The Flèche of Notre Dame, Paris

19 August 2020

Marilyn Martin, an honorary research associate of the Michaelis School of Fine Art gives her informed opinion on the French government’s plans to restore the spire or flèche of the Notre Dame. Her insight also scaffolds the way in which we can think about heritage in general.

Most of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was built in the 13th century and 150 years ago substantial restorations were done by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. This architect decided not to replicate the original wooden spire (1220-30), but to redesign the spire true to his own practice and vision, aligned with the resurgence of Gothic architecture in the 19th century.

In April 2019 a devastating fire destroyed several parts of the cathedral, including the 93 meter tall spire. The French president Emmanuel Macron was at first enthusiastic about innovative restoration ideas for a new spire and it seemed as if the cathedral would be more beautiful than before. He added that the project should be completed in five years in time for the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. More or less 1000 architects and other experts questioned the five-year timeframe and asked for it to be reconsidered. The prime minister announced an international competition to design the spire.

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Architects, designers and artist reacted immediately with proposals to restore the cathedral’s roof and spire. Some of these were outlandish and ridiculous, for instance a parking lot, swimming pool, fast-food restaurant or a flat glass roof. Other proposals were more creative, for example a spire out of Baccarat crystal that is lit at night, a nursery, a golden flame to commemorate the disastrous fire or a Gothic-inspired spire, but made from modern materials such as steel and glass.

However, president Macron changed his mind and announced that a spire identical to the Viollet-le-Duc spire would be constructed. This decision echoed that of the French Senate which decided that the restoration should stay true to the most recent look of the cathedral.

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Viollet-le-Duc would not have agreed with the French government. He criticised his peers who pursued styles of the past and asked them a question: “… à finir sans avoir possédé une architecture à elle? Ne transmettra-t-elle à la postérité que des pastiches?” This loosely translates as a question that asks whether it ends without having owned an architecture of its own – will we only pass on pastiches to future generations? This century has its own architecture and why not reflect this in the Notre Dame?

The French government’s decision offers an easy and less controversial solution, but it also lacks imagination and vision. To restore a building does not mean that it should be fixed and rebuilt, but that it should be reconstructed to a new state of perfection. A compromise should have been the answer – honouring the cathedral and its history, as well as its place in the 21st century.

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