LeBlanc: Notre-Dame de Paris' Future in the Modern City

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Students were gearing up for their last week of studio for the spring semester when the news of the fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral reached our campus. Walking through the Hinman Research Building, students and faculty circled around monitors as they watched one of the world’s most identifiable structures disappear in smoke and flames.

Associate professor, W. Jude LeBlanc recalled his feelings that day. “I was alerted to the fire by a text from Michael Gamble, a colleague who directs the summer foreign study programs, Modern Architecture/Modern Cities,” said LeBlanc. “I have to admit it was difficult for me to look at the video images. I would move from article to article on the web, and it took a while before I could bear to look at the videos that showed the falling spire, etc. “

LeBlanc's unique skillset includes the design of furniture and objects; architecture, interior design and installations; and planning, infrastructure and urban design, which all contribute to his interesting point of view not only to that of the design of Notre-Dame, but also to his contributions as a faculty member in the Georgia Tech School of Architecture. This summer, LeBlanc traveled to France to lead the Paris portion of the Modern Architecture and Modern City international education program. 

What are your thoughts on the modern designs that are being proposed for the restoration of Notre-Dame?

President Macron’s proposal for an architectural design competition that would result in an edifice “more beautiful than before” should give one pause.  Nonetheless, the call for a competition to potentially improve or alter Notre Dame serves several functions.  

It provides a means to understand and perhaps reassess the past, to consider our best potential futures, and to hopefully better understand the relationship between the two.  There are many examples in which culturally significant historical structures have been successfully altered by contemporary transformations—The Louvre (I.  M. Pie) and the Reichstag (Norman Foster), for example. Each case is different. 

The Cathedral is included in a large World Heritage Site called “Pairs, Banks of the Seine”. My own opinion is that this monument should be restored to its near exact state before the fire. 

This was true for the Campanile of St. Mark’s Square in Venice and even more so here.  The stone vaults of the ceiling must be repaired, and the spire and roof should be restored.

Specifically, what are some of Notre-Dame's significant features and why should they be preserved?

The stone vaulted ceiling. At least one current proposal suggests that the vault should remain open as a skylight, in part to commemorate the inferno.  The original building, at great expenditure, made light filled walls bound together by vaulting and flying buttresses.  Opening a vault to the sky would have the undesirable and unacceptable effect of altering the fundamental schema of the section and its spatial implications. 

The spire.  According to Professor Emeritus Rob Craig, the spire was as important as any other element to the essential quality of the Gothic attitude. Many more were planned throughout the cathedrals of France than were ultimately realized.  This is because they obviously were the last elements to be built and they would have required immense effort. It was correct that Violet le Duc replaced the spire to Notre Dame in 1844, after the original had been removed in 1756 for structural fatigue. 

The hidden structure of the spire transfers load to the corners of the crossing. Violet le Duc became an expert on medieval timber construction before undertaking this project.  In the intervening years, much of his work has acquired an historical aura in its own right--especially the spire.  Luckily, the sixteen bronze statues had been removed at the time of the calamitous fire.

The roof.  The roof form is an important visual element in the silhouette of Notre Dame and therefore of the skyline of Île de la Cité.  Its authentic reconstruction is essential to a proper restoration.  One exception should be considered.  The hidden structure between the vaults and the roof was made of so much old growth timber it was referred to as “la forêt”, the forest.  Replacement of this amount of timber, even if possible, would represent an avoidable environmental loss.

What is the significance of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in relation to classic and modern architecture?

Notre-Dame is considered one of the great examples of French Gothic Architecture. Construction of the cathedral began in 1160 and was largely complete by 1260.  First called the “French Style,” the Gothic style first appeared in the early 12th c. at the Basilica of Saint-Denise. The main characteristic of Gothic design is its emphasis on the vertical made possible by novel applications of the ribbed vault and the pointed arch, along with the innovation of the flying buttress.

The Gothic style would have lasting effects that altered future styles. Michael Dennis argues that the Renaissance and Baroque facades of France are distinct from Italy in recurring visual and spatial verticality.  Structural expressionism, a major strain in modernist theory and practice, had the Gothic and neo-Gothic precedent behind it.

For example, Violet le Duc proposed novel uses of iron in design in the late 1800s. Violet le Duc was the architect in charge of the 19thcentury renovation of Notre Dame and the person responsible for restoring the fleche, or spire, that had been destroyed. He argued, against the neo-classical preference of the time, that the Gothic style was superior, especially in this context. 

What is another example of a notable building’s collapse. How was it restored?

The Notre-Dame fire is reminiscent of another historic building calamity-the collapse of the St. Mark’s campanile in Venice.  The campanile was one of several prominent buildings—the Dodges’ Palace, the Sansovino library and the St. Mark Cathedral—that together made up the main square of the city.

A tower had stood on this location in Venice since the 14th century and took its final essential form in 1513.  After damage over the years, especially due to lighting strikes, the tower was outfitted with a lightning rod in the 18th century.  Nonetheless, in July of 1902, the tower collapsed completely. As in Paris, not a single human life was taken. That very evening, the decision was made to rebuild the tower exactly as it was before the collapse.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral is a monument onto itself, a supreme exemplar of a style of building which has come to signify both Paris and France.  Happily, it appears that both the will and the means exist to restore the cathedral in Paris.

The building is important in art history and in the popular imagination. President Macron’s promise that the cathedral be fully restored is laudable, despite controversies. For example, I would hope that aesthetics would not be pitted against social equity.  


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