Within a month of the destruction by fire of the roof and flèche (crossing spire) of Notre Dame in Paris, proposals by architects for their replacement abound. Why are these designs so awful? The answer is simple: they lack respect. Architects, and Kevin McCloud, continue to trot out the tired idea that first had currency in about 1870: that architecture must express the nineteenth/twentieth/twenty-first century. So, the argument runs, Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche expresses the nineteenth century, so we need to get a cool modern architect to design one that expresses the twenty-first century. And why stop there? Why not do something cool where the roof used to be? In practice, this means the architect digs into their repertory and finds a way of applying this to the site.
This misses the crucial point: Viollet-le-Duc was trying to create a medieval flèche, not a nineteenth-century one. His argument ran rather differently. What did the medieval church have? Failing that, what might it have had? Failing that, what is the best design I can come up with in the medieval style. Is it beautiful in the way that comparable medieval structure are beautiful? And would this design evoke (rather than express) what I value in the Middle Ages? And Viollet-le-Duc, because he had devoted his life to such questions, came up with something that did all this. To be sure, because he was working in the nineteenth century, his structure is a nineteenth-century one. His Middle Ages was not, and could not be, the Middle Ages’ Middle Ages, but he did not set out to express the nineteenth century. He wanted to create a medieval structure, because the Middle Ages, and medieval buildings, were good. By being humble in relation to the Middle Ages, he succeeded in inscribing himself into Notre Dame. His work became part of it.
Compare this to the crassness of contemporary architects. The tenor was set by Pinault, the Bettencourt Meyers family, and Patrick Pouyanne, who immediately attempted to inscribe themselves into the building, and so give themselves eternal life, by offering huge sums to rebuild it. They were followed by Macron, promising to rebuild within five years in order to inscribe himself into the rebuilding process: ‘it was rebuilt on my watch’. Architects quickly followed. Being all ego, they attempted to inscribe themselves into the monument and so appropriate to themselves its timeless importance, its holiness even. (The moment is perhaps ripe to redo Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism as Notre Dame and Hyper-Capitalism.) It is the same way that artists operate, seeking to colonise historical art museums in order to boost their egos: people go to an art museum to see Rembrandt, because Rembrandt is a great artist: if I replace Rembrandt with myself people will go to the art museum and see me; therefore I am a great artist, as timelessly significant as Rembrandt.
It would be a different matter if architects were presenting designs that attempted to be to ‘truly’ medieval. That might be interesting.
© David R. Marshall 2019