The Cathedral and the Island

Reconstruction according to a divine masterplan is the key to life. Without it there can be no life: a cessation of reconstruction means death. A dead body ceases to reconstruct. Death of an individual means that its organic matter and organization is entering a cycle of irreversible transformation. Instead the essence and soul of an individual building, contrary to the sanctity of a living being, lies not in its original materiality but in the originality of its design.

Contrarian Debates

The contrarian debate about possible futures of the roof and flèche of Notre-Dame focused worldwide attention on the meaning of reconstruction. It has culminated in the opposition of the French parliament to the expressed will of the president of France. It has thematized the smouldering contradictions between a modernist establishment and civil society in general.

The many reconstruction projects around Germany, in Dresden, Berlin, Potsdam, and Frankfurt, for example, were without exception undertaken by civic initiatives and international support against staunch oppositions by the modernist architects, administrators, and politicians.

In France, it is useful to remember, the wide oppositions against the nonsensical transformations for the Grand Louvre were bulldozed by President Mitterand against the then-director of the Louvre, André Chabaud, against articulate public opinion, and not least against the architecte en chef des Monuments Historiques, Jean-Claude Rochette. In 1984, when the commission Rochette presided over was scheduled to debate the matter, a special envoy of the Elysée Palace forbade the matter to even be discussed one hour later.

In the aftermath of the Notre-Dame fire, the French government’s rash reaction to open an international architectural competition for “inventing a better future” for Notre-Dame was the monumental mistake not to commit. The graphic discharges by famous architectural offices which hit the screens unrequested and unrequited in the following days demonstrated the absurdity of ever trusting modernist professionals with a task clearly beyond their horizon.

The Ile de la Cité

The decision by the French Parliament to reconstruct the roof and flèche dov’era e com’era (where it was and how it was) opens the debate to a wider field, namely to the future of the Ile de la Cité. Over the past twenty centuries the island evolved from the scale of a provincial capital to that of an administrative center for an imperial metropolis.

Haussmann’s monumentalization of the Ile de la Cité’s physical fabric obliterated the monumentality of Sainte-Chapelle and Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, demeaning their spiritual and physical pre-eminence. The drastic depopulation that ensued drained the economic and social vitality of the island.

Occupying roughly two-thirds of its surface, the recent transfers of the institutional mastodons and the vacated Palais de Justice, Prefecture de Police, Tribunal de Commerce and Hôtel-Dieu Hospital, confront the venerable island with a weighty historic change. A global reflection on a possible future for the epi-central real estate was pressing.

In 2016 a presidential “Ordre de Mission” correctly diagnosed the Ile de la Cité to be in an unsatisfactory state with a diminutive resident population. Alarmingly, the architect Dominique Perrault was appointed by President François Hollande and Mayor Anne Hidalgo to “reflect” on the future shape and use of the Ile de la Cité, the heart of Paris.

The presidential declaration of intent could be interpreted as a wish of returning the Ile to a more civic future. The choice of architect assured the exact opposite result.

Perrault is also the architect for the 2024 Olympic Village. He publicly affirmed that the the completion of Notre-Dame for that date would only be possible by using new building materials and construction techniques.

The proposed “Mission Ile de la Cité” project by architect Dominique Perrault. Image: DominiquePerraultArchitecte
The proposed “Mission Ile de la Cité” project by architect Dominique Perrault. Image: DominiquePerraultArchitecte


The Uber-Scale Architect

The acceleration of the Ile de la Cité project by President Macron following the Notre-Dame fire, the promise to have it all done in five years, and the colossal gifts by French plutocrats draw attention to the economic involvement in the operation of multi-national companies. The published project, called “Mission Ile de la Cité,” transforms the whole island into a glittering tourist mall.

Monsieur Perrault is not only the architect of the TGB (Très Grande Bibliothèque), but the sans-pareil of XXL-sized mono-use mega-structures. He is, so to speak, the Proconsul of Uber-scale, of machine-scale and spirit. I witnessed him on a shared round-table solemnly proclaiming that his was a “Mission Nationale.” No less.

Perrault is expert at exalting mechanical repetition to a degree of otherworldly sublimity, cold, alien, maybe exciting as anti-contextual abstractions, but always deadly for the geographic or human context into which they are, with violence, unloaded. His experience with traditional urban fabric and architecture is non-existent.

The scandalous choice is a reminder that nothing has changed in French cultural shock-politics. Despite the sterile Grands Travaux, the still-born La Défense, and the notorious failures of remodeling the Grands Ensembles, the “fear of backwardness,” methodically injected into the body politic by Mitterrand and his cultural inquisitors, still permits no deviation.

The last two mayors of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë and Anne Hidalgo, compulsively declare the need for Paris to be reinvented. Disregarding the numerous referenda that massively decided against high-rises, Hidalgo perforce propagates, permits, and now erects scale and character-breaking buildings within central Paris.

Since the powerful Commission du Vieux Paris was emasculated by Mayor Delanoë, citizen consultations and protests have become, if not a farce, a futile struggle, their small wins regularly overturned by the Conseil d’Etat. Even a state-minister is powerless against the calamitous trend. In 2012 Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira attempted to stop the construction of the 160-meter-high Palais de Justice mammoth on the péripherique, merely achieving a short delay in its delivery.

Ruinous Projects

Once contracted, ruinous projects can neither be stopped nor shorted like toxic investments. Links between giants of development, construction, finance, politics and administration are no secret. The astronomical cost-overruns at the Philharmonie de Paris, the Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia, the Centro Congressi in Rome and the hysterical expressions of the monumental follies stand as symbols of ethical and aesthetic corruption.

The Assemblée Nationale’s decision of July 2019, which overturns the presidential order in this architectural cause célèbre, signifies a long overdue paradigm shift. It is to be hoped that the resurrection of France’s most iconic building will also lead to an integral re-conception of the Ile de la Cité in its pre-imperial urban and architectural splendor.

Leon Krier is considered the godfather of the New Urbanism movement. He has served as a visiting professor at Yale School of Architecture and has created masterplans for several communities, including the Prince of Wales’ New Town of Poundbury. He received the inaugural Richard H. Driehaus Architecture Prize in 2003, given by the University of Notre Dame to the architect whose work embodies the highest ideals of traditional and Classical architecture in contemporary society.