Just before ten o’clock in the morning on Monday, July 14, 1902, the timeworn Campanile di San Marco, in Venice, collapsed into a pile of rubble. Once that rubble had been given a funeral-like burial at sea, the decision was made to rebuild the famous tower com’era, dov’era: as it was, where it was. And so, over the next decade, the tower was replicated in the precise image of its prior appearance—which dated to 1514, when Renaissance artisans completed their own restoration of what was already a five-hundred-year-old patchwork structure. By the spring of 1912, a new-old Campanile made it seem as if nothing had happened.

Two days after fire consumed the soaring spire that marked the intersection of the transept and nave of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe promised a different kind of restoration. After a special cabinet meeting, he announced a design competition for a new spire “that is adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era.” The evening before, President Emmanuel Macron had said in a national address that he wanted the cathedral repaired within five years, and that it would be restored “even more beautifully” than it had been before.

My Instagram feed was soon full of ideas. Many of them, featuring glassy shards and shiny spikes, looked as if Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, or maybe Elsa’s icy palace from “Frozen,” had pounced onto the back of the old church. The British starchitect Norman Foster—who famously replaced war-damaged portions of the Berlin Reichstag building with a glass-and-steel dome—enthused to the Guardian that contemporary design applied to Notre-Dame could result in a “combination of the dominant old with the best of the new.” On the other side, Jorge Otero-Pailos, the director of historic preservation at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, questioned the very notion of a contest, describing it in the Art Newspaper as “completely at odds with the fact that heritage is a bottom-up social process through which we make and remake our society.” He went on, “If you thought the fire was bad, wait for the damage from the spire that will come out of the competition.”

What might seem like a straightforward drama of historicity versus modernity is complicated by Notre-Dame’s recent past. The Gothic spire dates not to time immemorial—not, like the cathedral’s rose windows, to the mid-twelve-hundreds; not, like its putative cornerstone, to 1163; and not, like some of the thirteen hundred oak trees whose timbers constituted its forest-like attic, to the eighth century of the Common Era—but to the relatively latter-day year of 1859. The nearby gargoyle scuppers are a little older, having been installed in 1856. Nineteenth-century Notre-Dame was exactly where a modern idea of restoration—and its controversies—began.

The spire was the work of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a designer and scholar who, along with the architect Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus, restored and tinkered with the cathedral between 1844 and 1864. Viollet-le-Duc, a polymath and autodidact, avoided studying at the Paris École des Beaux-Arts, whose strict curriculum (heavy on the relics of Greece and Rome) has set the standard for professional study in architecture since 1806. Instead, he drifted around rural France, producing intricate engravings of old churches and villages, and, in the Alps, practicing amateur geology and mineralogy. He had a taste for the piquant and picturesque. The fanciful fortresses that he added to the medieval walls of the town of Carcassonne are said to have been a direct inspiration for the 1955 design of Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland. But Viollet-le-Duc was also what we would today call a modernist. He lectured that architecture should become “an experimental science” and drew up speculative designs for structures with load-bearing iron, whose tensile rods, tilted tubular columns, and socket-and-ball joints were inspired by anatomical studies of tendons and bones. Shortly before his death in 1879, he consulted with his onetime student Fréderic-Auguste Bartholdi on the engineering of the Statue of Liberty, proposing the innovative metal armature and repoussé hammer-molding of paper-thin copper sheets that made the new colossus technically possible.

Viollet-le-Duc was only thirty (though, thanks to his father’s employment as overseer of royal residences for Louis XVIII and Louis Philippe, a well-connected young man) when he won the competition to direct Notre-Dame’s conservation and restoration. By then, the building had suffered significant damage during the French Revolution, during which many of the stone Biblical kings on its west façade came in for symbolic decapitation, and after which the structure was, for a time, pointedly used as a warehouse. Viollet-le-Duc’s new spire, three hundred feet tall and made of approximately seven hundred and fifty tons of lead-coated oak, was notionally in memory of a wind-damaged thirteenth-century original that had been removed in 1786. But, to the extent that the shape of the old spire can be deduced from documentary evidence, Viollet-le-Duc made the new one taller, slimmer, straighter, sharper, and finer in its details and its point—and so, by the standards of his day, cooler.

To build a modern world is simultaneously to construct an idea of an ancient one. A consequence of the industrial and political revolutions of the nineteenth century was a new question about what to make of the built legacy of the past. In France, the writer Prosper Mérimée became the second inspector general of a newly established Commission on Historic Monuments, tasked with determining what elements of the nation’s architectural heritage should be preserved, and in what manner restored. In Great Britain, the designer William Morris established the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, in direct opposition to the kind of restoration that Viollet-le-Duc practiced—part of a great debate between the “Scrapers,” who liked to sharpen things up and, by adding Gothic Revival to medieval Gothic, mix artifice and authenticity, and the “Anti-Scrapers,” who favored conservation over invention. The Scraper sensibility is captured in Viollet-le-Duc’s surprising definition of the word restoration itself, in “Dictionnaire Raisonne de l’Architecture Francaise du XIe au XVIe Siècle,” from 1854: “Both the word and the thing are modern. To restore an edifice means neither to maintain it, nor to repair it, nor to rebuild it; it means to reestablish it in a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.”

Chief among the Anti-Scrapers was Viollet-le-Duc’s close contemporary, the British architectural historian John Ruskin, who wrote, in his 1849 treatise, “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” “Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton . . . but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust.” “I generally go first to Our Lady’s Church,” Ruskin later wrote of his architectural travels in Paris, referring to Notre-Dame by its English name, “though the towers and most part of the walls are now merely the modern model of the original building.”

Around three o’clock in the morning on Monday, July 9, 1984, lighting struck a cathedral in York, England, a thirteenth-century structure known as York Minster. It’s smallish by cathedral standards but, as Ruskin once described it, “characteristic English gothic, when it separated itself from . . . French.” Fire caused damage very similar to that at Notre Dame. Restoration followed the com’era, dov’era approach of the Venetians at the Campanile di San Marco. Hundreds of ancient oak trees, required to reconstruct the roof beams, were famously donated by English country squires—some of whom have already made the same offer to Notre-Dame. But something of the paradox of restoration is found in a recollection by York Minster’s former superintendent, who said thirty years later to the BBC, “I didn’t want anything modern and we all felt it should be done traditionally,” but he felt that what resulted was, “in fact, a big improvement on what was there before.” There is a paradoxical quality, too, in the language of the 1964 Venice Charter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the document that most resembles an international treaty on the restoration of such buildings as Notre-Dame. “Replacements of missing parts must integrate harmoniously with the whole,” Article 12 of the Charter states, “but at the same time be distinguishable from the original so that restoration does not falsify the artistic or historic evidence.”

The French Prime Minister stated that, at Notre-Dame, “the international competition will allow us to ask the question of whether we should even recreate the spire as it was conceived by Viollet-le-Duc or if, as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, we should endow Notre-Dame with a new spire.” Strangely, to honor the letter of Viollet-le-Duc’s work, and remake the spire exactly as drawn by his hand, might be to dishonor the spirit of his approach, which was not to remake things as they were, but as they could have been—and in the changeable hearts and eyes of any present day, as it seems they should be. How Notre-Dame is rebuilt and reëestablished in a finished state will speak to the particular dilemmas and duties of architecture, which for better or for worse has the seeming power—perhaps alone among the arts, perhaps uniquely in human endeavor—to give you the past you wish you had.

Sourse: newyorker.com

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here