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17th April 2019

The Escape of Notre Dame

What to do next for Notre Dame?

As everyone else, I was shocked watching the footage of Notre Dame burning on Monday.

I was, however, very gratified by the outpouring of actual grief, and offers of money that came through from the wealthy of France on Tuesday. Three quarters of a billion raised in a day. The French care about the symbols of France. Cynics have cried 'tax deductible' and all the rest, but no-one gives away hundreds of millions of euros under any circumstances unless they truly care.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of wealth divisions in society, it behoves the rich to be philanthropic in some ways. Bernard Arnault, François Pinault, the Bettencourts, Bouygues and others are certainly being that, irrespective of their motives (about which we can only guess anyway).

But what should actually happen with this money? An exact recreation? If so, why? It won't be possible, because the oak trees that made up the roof were hundreds of years old when they were felled, and absurdly rare even in the 13th century when they were used. Plus, as been all too sadly made clear, a direct replacement would be flammable. However, if the roof is not replaced with wood then - apparently - the sound of the building, as captured by the magnificent organ - which appears to have escaped - will be altered irrevocably, and according to my musician friends, for the worse.

Palermo cathedral in Sicily is a incredibly important architectural landmark because it features additions made in (pretty much) every architectural style/period from the twelfth century onwards (not much remains from the initial construction in 1185, but some does, and even that was on top of a basilica dating back to the 8th century it is believed).

But the adjuncts stopped in the 19th century - with the addition of its characteristic, but somewhat out-of-place dome, by Fuga, who was charged with a 'restoration' and could be said to have exceeded his brief, a bit.

One wonders whether people, in five hundred years time, will wonder why it was our generation that stopped adding to it.

Maybe what Notre Dame needs now is a gigantic pointy Renzo Piano thing sticking out of the top of it at a jaunty beret-on-a-pissed-Frenchman angle, waving some flappy duo-tone sheet aluminium Frank Gehry solid-flags in all directions.

Or perhaps not. But this restoration will be a facsimile, and irrespective of how well and expensively it is accomplished, it will be an ersatz fake. Just as the spire that fell actually was.

Viollet-le-Duc's restoration of Carcassonne was a flight of (possibly self-indulgent) fancy, and about as authentic as Chicken Tikka Masala. But it is much loved now, and probably the sole thing that saved the whole place from extinction.

I definitely think that - at least - if there is any stained glass to be replaced, they should invite a contemporary artist to do it. Chagall's windows in Reims cathedral are (IMO) the best thing about it, and one of the most exquisite art-works of the 20th century.

Many of the greatest human achievement decisions were derided at the time.


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