The debate after Notre Dame – Should “traditional” buildings be updated?

Was it really "always this way"?

The debate started almost the same day the Notre Dame fire in Paris was brought under control:  Should this great cathedral be rebuilt "as it has always been"?  Or should the fallen spire and fire-ravaged roof be "updated" to integrate more modern elements?

Ideas for the restoration have already started to proliferate -- here's an example of one firm's vision, and you can see several more by following this link.  Predictably, traditionalists push back hard on the idea of putting a greenhouse under a glass roof or creating a new crystal spire for Notre Dame de Paris.  But predictably, too, they ignore some key points in the history of the ancient building:

 

 

Paris Church Archteciture France Auvergne
The vision from Spain's POA Studios

 

Notre Dame as it appeared around 1730 - with NO spire

 

 

  • It has not, in fact, "always" been the way it looked before the fire.  Notre Dame has been a living structure since construction started in 1160 C.E. , badly damaged during the French Revolution and the object of several major "restoration" projects like the one that was underway just before the first.
  • That famous spire is a late-comer to the cathedral's appearance, added by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.
  • Very few of France's great historical monuments are preserved in their pristine, as-built state; the country has a deep tradition of modifying and trying to improve upon them and they evolve, sometimes radically, as time goes by.  (Remember the controversy that exploded when I.M. Pei's glass pyramid was added to the courtyard of the Louvre palace?)

(Check out this old postcard image of Saint Etienne du Mont, another fine old church in Paris.  It's only slightly "newer" than Notre Dame, having started construction in 1222 C.E.  Over the centuries, it's obvious that bits and pieces from different epochs have been added on to the facade, mixing Gothic and Romanesque and other styles.)

Paris Church Archteciture France Auvergne
Saint-Etienne du Mont

 

It's all related (at least in my mind) to I.T.

In fact, this whole conversation takes me back (as things like this frequently do) to the deep heart of France and my last visit to Souvigny, a postcard-perfect town in the Allier.  And once I started remembering Souvigny, I started to think about computer systems.  Hear me out -- I'm not that crazy (mostly).  Here's how I made the connection between "church architecture" and "information systems"...

 

 

The main square in Souvigny

I first heard the phrase “plan d’urbanisme” when I was working in the Information Technology department of a big manufacturing company in France.  While it literally means “city planning”, in the context of IT it meant trying to figure out the thorny problem of how to integrate new applications and new technologies into an existing mass of old systems.  You can't install a new Payroll application if it can't talk to the 30-year-old Accounting system;  the Manufacturing department cannot (should not?) launch a new technology to control factory production if it can't be connected to the existing applications at each station on the factory line.

But it set me thinking about how profoundly important the idea is for every town in France.  How do you put a subway underneath an ancient city like Paris when its underground is already laced with ancient sewers, quarries and building foundations?  How did they build a great church like Saint Etienne du Mont or the cathedral of Notre Dame on sites which had already seen two or three different churches over the centuries?  How do you get rid of what’s broken down or ruined in a city like Paris, or in a small medieval village like Souvigny, without destroying its fundamental character?

The church and sacristy at Souvigny - "new" next to the "old"

The American answer is (too often) “tear it down and start over”.  But while the impulse to “tear it down” does exist in places in France (we’re looking at you, Baron Haussmann!), the more common response to a need for new construction seems to be “how can I fit in with what already exists?”

Here’s an excellent example of how this works in Souvigny, home to the largest complex of religious buildings in the Auvergne, the priory church of St. Pierre and St. Paul.  We’ll revisit the history of this great outpost of the Abbey at Cluny another time; for now, what’s important is how it was built over the centuries.

 

 

You can see 700 years of evolution in the 3 "segments" of the church at Souvigny

A "cut and paste" approach to building

There was a Christian church here in Souvigny as early as 920 A.D., but it began to morph into the giant complex you see today sometime after 1060.  A second campaign of building in the 12th and 13th centuries added five more naves, a couple of towers, and several Romanesque chapels.  As these structures began to decay, another campaign in the 15th century restored all the main features and added more ornamentation, more great art, more tombs of the the Dukes of Bourbon.  Beginning in 1769, another building – a Baroque sacristy – was added on to the front of the great church.

Does all this “cut-and-paste” architecture work aesthetically?  Yes!  You can certainly see the places where new construction joins the old, and there are places where different styles clash.  But the overall effect of this building (now grown to the size of an aircraft hangar) is pleasing and impressive.

Some other examples from central France

I saw other examples of this multi-century evolution in other places during this same trip – at the little-known Chateau d’Avrilly, for example, where an old-fashioned fortified castle grew into a gracious Renaissance estate over a period of 400 years or so.

Chateau d'Avrilly
The "joint" where medieval meets Renaissance in the Chateau d'Avrilly

It doesn’t always work, though.  Here’s an example just off the main square in Moulins – and for the life of me I can’t imagine what the owners were thinking when they turned this house (from the 19th century?  the 17th century?) into something more…um, contemporary?

Here’s another bad example – this time a neo-classical steeple grafted clumsily onto the roof of the tiny Romanesque church of St. Vincente at Chantelle. 

You don’t have to doubt the pious motivation behind this addition to know that something went horribly wrong between conception and execution!

All of this is to say that the argument about "preserving" Notre Dame in its earlier state flies in the face of French architectural history.  It's also inconsistent with the nature of the art that created the great structure to begin with -- that is, the impulse to design something glorious using the best ideas, and the best materials available to the artists at the time of their creation.

I've seen enough in my travels around France to know this:  there will be a loud and intense debate on how to restore Notre Dame, no matter what's decided there will be howls of protest from the "losing" side of the argument...and in 50 or 100 years, people will still be visiting the restored cathedral and loving it precisely because of the way it's been rebuilt!

Have you seen an example – good or bad – of this impulse to build new structures over old in France?  Please tell us about it in the comments section below.  And please take a second to share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or your preferred social-media forum by using the buttons below!

7 thoughts on “The debate after Notre Dame – Should “traditional” buildings be updated?

  1. Selon moi, les Francais ont la genie de se marier les styles architecturelles des plusieurs centiennes avec une sensibilite proches au genie. Voir la Place de St Jean au vieux Lyon par example. Ici on trouve l’oevre des architects du quinzieme jusqu’au vingtieme siecle qui se melange avec une harmonie et sympathie parfaites. Les Francais peuvent resoudre la probleme be Notre Dame et en meme temps se faire remarquer pour leur genie architecturelle. Pas de probleme. Il ne faut que de lire votre post et en voir les photos pour l’en etre convaincu!

    1. Selon moi, les Francais ont la genie de se marier les styles architecturelles des plusieurs siecles avec une sensibilite proches au genie. Voir la Place de St Jean au vieux Lyon par example. Ici on trouve l’oevre des architects du quinzieme jusqu’au vingtieme siecle qui se melange avec une harmonie et sympathie parfaites. Les Francais peuvent resoudre la probleme be Notre Dame et en meme temps se faire remarquer pour leur genie architecturelle. Pas de probleme. Il ne faut que de lire votre post et en voir les photos pour l’en etre convaincu!

      1. Bonjour again! Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful comment. I hadn’t thought about the Place de St Jean in Lyon for a while, but you’re right that it’s a particularly good example of “urbanism” drawn out across the centuries, too. (Et je trouve votre français très claire et compréhensible !)

    1. It’s great to hear from you, Kenneth — and thanks for adding the note on “remembrance”!

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