Essay: And Paris will always have Notre Dame

Every cathedral, like any great stone building, is a work in progress. No sooner have the walls risen than they start to collapse, the weight of stone pushing down and splaying out, settling and cracking.

Take a closer look at most great old churches, and you see huge pillars wrapped in metal, iron reinforcing bars embedded in the walls, arches pulled together at their base with metal rods. If you took an X-ray of the buildings, they would look a bit like the mouth of someone who has had a lot of dental work — a messy confusion of interventions, repairs and misguided improvements.

It looks as if the structure of Notre Dame, in Paris, is mostly intact, despite the fire that consumed the roof above its stone vaults and brought down its 19th-century wood and metal spire. Much of the art was saved, some of it placed in storage before renovations, and other pieces were removed before the fire could destroy them. Early photographs and descriptions of the damage seem to indicate that part of the ribbed ceiling structure has collapsed, and it will take time to determine how much of what remains is structurally sound. Fire may not burn rock like it burns timber (though limestone is susceptible), but heat and water can ruin the integrity of stone.

Either way, the shock of the fire is still extraordinary, felt throughout not just France but also the world. Notre Dame stands at the heart of Paris, has led a long, rich life in the literature and imagination of France, and is one of the most beautiful Gothic structures on the planet. It soars above a city that has an embarrassment of architectural riches, and it never ceases to draw the eye, by day and night, registering changes in the weather and the seasons with subtle changes of color and shadow.

History, however, tells us these things are all too common, even as modern media saturation makes it seem somehow unprecedented. Flip through the pages of any tourist guide to an old castle, church or palace, and there is often a litany of fires, floods, revolutions and occasional bouts of revolution and iconoclasm. The prison of the Bastille, in Paris, was pulled down in the 18th century in the name of liberty, while much of the medieval city was plowed under in the 19th century in the name of progress.

Building large stone churches has always been an art and a science, and it sometimes meant trial and error. The first dome at the greatest church of all — Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — collapsed before the miraculously thin saucer we see today was successfully completed. These tribulations are soon forgotten, and even today, most visitors who contemplate the massive supports added to Justinian’s church consider them beautiful architectural curiosities.

Like Hagia Sophia, St. Paul’s in London was built on the ruins of an older structure. The great 1666 fire that ravaged much of London destroyed the old St. Paul’s and almost 90 other churches. That destruction gave the architect Christopher Wren his moment, not just to remake the city’s greatest church, but also to connect the city’s irrational streets with a web of smaller, jewel-like places of worship that define their districts and neighborhoods to this day. In the mid-16th century, two fires ravaged the interiors of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, offering artists a chance to work on an epic scale, redecorating its palatial rooms, and vying for dramatic and narrative preeminence.

Creative Destruction is an ugly idea, hijacked by greedy and ambitious people to justify an oppression that is anything but creative. But most cathedrals exemplify the idea of continual evolution and renewal; they are sturdy, vulnerable, fragile and resilient, and it is social architecture that keeps them standing, not piers, arches or buttresses.

I heard about the fire that hit Notre Dame while driving from Ferrara to Siena, in Italy, where great churches have been remade so many times that they often look like a patchwork of architectural non sequiturs. The exterior of the Duomo in Ferrara is a magnificent jumble of ideas, and additions, while the facade of the cathedral in Siena is as clear as a theological road map, even if the brightly colored mosaics in the gables are 19th-century work. In Ferrara, you can almost imagine why a Renaissance architect might say, “Tear it all down and start over.” In Siena, the thought of modernization feels like blasphemy. Yet both churches are exquisite.

Notre Dame was also partly a 19th-century fantasy, its famous spire added by the architect (and fabulist) Eugène Viollet-le-Duc to replace one that had been removed in the late 18th century. Critics in the 19th century rediscovered the beauty of the Gothic style, while imaging it to be something immutable and fixed, like a poem in stone — and they weren’t averse to improving the poem if its fantasy of the past wasn’t quite what they were hoping for. Paris lived with Viollet-le-Duc’s spire for so long that the city will now have to decide which cathedral it wants back — the one that existed in the age of Revolution and Napoleon, or the one that most people know from postcards. The real Notre Dame, the authentic Notre Dame, isn’t an option because it never existed.

In other cultures, sacred sites are often sacred not because of what is built there, but because of the persistence of religious devotion. The site is holy, not the thing. A temple may be dismantled and rebuilt, but what matters is the behavior of particular people at that particular place. There is more of that in Western notions of the sacred than we’re likely to acknowledge. Great churches are built on the site of previous great churches, which were built on foundations of pagan temples.

Tourism, in some ways, contains a vestige of that kind of thinking. People still visit and snap pictures of the brick campanile in Venice, which fell down in 1902 and was rebuilt. Tourists flock to places just to say they have been there, and the effort of the journey is often just as important as the authenticity of the object. No tourist will forswear Notre Dame because it has a new roof.

None of this is to minimize the losses at Notre Dame. It will take years to remake the building, and much of what was inside will never be restored. But the great cathedrals of Europe took centuries to build, have been crumbling for even longer and will continue to be made and remade. Innumerable lives have been lived out in the shadow of buildings that are half-finished, or missing their towers, or in great disrepair. And now the cycle begins again in Paris, where people will argue over every detail and fret about who pays for what and whether they should rebuild a Disney fantasy of the past or make it all anew, for a new age. Some daring heretics will even suggest, perhaps, that the building should remain as it is, newly reconfigured for a secular age, like the melted bells in St. Mary’s of Luebeck, Germany, which fell to the ground during the bombing of 1942 and remain on the floor as a memorial to the losses of war.

Meanwhile, the roof will rise again, and in a century some bored teenagers will stand in the plaza before the great Gothic doors and listen as their teacher recounts the great fire of 2019, just one chapter among all the others, and seemingly inconsequential, given the beauty of the building as it stands glowing in a rare burst of sunlight on a spring day in Paris.