A Damaged House to Be Restored

by Steven W. Semes, appearing in Volume 36

The west façade of Notre-Dame remains intact after the fire. Photo: Steven W. Semes

The west façade of Notre-Dame remains intact after the fire. Photo: Steven W. Semes


After Notre-Dame burned, most non-specialists assumed that a monument of its importance would be restored to its former state. The architectural community argued for “innovative” designs intended to transform radically the physical form and the meaning of the cathedral. The different reactions reveal once again how far the contemporary architectural community has diverged from any possibility of cultural consensus, even with respect to one of the world’s greatest monuments.

Emblematic for the debate was the nineteenth-century spire (or flèche) that formerly rose above the crossing and collapsed in flames at the height of the fire. Should this “modern” element be reconstructed along with the medieval timber roof structure or be replaced by a new design…or by nothing?

Scholarship and Design

The spire was designed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–1879) as part of the twenty-five-year-long restoration project he and Jean-Baptiste Lassus began in 1844 to repair the extensive damage suffered by the cathedral and its sculptural decoration following the French Revolution and decades of neglect. An earlier spire had been removed in 1786. Viollet-le-Duc’s design for the new spire was, in part, based on a meticulous study of this and other cathedrals from the same time in the Ile de France and, in part, a pure product of his skills as a designer.

This dual character of the design is important. While his reputation has waxed and waned over the years, Viollet-le-Duc was unquestionably the principal authority on French Gothic architecture in the nineteenth century and a skilled designer and restorer. Historical scholarship and new design were inseparable aspects of his métier.

In his extensive writings, he describes how restoration and design ideally form a continuity in which the restorer must enter the mind of the original designer-builder in order to create whatever new work is needed, as if that original designer had simply returned centuries later to finish the job. This is no esoteric “channeling” of an ancient spirit, but the fruit of years of patient study and hands-on experience, working with the same materials and methods as the original builders.

It is a way of designing “from the inside” rather than as a detached, and presumably culturally remote, observer. This, more than any other difference, separates Viollet-le-Duc’s approach from his present-day peers.

Work began immediately after the fire to assess damage and protect the cathedral. Photo: Steven W. Semes

Work began immediately after the fire to assess damage and protect the cathedral. Photo: Steven W. Semes


The Restorers

Viewing the damage, many people assumed what we have been told for many decades by modernist architects: that there are no craftsmen capable of restoring such a structure, the technical and artistic know-how to direct such a project no longer exists, and that the materials required are no longer obtainable. But perhaps the only silver lining in this tragedy is that it happened in France, a country with some of the most capable conservation specialists in the world.

While critics have rightly criticized the national and local governments’ deferred maintenance of Notre-Dame and other monuments throughout France, the French program of training and cultivation of traditional building skills is second to none. (It was that criticism that finally prompted the major maintenance and preservation work that was in progress when the fire broke out.)

Among the resources available is the Compagnons du Devoir, the present-day descendant of the medieval guilds that promotes excellence in the building trades and whose member masons, stone-carvers, timber framers, stained-glass artists, plasterers, and metalworkers continue to pursue their ancient crafts. Of all countries, France is probably in the best position to solve the technical challenges of rebuilding the roof and spire, consolidating the masonry structure, and restoring the entire cathedral to its historic state.

Fashionable Proposals

The true challenge for the future of Notre-Dame is not technical, but cultural, and concerns not how to restore it but why. While a faithful restoration of the previous state is surely what most non-specialists want to see, a substantial segment of the political-cultural elite have argued against restoration and in favor of innovation. The French Prime Minister, in announcing a design competition, called for a Notre-Dame “even more beautiful than before.”

In response, a steady stream of architects’ proposals appeared, from established names like Sir Norman Foster to dozens of young designers hoping to catch the eye of the decision-makers, almost entirely politicians. (The cathedral, like almost all Church-related sites in France, is property of the state.) These design concepts fell into familiar categories reflecting current fashions in architecture:

Glass-clad structures assumed to be transparent (but are so only at night) and seen as metaphors of “transparency” and “openness.” Some schemes seemed to suggest that the glass roof would bring daylight into the cathedral’s interior, but this would only happen if the vaulted ceiling were removed or the gaping holes created by the falling spire were to remain unrestored.

Gossamer-thin engineered structural systems, usually depicted in renderings that greatly underestimate the bulk of the members needed to resist horizontal as well as vertical loads.

“Green” building taken literally: the glass structures become greenhouses in which plants—including mature trees—will be cultivated, rainwater collected, and carbon extracted from the air. One scheme promised “carbon net-zero” performance and energy independence. There are no indications of how the medieval walls and vaulting would be able to support the load of the soil and trees, or how these would be irrigated.

The search for new and bizarre shapes: Contemporary architecture is the first in human history to promote the search for intentionally meaningless forms. In contrast with the spires of the Gothic or Viollet-le-Duc, the replacement towers so far suggested are abstract shapes without reference to any previous architecture, or anything else.

Whatever the aesthetic merit of these proposals, the practical difficulties soon became obvious. In most of the schemes the designers gave no indication of the potential visual impact of the elevators, emergency stairs, rest rooms, and mechanical services that would be required to serve a vast public space hundreds of feet above street level, not to mention the cafés and gift shops that are de rigeur at historic sites today. Like much contemporary design, these renderings are essentially still-shots from an architectural video game in which such banal factors as building codes, human needs, or even gravity are far from the designer’s mind.

The campanile in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice suddenly collapsed in 1902. Photo: wikimedia.org

The campanile in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice suddenly collapsed in 1902. Photo: wikimedia.org

Reconstruction of the campanile, 1911. Photo: Library of Congress

Reconstruction of the campanile, 1911. Photo: Library of Congress

Authentic Restoration

A repeated argument against reconstruction centered on the issue of authenticity: rebuilding the roof and spire would only produce a copy or, indeed, a fake. This line of thought has a history.

In 1902, the campanile of San Marco in Venice suddenly collapsed into a pile of rubble and was subsequently reconstructed dov’era com’era (where it was, as it was). In 1963, the Italian theorist Cesare Brandi complained in his book Theory of Restoration that the tower should not have been reconstructed but should have been replaced by an abstract “vertical element” that would have maintained the role of marker between the Piazza and the Piazzetta while having no resemblance to the previous tower.

Brandi was among those in the conservation field who from the 1930s onward insisted on a sharp difference between historic and new construction for the sake of correct “historical consciousness.” Any new construction or restoration in the style of a previous period was seen as a “falsification of history.” Generations of glass buildings juxtaposed with historic masonry structures have flowed from Brandi’s slender book.

Most of the proposals for Notre-Dame followed this idea. The proposed “vertical elements” range from the roughly pyramidal spike suggested by Foster, to needles emerging seamlessly from the slopes of the roof, to the more “parametric” designs for shapes vaguely resembling shards or flames.

At an urban scale, the modernist proposals promote the further de-contextualization of the monument, a process begun in the nineteenth century, when the historic context around this and many other cathedrals was changed so that the monument would stand alone in a vast open space, cleared of the much lower and more modest buildings that originally crowded around it. The medieval builders intentionally kept the open space around the cathedrals limited and intimate, shortening and narrowing the possible views, thereby emphasizing the vertical lines as opposed to the more “panoramic” vistas so prized today.

This change is the physical correlative of the transformation of the cathedral from a place of devotion to one of artistic contemplation and, later, tourism. The sight of a glass roof and spire would complete this process, changing the appearance of the cathedral itself and juxtaposing the medieval and the contemporary in ways that will inevitably be to the detriment of the historic meaning of the cathedral.

Indispensable Work

Some will claim that international conservation norms prohibit reconstruction of the previous spire and require construction of modern elements in place of those destroyed. They will quote the 1964 Charter of Venice, drawn up by conservation professionals to guide the restoration of historic buildings, and still taken by many as authoritative. It says “any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and bear a contemporary stamp.”

But this does not mean the new spire must be a shard of glass. It is a requirement that anything that must be added to a restoration be identifiable as added and be datable by knowledgeable observers. For example, if the original timber roof framing were to be reconstructed, it would have to be marked to identify it as a twenty-first-century addition, but there is no requirement in the Charter for contrasting style or materials within the restoration itself. (This is clearer in the original French text which, presumably, the French architects are reading.)

The same article of the Venice Charter says “restoration must stop where conjecture begins,” but at Notre-Dame, no conjecture is needed. Indeed, few monuments in the world are as extensively documented as Notre-Dame. Nineteenth-century drawings show Viollet-le-Duc’s work in detail, recent digital 3-D scanning is the most precise form of recording yet devised, and the sculptures from the base of the spire that had been removed before the fire can be returned to their places. All this allows complete restoration without guesswork.

Those of us with a professional interest in conservation of cultural heritage have expressed the need to consider Notre-Dame a damaged house in need of repair, not a marketing opportunity for the would-be architects of the New Notre-Dame or for the commercial interests who, like President Macron, want the cathedral reborn in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024. (Viollet-le-Duc spent twenty-five years restoring the cathedral. The current situation might require ten or more to do the job right.)

The former director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, Francesco Bandarin, noted the “outstanding universal value” of the cathedral, including its nineteenth-century restorations, and called for the monument to be restored precisely to its pre-fire appearance. Organizations like UNESCO, the World Heritage commission, and Europa Nostra have clearly stated their support for a thorough restoration program, a position supported by over a thousand conservation experts in an open letter to President Macron. Other thoughtful responses on the American side of the Atlantic were offered by Mark Allan Hewitt in Common Edge and Peter Pennoyer in The New Criterion.

A Restored Culture

Will these arguments persuade those in whose hands the cathedral’s fate rests? The track record of the political leadership, both in Paris and in France, gives one pause. The mayor of Paris has said that Paris must be “reinvented” if it is to compete with other world cities. The government has approved new skyscrapers within the peripherique (the central city) and highly contrasting modernist buildings in the heart of the historic center, including the new Welcome Center for the Prefecture de Police a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame. The city is removing traditional kiosks and public drinking fountains that are smaller-scale emblems of the city.

If any city in the world did not need reinventing, it is Paris. Even less does Notre-Dame have to be reinvented. Cathedral and city alike need only the loving care that will ensure their health and beauty into the distant future. The decision of the French Senate to restore the cathedral to its previous condition may have settled the question in this direction.

“A Vision for Notre Dame” Reconstruction Proposal. Photo: www.AVisionForNotreDame.com by Renaildo Hernandez, Jacques Levet, and Rene Salas

“A Vision for Notre Dame” Reconstruction Proposal. Photo: www.AVisionForNotreDame.com by Renaildo Hernandez, Jacques Levet, and Rene Salas

One design proposal presented by three recent graduates of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture presents an inspiring vision of a future Notre-Dame. This is the only design proposal seen so far that calls for both complete restoration of the cathedral and a systematic training program at the site to promote the traditional crafts and skills that can ensure long-term survival of our historic cities and buildings.

It looks beyond the monument itself to the building culture as a whole, in which the skill of the restorer and the art of the craftsman are once again widely diffused. Such an architectural proposal is, ultimately, a cultural project to overturn the presumptions of the international cultural elites and architectural establishment.


As we patiently await further news from the brave investigators who are now assessing the damage to the cathedral’s structure and the means necessary for its stabilization, we can hope that imagination and faith will prevail over commercial and political interests. At its best, the restoration of Notre-Dame can be a laboratory and school for a restored building culture, a place where the architectural embodiment of transcendent ideas is once again conceivable.