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Why Rebuild a Gothic ‘Addition’ to Notre Dame?

Two days after the horrific fire at the most beloved Gothic cathedral in the world Prime Minister Philippe announced a competition to replace the spire. Why would we replace the historic cathedral spire unless it was ugly, poorly constructed, or incongruous with the cathedral? A few days later, we saw the first of many designs exhibiting a greenhouse and a glass and steel spire [1] denuded of all reference to the masterpiece. What should be done with Notre Dame’s spire?

First we need to understand the history of the spire. An earlier spire in danger of falling was dismantled in 1786 and the French revolution assured that it was not rebuilt. Only when the cathedral was restored seventy years later was a new spire added. That second spire is the one that was destroyed during Holy Week.

The spire — in architectural terms, the flèche or arrow — is typically a metal tower with a conical roof placed at a crossing or on top of another tower. New Yorkers can see them on various churches throughout the city. At Notre Dame the flèche marked the crossing, where the nave and transept meet. It pointed up to the heavens like an arrow for which it is named.

The architect, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, created something new but in the original style. After a study of historic towers, he determined that Notre Dame required a flèche equal to the height of the main church body which is 150 feet tall. At 305 feet above the ground, its only rival in Paris until recently was the great spire by Eiffel. Thanks to the wonderful Parisian height limit the flèche can seen from around the city, most romantically from the banks of the Seine. A gray metallic pinnacle, the flèche seemed to grow organically out of the roof, while its design was in perfect keeping with the stained-glass windows and the flying buttresses below.

In the 1850s, the new spire was beautifully hand-crafted out of 50 tons of lead over a wooden armature weighing 180 tons. This hidden oak structure was part of the attic structure, which helps explain why the fire brought down the spire so quickly. The octagonal base of the spire was surrounded by larger than life statues of the apostles and evangelists, fortuitously removed before the fire. Above them, two levels of pointed arches were crowned by gables and gargoyles. Tall pinnacles at the corners ring the pièce de résistance, the tall conical roof covered with croqs or crockets, inspired by the “crook” of a bishop. On top of the croq covered roof is a large cross topped by a coq (rooster).

The spire’s delicate and open tracery contrasted with the massive stone of the nave while the spire’s height and location balanced out the front two towers. Artists throughout the centuries have captured the elegance and picturesque quality of Viollet’s spire from around the city. Not all Gothic cathedrals have a spire at the crossing, and this is one of the many elements that sets Notre Dame and Viollet-le-Duc’s design masterfully apart.

Saint Thomas on the spire, resembling Viollet-le-Duc (Wikimedia Commons)

One does not have to be a Gothicist to appreciate Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration of Notre Dame. One of the most influential architects of the 19th century, he is best known for his restorations and harmonious additions to Gothic structures. He has also been criticized by historians and purists for taking liberties with historic buildings and “improving” them rather than merely rebuilding them. In this, Viollet did what most talented architects in the Gothic period would have done. Perhaps his great sin was to call a sympathetic addition a “restoration.” However, one does not have to agree with his theories of restoration to see that Viollet’s flèche at Notre Dame was an original yet seamless addition to a magnificent cathedral. Up until its fiery destruction, no sane person was calling for its removal.

Now what shall be done, with the flèche and indeed with much of the whole building needing to be restored? Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and the architectural community want to build something new, something that looks 21st century. Why not a glass and steel tower, an asymmetrical shard, a diamond-tipped laser going up to the sky? Is that not what Viollet-le-Duc and the great Gothic architects before him would have done if they could have? Wouldn’t they have built in the spirit of the times?

Yes and no. Viollet and his forbears certainly sought to develop contemporary solutions for Gothic architecture such as missing spires. Sometimes this resulted in new designs, as it did in Viollet’s flèche, or modifications to the original, as it did in much of the rest of the cathedral. But they did so in humility towards the construction methods and artistry of the original. Yes, Viollet felt that he could make a better spire than the one that had been pulled down in 1786, but then he also knew how to speak the language of Gothic architecture fluently.

A 17th-century map including Notre Dame’s spire (left). Construction of Violett’s 19th-century addition. (Wikimedia Commons)

So why not allow contemporary architects to try their own hand at building a spire on top of the most important house of God in France? First, because Viollet’s spire is a great work of architecture on a world heritage site, and secondly because most contemporary architects couldn’t design Gothic to save their life. Those architects who have tried to design using the Gothic or Classical languages today will humbly admit the brilliance and timelessness of Viollet’s work. If you don’t agree, please name ten Gothic spires, from anywhere and anytime, that are considered more beautiful than Notre Dame’s spire.

This returns us to the original question of what to do with Notre Dame and all of the contemporary architects who cannot wait to get their hands on it? Notre Dame deserves a harmonious spire worthy of this great cathedral not an ugly, incongruous spike. As for the architects, they should have the freedom to experiment somewhere else.

Duncan Stroik is a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, in the U.S., and an architect who focuses on church architecture.

21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Why Rebuild a Gothic ‘Addition’ to Notre Dame?"

#1 Comment By Fazal Majid On April 25, 2019 @ 10:18 pm

Notre-Dame is special because it is in Paris, but far from the most important house of God in France. Chartres, Vézelay or the the Mont Saint-Michel have stronger claims.

#2 Comment By Robert Ecklund On April 25, 2019 @ 11:06 pm

Notre Dame needs to be rebuilt just as it was, Including the Spire, It is a symbol, a connection between past and present, It is a Glory to God, and to change it would diminish the whole.

#3 Comment By polistra On April 26, 2019 @ 4:26 am

Wouldn’t be too quick to blame the wood. Lead melts (600F) before a hefty wood beam burns (800F). This was visible in videos of the fire. The lead surface of the main roof melted quickly, leaving the oak rafters, which came down later.

#4 Comment By God help the french, because Macron won’t On April 26, 2019 @ 6:36 am

One can only hope the french go with the Russian experts on this project. They have done masterful work reviving the churches and cathedrals of Russia, that the Soviets so maliciously tried to annihilate. With no greater testament being the reconstruction of the Christ the Saviour Cathedral of Moscow.

A few other stand outs as well:

St. Michael’s Cathedral in Izhevsk
Kazan Cathedral
Uspensky Cathedral in Omsk
Trinity Cathedral In St Petersburg

#5 Comment By Mother124 On April 26, 2019 @ 9:01 am

Liberals just can’t resist re-doing something in their own image.

#6 Comment By TomG On April 26, 2019 @ 9:52 am

By all means, we in the USA need to tell the French what they should do with their cathedral. We, the tear down, burn down, bomb the hell out of everything across the globe culture have so much to teach others–so little to learn ourselves.

#7 Comment By Liam On April 26, 2019 @ 10:00 am

Because most of the great architects working in the modern idiom with modern techniques are not that good in that older idiom.

And many well-known firms architects who profess to embrace traditional idioms don’t get their proportions, materials and details right except at small scale (like a private chapel), for that matter.

The best approach here would be restoration of the fleche with appropriate safeguards for future maintenance and preservation. It will almost certainly get criticism for being “soul-less” (like the rebuilt basilica of S Paul’s in Rome), but as things go that’s not something to fret about.

#8 Comment By Nick On April 26, 2019 @ 12:51 pm

Interesting—-I was going to say why rebuild the spire at all? I did not realize that there was a spire prior to the one that just collapsed.

#9 Comment By DennisW On April 26, 2019 @ 12:56 pm

Since the vast majority of the structure survived the fire, basically we are just talking about the need for a new roof here, not a complete “re-build,” so that should, in theory, limit the extent to which modernists can wreak havoc on the overall Cathedral with their “re-imaginings.”

The new roof should adhere as closely as possible to the original and be aesthetically integrated into the Cathedral rather than stand-out as some obviously incongruous addition plunked down on top. So that should exclude the all-glass concepts that I’ve seen bandied about the internet (utterly banal and predictable by the way; about as original at this point as a golf course architect throwing an island green into his plans).

Also, have the people pushing an all-glass design for the roof – on the theory that it will allow more light into the cathedral – not considered that the vault will prevent such light getting through, and that they will merely be lighting up the attic space between the vault and actual roof? Or do they intend to destroy the interior vault as well? Can the vault be removed without structurally weakening the entire structure?

#10 Comment By Matthew Brown On April 26, 2019 @ 1:14 pm

Yes, indeed! The reason Modernists have so little understanding of or appreciation for Gothic or Gothic Revival architecture, is that one of the principal tenets of Modernism is a rejection of historic styles. Their hero Le Corbusier wanted to level the center of Paris and replace it with 18 identical high rises. The “Plan Voisin.”

#11 Comment By The Dean On April 26, 2019 @ 1:56 pm

Since we are talking about rebuilding this great cathedral after the fire, is it too soon to ask the French government the cause of the fire? Since it was not electrical I am very curious about the men who were repairing the fleche and working in “the forest” interior.
Curious how these fires like the one in Orleans last July had Allah Akbar spray painted on the walls.

#12 Comment By cka2nd On April 26, 2019 @ 7:06 pm

Mother124 says: “Liberals just can’t resist re-doing something in their own image.”

TomG says: “By all means, we in the USA need to tell the French what they should do with their cathedral. We, the tear down, burn down, bomb the hell out of everything across the globe culture have so much to teach others–so little to learn ourselves.”

There are a hell of a lot of Americans who have been fighting against just those things TomG lists, and in favor of architectural preservation, for that matter, for a long time. Many of them liberals, Mother124.

No “re-imagining” of the roof and spire by ignorant, arrogant, self-satisfied, self-indulgent modernist and post-modernist architects, please!

#13 Comment By Rossbach On April 26, 2019 @ 7:59 pm

The elegance and Gothic majesty of the Notre Dame Cathedral is probably gone forever. Its fate is, unfortunately, in the hands of the globalist traitors who run the French government. The collapsed spire of the Cathedral is to be replaced by some bastardized EU-themed monstrosity.

Personally, I would rather see the remains of the building razed to the ground than let traitors like Emmanuel Macron toy with it. It is better to have a memory of Notre Dame than a mockery of it.

#14 Comment By John D. Thullen On April 27, 2019 @ 2:47 pm

The original Notre Dame spire and the one that replaced it were “modernist” at the time they were built.

Liberal, even, I would imagine, according to the chronically dyspeptic conservatives of the time.

Some conservatives then probably muttered words like “phallic” to themselves as they spat into a choleric gutter and hunched away.

I’d like to see the original spire rebuilt as was, but safer and sturdier, but this conservative versus liberal battle over it that TAC is attempting to make of it makes me hope they to erect an image of Martin Luther on the structure, lit with the lights of the Folies Bergere just for the spittle-flecked outrage it will cause among some of the leadership here, mother.

As alluded to by another commenter, liberals, and some conservatives have been excoriated by the Right in this country for decades over the former’s continually erecting barriers to economic development to “conserve” historic structures, including churches.

Grow up.

#15 Comment By James On April 27, 2019 @ 4:59 pm

How comical to see American conservatives bleating their love of gothic ornamentation atop a cathedral in the heart of secular Europe. Perhaps their beloved Trump should help fund the construction of a giant phallus to more aptly portray their feelings of God.

#16 Comment By Shawn Mulligan On April 28, 2019 @ 3:35 am

If we rebuild the spire to the best of our ability copying the 17th century one, it doesn’t change the fact that the original is lost to us. No one lamented replacing the 14th century original or called to rebuild the earlier, unsafe structure.

What’s done can’t be undone. Either leave it as it is, or build something new, there is no third option.

#17 Comment By McCormick47 On April 28, 2019 @ 10:01 am

Why is it that conservatives have so much disdain for modernist architecture? Of course the loss of the original structure was horrific, but why replace it with flammable medieval technology?

#18 Comment By Liam On April 29, 2019 @ 3:43 pm

“Why is it that conservatives have so much disdain for modernist architecture? Of course the loss of the original structure was horrific, but why replace it with flammable medieval technology?”

I am not speaking for conservatives tout court, but allow me….

1. I don’t believe those calling for a restoration of the form of Viollet-le-Duc’s fleche necessarily mean requiring it to be constructed without regards to modern technological safeguards. Both can be done at the same time. And, before you sniff too much at “medieval technology”, please be advised that the medieval technology of Gothic cathedrals and their ilk was precisely designed to permit the building fabric to survive the burning down of their attics and roofs (their hats, as it were). It’s actually quite impressive technology, one that is hard to replicate now – our modern wants make it harder to build with the idea of buildings that will endure a millennium or more (rebars in concrete don’t last that long, and steel and glass likely not either, among other things). That technology is arguably ahead of its time in green sustainability than our own modern construction culture.

2. While there are any number of modern(ist) building designs I adore, there’s also a terrible history when it comes to arrogant, triumphalist and not well-conceived modern(ist) insertions into major historical buildings. One can already see the those impulses at work in some of the ideas being floated by designers for this. Skepticism has already been well-earned.

#19 Comment By Richard Quinn On April 29, 2019 @ 9:54 pm

The same arguments have been thrashed out in Germany over the last 20 years every time there was an intent to rebuild buildings lost during the war or, in the east, to Soviet bulldozers after the war. The usual progressive types (which seems to include most architects) always insist that the egos (and bank accounts) of architects must be assuaged by allowing them to expend vast sums of public money to build whatever self indulgent piece of rubbish they wish rather than something in keeping with the purpose of the original building and the desires of those who will use the rebuilt building. The incongruity of this point of view is especially stark when the lost building is a church. The intricate design features and biblical cues of such buildings are things that, if the agnostic or atheist architect had the slightest passing interest in them at all, would be regarded with boredom if not outright hostility. The hostility of architects to “rebuilds” reached it’s apogee with the intention to restore the wondrous Frauenkirche in Dresden that had been virtually obliterated in a firestorm following allied bombing at the end of WW2. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth by architects (and civil servants defending them) ordinary people made it very clear that they preferred for it to be rebuilt as close to the original as possible inside and out. The usual types harrumphed off and the task was completed by those few artisans who valued the original. The rebuilt church is a masterpiece (that incorporates a significant number of original blackened stones that were rescued and stored after the war for just such an eventuality) and the result has not just returned a deeply beautiful and spiritual space to earth but also helped make the previously destroyed center of Dresden one the must see places for tourists. But for German architects it was a scandalous exercise in pastiche – a kind of ‘Disneyland’ architecture. Which shows that many of their number, along with progressives and deep state dwellers, remain true to their out-of-touch, superior and wholly misguided view of the world and their relative importance in it. They must be fought and resisted with every breath because once things are lost and destroyed by their hands it is hard to get those things back.

#20 Comment By CaptDMO On April 30, 2019 @ 4:29 pm

I wonder why “Architects think….” that THEIR egos have been solicited?

#21 Comment By SteveK9 On April 30, 2019 @ 7:01 pm

Rossbach: ‘The elegance and Gothic majesty of the Notre Dame Cathedral is probably gone forever.’

That is not true. The ‘elegance and Gothic majesty’ of Notre Dame was not in the spire in any case, but in the massive and intricate stonework, which remains. When you stand in front of Notre Dame or in the interior, it is those gigantic walls and soaring columns and vaulting that take your breath away. One can hardly believe that humans could have created such a thing.

You would prefer the ‘remains’ of the building be razed to the ground? Thank God you probably represent 1 in 10 million with that opinion.