How do we responsibly rebuild Notre Dame?

How do we responsibly rebuild Notre Dame?
© Getty images

People all over the world paused what they were doing and placed their eyes and hearts in the images of flames and smoke engulfing the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris on April 15. It didn’t matter if you had ever set foot in Notre Dame, believed in a different God, lived thousands of miles away, or were brown, white or black.

As individuals, we felt angst, disbelief and sorrow at the impossible happening, yet, we somehow knew that we were not alone in our grief. We were part of an invisible and real presence that transcended any one of us.  We all intuitively understood that a part of our humanity was being profoundly hurt by the burning fire.

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How can architecture, seemingly inert matter, inspire such level of response? Was it the cathedral’s historical value, religious meaning, stunning beauty, cultural significance or iconic presence? The answer is of course “yes” to all and yet there is more. Starting with the blaze and continuing to this very moment, the huge outpouring of people’s sympathy, tears, prayers and remembrances indisputably manifest something else.

For many, this experience was about empathy and love, for some about feeling connected to a larger whole, while for others about loss and the impermanence of it all, our lives and most cherished feats included. In this sense, the moment had an unmistaken spiritual quality. 

In an age of increasing nationalism, religious division, materialism and cultural friction such expressions of goodwill, unity, charity, compassion, sharing and caring coming from around the globe are a welcome sign that we may have more that unites than separates us. In so doing, the heartbreaking burning of Notre Dame has paradoxically replenished our spiritual reserve, brought us together, and thus renewed our faith in the goodness of humanity. As a result, the very concrete, yet, ineffable bonds between architecture, culture, and spirituality have become all the more realized and hallowed. 

Major challenges and questions remain ahead. Although the conflagration seems to have spared much more of the Cathedral than originally feared, the damage is still profound and reconstruction is inevitable. French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronWhistleblower Edward Snowden calls on Macron to grant him asylum in France Trump to meet with India's Modi in Texas, Australia's Morrison in Ohio Amazon tribal chief nominated for Nobel Peace Prize for effort to protect rainforest MORE’s immediate promise to rebuild Notre Dame seized the moment and turned tragedy into opportunity. His commitment, along with the significant outpouring of private financial support, reaffirms a history worth preserving, advances enduring values, expresses hope for the future, and provides confidence in our ability to rise to the occasion.

We all agree that we must move forward, but how to proceed will elicit serious debate. Should the reconstruction be completely, partially, or not at all faithful to the Notre Dame prior to the blaze? This is much less a technical question than a philosophical, cultural, political, aesthetic and religious consideration.

What is our role as citizens of the 21st century in rebuilding an 850-year-old architectural jewel? The easy answer would be to rebuild as close as possible to what was there before. With modern mapping technology, it is certainly possible to do it with a very high degree of accuracy.

But should we? Don’t we have a duty to leave our own respectful architectural mark so that our great-great-grandchildren know that we too partook in the duty of preserving and celebrating sacred Notre Dame? Aren’t scars important reminders of our own histories, including our failures and regrets? Besides, can we in 2019 in good conscience really fell thousands of oak trees to reproduce a roof structure that nobody sees and is prone to burning?

While the 850-year-old Notre Dame took nearly 200 years to build in its original form, additions were made over time including the beloved spire lost to the flame, a relatively “newer” 166-year-old addition by architect Viollet-le-Duc. Should we in the time of AI, spaceflight, mobile communication, robots, smart materials, and genetic engineering design and build like in the 12th and 13th century? If not, do we have the right to change an experience that was available for 40 generations until last week?  What is our duty toward what we have received in trust from our elders?

What about Catholic identity versus lay government, versus major donors, versus the world at large, whose voice(s) should be heard? How should the sacred and liturgical be dealt with? Can contemporary secular society so focused on technology, consumerism, complexity and immediacy even create spaces and forms that elicit the extraordinary responses that Notre Dame did?

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Let us not forget that crossing its portal or even from afar, the Cathedral afforded any soul a chance to experience the numinous. These and so many more questions are hard to ask and even harder to respond.

What is promising, however, is the French government’s announcement of a competition to rebuild Notre-Dame’s spire. This development shows an enviable level of courage and openness that bids well for conversations that will undoubtedly advance today’s zeitgeist — considerations made possible by the unexpected and unthinkable burning of the most famous Gothic church in the world.

Julio Bermudez is a professor at The Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning.