Regrowing Maimed Spires as an Act of Rebuilding Collectivity

by Dr Michalis Olympios (University of Cyprus)

Fig. 1 Paris, cathedral of Notre-Dame during the fire of 15 April 2019 (Photo: GodefroyParis / CC BY-SA 4.0).

On 15 April 2019, the world watched in horror as the crossing spire (flèche) of the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, a hulking structure of timber and metal set alight by the fire that consumed the building’s (largely) thirteenth-century roof, collapsed under its own weight, crashing through the vaults of the east end to the pavement below. The great public outpour of emotion elicited by the global broadcasting of the imagery of the damaged edifice – a celebrated Parisian landmark, the iconic status of which grew considerably since the publication of Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris in 1831 – undoubtedly factored into the immediate pledging of about 850 million euros to the envisaged restoration project, a sum never before lavished on the repair of any single medieval cathedral. In the immediate aftermath of the conflagration, scholars and scientists from various disciplines and many different countries banded together to found the ‘Association des scientifiques au service de la restauration de Notre-Dame de Paris’, whose members offered their specialist knowledge to the French State in support of the restoration works and undertook to educate the wider public on the monument’s history and cultural significance. Furthermore, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre national de Recherche scientifique, CNRS) and the Ministry of Culture launched a research initiative running parallel to the restorations, with the explicit aim of making better sense of the building, its craftsmanship and construction techniques. After more than two years of preparatory consolidation work (completed in September 2021), the restoration of the vaulting, roof and spire will begin shortly, to wrap up some time in 2024 (the year of the Paris Olympic Games), at least according to the promise made to the French people and the world at large by Emmanuel Macron in his presidential address on the day after the fire.

President Macron’s speech laid great stress on the collective character of the fire-extinguishing operation (by firefighters ‘from all over France, from all social stations’) and the future reconstruction, which should constitute a joint, ‘national’ project; the French were dubbed a ‘people of builders’ (‘un peuple de bâtisseurs’), who have always endeavoured to repair their built heritage when ravaged by war, revolution and human error. This patriotically tinted rhetoric had a relatively long pedigree. According to recent research on the reception of Gothic architecture in the modern and contemporary periods, French sensitivity to the significance of medieval architectural patrimony emerged in the wake of the grave depredations of the Revolution to crescendo in the last decades of the nineteenth century. By then, the cathedral had gradually developed, via the careful curatorship of writers and artists such as Hugo and Auguste Rodin, into a timeless symbol of national unity upheld by individuals from across the entire political and social spectrum. It was essentially regarded as a time capsule to the ‘golden age’ that was the nation’s vanishing past, a safe haven for all in the crises brought about by relentless industrialisation, social fragmentation, war and other calamities. An attack on the material fabric of the cathedral was seen as tantamount to the mutilation of the body and the erosion of the spirit of France itself – hence, for instance, the lively debate on whether to restore Reims Cathedral, the coronation church of the kings of the ancien régime which had been gutted by German fire in World War I, or to leave it in a ruinous state as a perennial memorial to ‘Teutonic barbarity’. Much as in Claude Monet’s thirty canvases of Rouen Cathedral (executed in 1892–94), where the passage of time is implied by the artist’s response to the changing weather and lighting conditions affecting the building’s visual aspect, without, however, altering the essence of its physical makeup, the cathedral was fashioned into an immutable locus of national memory, built to weather any potential future challenges to France’s prosperity. This image of the Gothic great church persevered through the vicissitudes of World War II and into our own times, when the protection and conservation of such buildings continue to be considered matters of national import. President Macron’s call for a rekindled esprit de corps in French society vis-à-vis the restoration of Notre-Dame’s roof and crossing spire has undoubtedly acquired new urgency since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing international health, financial and social crisis.

Paris Notre-Dame Southeast View 01
Fig. 2 Paris, cathedral of Notre-Dame before the fire of 15 April 2019 (Photo: Uoaei1 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814–79), the architect in charge of the nineteenth-century restorations at Notre-Dame (1844–64, in partnership with Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus until 1857), was also a great believer in the Gothic cathedral as a kind of ‘national monument’, the product of fruitful collaboration between Church and Crown. In its ‘ideal’, ‘perfect’ form, as conceived by Viollet-le-Duc (though never actually built during the Middle Ages), the medieval cathedral possessed seven towers topped by imposing spires, which acted as eminently visible symbols of wealth, power and national pride. Since Notre-Dame’s thirteenth-century crossing spire had been suppressed in the late eighteenth century, Viollet-le-Duc ventured to recreate it in neo-Gothic style in an effort to evoke the building’s pristine (one might even say ‘able-bodied’) original state. It was precisely this 1850s spire that burned down in the fire of 2019, triggering discussion about whether it should be reinstated à l’identique together with the roof or replaced by a contemporary artwork. In the end, the French Senate adopted the former option, in order not to jeopardise the church’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument. Besides adhering to the guidelines set out by the Athens (1931), Venice (1964) and Krakow (2000) international charters for the conservation and restoration of historic buildings, the Senate’s decision surely took into consideration the conspicuous absence of the emblematic silhouette of the Notre-Dame spire, enshrined in literature and art as a quintessential feature of the Parisian skyline since its (re)construction. The wounded cathedral at France’s beating heart needed to regenerate its severed member, thus healing the trauma inflicted on the nation’s collective imaginary and closing the book on yet another challenge overcome by the indomitable resolve of this ‘people of builders’.

Fig. 3 Saint-Denis, cathedral (former abbey church), west front (Photo: Ninaras / CC BY 4.0)

Approximately 10km to the north of Notre-Dame, in the suburb of Saint-Denis, a more controversial building site is slated to open in 2023. The north tower and spire of the west front of the former abbey church of Saint-Denis, the necropolis of the French sovereigns and a major site for the study of the twelfth-century origins of Gothic architecture and its thirteenth-century development, suffered serious lightning damage and were extensively restored in 1837–38 by the architect François Debret. Only about seven years later, the same spire was struck again by lightning and its masonry severely battered by violent storms. As the cracked, ailing structure appeared to threaten the stability of the entire west front, the decision was made in 1846 to carefully dismantle both the spire and the tower above the level of the nave vaults, an operation brought to completion by Viollet-le-Duc, who had in the meantime succeeded Debret (and Félix Duban) at the head of the church’s restoration works. Nevertheless, although part of the structure had been documented in detailed drawings prior to the disassembly and its components had been placed in storage awaiting future reconstruction, the latter never came to pass. The stonework of the north tower and spire was scattered and reused in building projects at the abbey grounds and beyond, while Viollet-le-Duc floated the idea of a full rebuilding of the west front – in his view, structurally compromised by Debret’s interventions – to a more symmetrical design of his own invention. Even though Viollet-le-Duc’s proposal was not greenlit, and thus the twelfth-century west end of the abbey church survived to this day, the north tower and spire rebuilding project was not to be actively pursued for more than a century. In 1971, the mayor of the city of Saint-Denis expressed to the Minister of Culture his wish to go forward with reinstating the façade’s missing parts; the impetus thus created resulted in studies of the project’s implementation, carried out throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, while some of the old stonework was being recovered by archaeology. The project took off in earnest at the time of the latest restoration of the church’s west front (2012–15), when President François Hollande visited the site, the committee in charge of the works was formed and the ‘Association Suivez la flèche’ was founded with the explicit aim of promoting and assisting the rebuilding of the edifice’s north tower and spire. In 2017 President Hollande symbolically carved the project’s first stone, while in 2019 workshops were set up in the vicinity of the church for crafting the tools to be used in the rebuilding campaign.

Contrary to the chantier of Notre-Dame, the very notion of rebuilding the tower and spire at Saint-Denis has proven divisive. The project’s proponents assert that it will not only remedy the present asymmetry of the west front, improving the monument’s aesthetics, it will also reinvigorate the civic pride of the Dionysiens (i.e., the citizens of the city of Saint-Denis), who have long experienced the façade’s truncated north tower as a sort of phantom limb. To them, the ‘projet de la flèche’ is, above all, a social initiative meant to educate the wider public on the traditional crafts and building techniques employed in the erection of ambitious medieval Gothic churches, serve as training grounds for a new generation of historic preservation professionals, create jobs and help revitalise the local economy. The project was and is intended to be crowdfunded (mainly through corporate patronage and visitor donations), but it was so successful in drumming up support that in late 2020 the départements of the Ile-de-France region ceded 20 million euros – allegedly amounting to about half or two-thirds of the overall budget – originally allocated to the Notre-Dame restoration, which by then had attracted adequate funding. Although this gesture was hailed in the press by the Saint-Denis project’s leaders as ‘providential’ and confirmatory of the close historical links and quasi-sororal affinity between the two medieval religious institutions, it was viewed with considerable skepticism in other quarters. In a statement signed by 128 scholars from all over Europe (the present author included), the United States, Canada and Russia and published in Le Point, Maxime L’Héritier (Université Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis, co-founder of the ‘Association des scientifiques’ of Notre-Dame) and Mathieu Lejeune (Université Paris-Sorbonne) expressed concern about the potentially detrimental impact of the reinforcement of the west front foundations with concrete to sustain the weight of the new tower and spire on the site’s archaeological remains, including the tomb of King Pepin the Short (751–68), Charlemagne’s father. Moreover, they pointed out that any metal or other implements installed for the same purpose would inexorably disfigure the recently restored façade. They also brought up the issue of the negative opinion of the project aired by the Commission nationale des monuments historiques in 2017, and which was not taken into consideration by the state authorities backing the project. In direct response to the claims made by the ‘projet de la flèche’, this statement doubted the enterprise’s educational character, at least concerning construction in the Middle Ages, given that, despite the detailed record, relatively little is known about the spire and the vast majority of the surviving stonework dates from Debret’s nineteenth-century restoration (a view substantiated lately by Lejeune in a scholarly article published in BUCEMA). Ultimately, a neo-Gothic tower would condemn any future attempts at inscribing the monument in UNESCO’s World Heritage List and the public funds committed to the project would be better spent on urgent repairs to historic buildings requiring immediate attention.

The pro-flèche/anti-flèche debate is ongoing and will likely remain so for some time. Jacques Moulin (Head Architect of the ‘Monuments historiques’ in charge of the former abbey church of Saint-Denis) and Julien de Saint Jores (Director of the ‘Association Suivez la flèche’) have persistently championed the project in the press, hastening to correct what they consider to be ‘factual errors’ on the part of their critics. In a recent article, Mathieu Lours (CY Cergy Paris Université) wrote of the ‘patrimonial injustice’ that has denied the church of Saint-Denis its tower and spire for more than 170 years, wondering what ‘sin’ the monument could have committed not to have its missing parts restored, when in the past Gothic cathedrals ravaged by fire and war tended to be reinstated. As he cogently remarked, one plausible explanation for this turn of events may be that the Saint-Denis project did not originate in a crisis of the magnitude of the Great War or the Notre-Dame fire – in other words, in circumstances which would have rendered its urgent completion a national imperative. One might also add that the rebuilding of the ‘martyred cathedral’ of Reims or the repair of the vaults and the construction of a new roof at Notre-Dame were considered necessary steps on the way to reintegrating these edifices into the life of the community, whereas the absence of the north tower and spire from the Saint-Denis west front did not present an insurmountable impediment to the uses to which the monument was put. In any case, the steady pace at which the Saint-Denis tower and spire project has been gathering steam in the last few decades may be indicative of smouldering social issues of a different order, for, according to Moulin, the suburban areas of Paris and their monuments have long been neglected by both state officials and tourists. The erection of a new tower and spire in Saint-Denis, often linked to the city’s bid for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2028, would be expected to raise the area’s profile and foster renewed growth through collective engagement. Achieving these goals while making sure to preserve cultural memory intact – from the site’s archaeology to the church’s structural and visual integrity – is at best a delicate task, to which the lively present debate will hopefully contribute more than a few opportunities for level-headed reflection.


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