypres in Belgium was the site of five separate battles and suffered inestimable damage—by the end of the war the entire city was reduced to rubble. The old market square included a thirteenth-century cathedral and the medieval Cloth Hall, one of the largest secular Gothic buildings in Europe—both now lay in ruins. Both buildings were subsequently meticulously rebuilt according to their original design, a project that took forty years. The modern-day visitor would be forgiven for believing that the immense Cloth Hall with its tall central belfry is a survivor of the fourteenth century, and in a way it is—even though it was built in the twentieth.

In the past, when a beloved old building suffered misfortune, the common practice was to rebuild what was there before. This is what the citizens of Ypres did in their town center, just as after the Second World War Poles would rebuild the medieval Old Town in Warsaw, Germans would rebuild the historical center of Dresden, and the British would restore the bomb-damaged House of Commons in London. Nostalgia was certainly involved, but also a spirit of defiance: history is not destiny, it can be reversed, things can be put right.

The Best Way to Rebuild

The best way to rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris would be to restore what was there, as if the fire never happened; there is no need to commemorate a senseless accident. The structural damage will have to be repaired first. Gothic cathedrals were built with belt-and-suspenders: the nave was spanned by a ribbed stone vault, but the actual weight of the roof with its heavy lead covering was carried on an independent wooden structure of rafters, braces, and tie-beams. The Notre-Dame fire, which started in the attic of the north transept, totally destroyed this structure.

A recent report in the New York Times suggested that had the fire not been prevented from spreading to the wooden structure that supports the eight giant bells of the north tower, the damage might have been much, much worse. But it was bad enough. The roof is gone, the spire is gone, and three large portions of the thin stone vault collapsed under the weight of the falling 750-ton spire. Establishing the integrity of the surviving vault is the most pressing question. The twenty-one flying buttresses of the choir have been temporarily reinforced and work is currently underway to ascertain what damage the heat of the fire—and the massive quantities of water—may have caused to the stone. Replacing and repairing the vault will be a challenging task.

Whether it is necessary to replicate the heavy oak framing of the roof itself is debatable. Wouldn’t a fireproofed steel structure—lighter and more fire-resistant—be a better option? The lead roofing of the nave and the spire could be replaced by something environmentally safer (the melted lead roofing has caused serious levels of toxic contamination in the area surrounding the cathedral). The design of a new flèche will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate. Viollet-le-Duc built a distinctive and beautiful two-story wooden spire that was taller and more ornate than the medieval original. This has led some to describe it as superfluous. But the nineteenth-century spire, like Viollet-le-Duc himself, has become a part of the history of the cathedral, no less than the iconic gargoyles, and it deserves to be replaced. And whatever its exact design, it ought to be Gothic.

Efforts to “improve” Notre-Dame should be resisted. There is a place for steel spikes and Baccarat crystal, just not here.

Witold Rybczynski is emeritus professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. His latest book is Charleston Fancy: Little Houses and Big Dreams in the Holy City. This essay appeared in The American Interest, Vol. 15, No. 1, and is used with permission.