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Notre Dame, Paris: Which route should the restoration take–classical or modern?

Architect Santosh Wadekar of studioSW throws light on how the competition to rebuild the spire has sparked debates on the right way to renovate the structure


The world watched with horror as the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France came crashing down this summer. The pivotal moment in the mishap was the tragic collapse of the spire that burnt and toppled down. Add to this, the commotion on the internet and social media that instantly made it a spectacle similar to 9/11 in New York.

Notre Dame, Paris: Mending Affairs

The political pressure on the leadership of France was certainly heavy and president Emmanuel Macron announced that the Cathedral will be rebuilt in five years and he shall call for an international architectural competition for redesigning the fallen spire. Just as the debate within the technical teams was getting started on whether five years was a realistic time, renders from “modernist” architects started flooding in, with their own interpretations of the spire, leaving most of the French aghast at the possibility of seeing shiny glass sheets and metallic spikes on top of their beloved Cathedral. Requests for calling off the spire competition and restoring it to its exact state or even better, not having the spire at all have already started pouring in.

Notre Dame, Paris: Vintage vs Modern

This ignites the debate of new vs. old, contemporary vs classical architecture. The rich architectural and design traditions of France, the indisputable capital of everything beautiful and artsy in Europe, today is in the centre of massive discussions. Stone and wood were the preferred materials of that day and age; they had their own charm and function. They weathered beautifully leaving a rich patina of time. On the other hand glass and steel are the modern materials of preference. Undoubtedly though, they look spectacular and are economical, have a lesser carbon footprint and are faster to construct with.

Notre Dame, Paris: The Dilemma

The cathedral was built nearly 800 years ago; it saw France’s rise to world power, witnessed coronations of kings and queens, revolutionaries burnt at its stake, the spoils of the inquisition and the cryptic stories of holy Grails and knights. The cathedral itself tells the story of its past, so unique to France. Any design intervention on the cathedral is akin to writing a new history of France. It is no wonder that people in Paris were disappointed  to hear about glass screens and metal spikes as design proposals to the cathedral as they do not have any cultural or historical reference to structure.

Notre Dame, Paris: Past as Proof

This is not the first time France has seen such public dissent towards renovations and new buildings. Parisians saw Monsieur Gustav Eiffel put up his tower which was considered to be a monstrosity to the skyline of Paris. There was an outcry and people demanded that it be dismantled. Similarly President Francois Mitterrand was criticised for inviting IM Pei to create a cryptic Pyramid as an extension to the Louvre Palace

Notre Dame, Paris: What Next?

It now remains to be seen if the French demand not tampering with the design of Notre Dame, thereby avoiding an eyesore to the beautiful history of the Cathedral. Or are we being cynical and is this is indeed an opportunity to create another avant-garde architectural marvel?

I’m a contemporary classicist. I feel the idea should be to retain the spirit of the initial design as much as possible. But it today’s day and age construction methods as well as political and environmental conditions have changed. So I am somewhere in the middle of this debate, leaning towards the classic restoration side. I believe history should be continuous and should not have modern additions without any historical context.

This article is authored by Santosh Wadekar of studioSW

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