Macron, Notre Dame’s spire, Ruskin, and architectural morality

Last week saw the announcement by French president Emmanuel Macron that the spire of Notre Dame is to be rebuilt as an exact replica of the one that was lost in the fire of last April. The announcement was no surprise, given that the French senate ordered that the reconstruction reproduce the “last known visual state” of the cathedral, but it puts to rest any idea of a modern reconstruction.

Such a re-visioning of the lost roof and spire was the subject of more than one ideas competition and a flood of unsolicited proposals from architects worldwide. Many argued–not incorrectly–that the cathedral had evolved over time, even during the Gothic era, to match changing tastes and cultural ideals. Fires had often been cause to rebuild in new styles, and on paper the thought of rebuilding a cathedral using modern materials, or with contemporary concerns at the forefront, seemed like an inspired take. Louis Kahn, after all, famously pointed out that “Beauvais needed the steel we have today.”

On paper this seemed like a fine approach. Online, the results were, perhaps, not contemporary architecture’s finest hour. Spires made of crystal, voluptuous, curved greenhouse roofs, the tongue-in-cheek collages of car parks and fast food restaurants all suggested a rush on the part of designers to use the fire as an avenue for cheap publicity, and few of the ideas drew any public support. The French Senate’s reaction was swift, and welcomed by much of Paris.

The lost spire was not, of course, a Gothic structure; it was built in 1859 to the designs of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc as part of Napoleon III’s campaign to restore monuments damaged in the Revolution or neglected as symbols of the ancien regime. This overlapped with the emperor’s wholesale rebuilding of Paris, which included Hausmann’s boulevards, railway stations, and new commercial and residential sectors, and Viollet-le-Duc’s ‘restorations’ often involved reconfiguring or even re-designing monuments to live up to the Emperor’s ideal of the glorious era of medieval France. Viollet-le-Duc removed and replaced statuary and ornament that had been damaged, but he also replaced or built entirely anew building elements to bring monuments into conformity with contemporary ideals and images of what the Gothic, perhaps, should have looked like.

Notre Dame at the start of the restoration process, in 1847. Photo by Hippolyte Bayard, 1847.

Notre Dame, as it came down to us, was a medieval structure cloaked in a Second Empire vision of the 13th century; Viollet rebuilt the structure’s flying buttresses, removed later additions that had encrusted the base, constructed a wholly new sacristy and topped the crossing with a new, oak and lead spire. There had been a spire on the original church, but it had been removed in the aftermath of the Revolution. Viollet’s version was nearly sixty feet taller than the original and modeled after the later, High Gothic spire at Amiens. It was typical of the campaign to not only restore, but to improve upon the work of the original builders, an approach that is anathema to today’s preservation community but one that, in this case, left the structure with a consistent exterior style and an iconic skyline. Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration is what everyone alive today knows as “Notre Dame,” and the few images of what the cathedral looked like before the restoration have practically disappeared in the torrent of photos, images, selfies, and films of its 19th century incarnation.

So, on one level there’s an intriguing story here about how attitudes circle around, how a modern approach in one century produces a building element that’s seen as both historic and outdated in another, and how preservation is constantly engaged in a debate between fidelity to ‘originals’ on the one hand and a realization that the essence of an historic structure is often dependent entirely on the values and prejudices of the day. But, by odd coincidence, Macron’s announcement came in the middle of my trying to revive a project on John Ruskin, specifically his hastily composed reaction to the opening of the Crystal Palace that was inserted into the first edition of The Stones of Venice as an appendix in 1851. Ruskin, not surprisingly, was not a fan, seeing the structure as transitory, illusory, lacking character, and symbolizing the triumph of industrialization over craft. Such secular optimization, he felt, lacked humanity in its realization and in its experience. He found the displays within to be vulgar and cheap, and the whole enterprise to be a commentary on the hubris and newly sanctioned drive for profit of the era. “Largeness of dimension does not necessarily involve nobleness of design,” he argued, and went on to damn its creator, Joseph Paxton, with the faintest of praise:

“The quantity of bodily industry which that Crystal Palace expresses is very great.  So far it is good.

“The quantity of thought it expresses is, I supposed, a single and very admirable thought of Mr. Paxton’s, probably not a bit brighter than thousands of thoughts which pass through his active and intelligent brain every hour,–that it might be possible to build a greenhouse larger than ever greenhouse was built before.  This thought, and some very ordinary algebra, are as much as all that glass can represent of human intellect.  ‘But one poor half-pennyworth of bread to all this intolerable deal of sack.’ Alas!”

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice. (New York, P.F. Collier, 1900.) 406-407.

That, alone, is a powerful indictment–the punch line is a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard IV, in which the titular prince complains about the ratio of bread to wine he’s been left with, and Ruskin makes a clear judgment about the lack of architectural nourishment on display versus the intoxicating effects of so much glass and delicate, gymnastic structure.

But, not content to leave the reader with the sense of a tectonic hangover, Ruskin goes on (in this essay and a later one, in 1854) to compare the Palace’s opening with two other cultural moments: the death of painter J.M.W. Turner, in December, 1851, and the very restoration program that would, by the end of the decade, see Viollet-le-Duc’s spire rise over Notre Dame. These, at first glance, are pretty incongruous comparisons. Neither had anything to do with glass houses or industry. But in setting the Palace’s ‘intolerable deal of sack’–it’s vaporous, sensational aesthetics–against the sublime land- and seascapes painted by Turner and the “mathematical” restorations being carried out for Napoleon III, Ruskin was elaborating on one of his great themes–the moral effect of architectural aura. Raised in an evangelical household, his belief in a ‘protestant Gothic’ gradually gave way to a more secular interest–famously, Darwin’s Origin of Species shook his faith and turned his argument toward a more socialist bent after 1858.

But throughout all of his work–religious and otherwise–the interest in art and architecture that imparts a sense of human limits in the face of the divine (or, at least, the infinite) was to Ruskin the key to moral force in all artistic production. Turner’s paintings were paradigm examples of the sublime, in which human scale and ambition is, literally, sublimated to the ravages and scale of nature. The Cathedrals, with their awesome scale, were great theological machines that imparted a similar humility in those struck by their vastness. And the workmanship on those cathedrals, Ruskin felt, was exemplary of human fallibility; he valued the imperfect carving or the marks of tools precisely because they make us recognize the struggle of mortal hands in shaping the raw materials of the earth toward our divine aspirations. In “The Nature of the Gothic,” he makes a clear allusion to Protestant theology:

Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do ; neither let your effort be shortened for fear of failure, nor your confession silenced for fear of shame. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.

Ruskin, “Nature of Gothic,” 185

This confessional tectonic had, for Ruskin, a salutary moral purpose–reminding us of our own imperfection in the eyes of the divine but modeling a project that could drive us closer, at least.

His complaint against the restorations was, essentially, that they were too good–too precise, too mechanical in their reproductions, too finely honed. The resulting monuments lacked the patina of age, and thus the instructive atmosphere of antiquity; they lost (for Ruskin, anyway) much of the temporal sublime that comes with ruins whose vast timescale dwarfs our lifetimes in the same way that the Cathedrals’ scale sublimates our physical dimensions. The “white accuracies of novelty” replacing the decayed and ruined stones in the restorations replaced an aura that conveyed the structures’ very humanity–their soul:

Grant that it can do all this, and that the new building is both equal to the old in beauty, and precisely correspondent to it in detail.  Is it, therefore, altogether worth the old building?  Is the stone carved to-day in their masons’ yards altogether the same in value to the hearts of the French people as that which the eyes of St. Louis saw lifted to its place?  Would a loving daughter, in mere desire for a gaudy dress, ask a jeweler for a bright facsimile of the worn cross which her mother bequeathed to her on her death-bed?—would a thoughtful nation, in mere fondness for splendor of streets, ask its architects to provide for it facsimiles of the temples which for centuries had given joy to its saints, comfort to its mourners, and strength to its chivalry?”

John Ruskin, “The Opening of the Crystal Palace : Considered in Some of its Relations to the Prospects of Art.”  (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1854).

The weight–literal and emotional–that old things carry was for Ruskin an important reminder of human limits, an antidote to the blithe hubris represented by the Crystal Palace and to the sensational, short-lived thrills that its insubstantial walls and structure provided. Lingering behind Ruskin’s wrought prose is the sense that the efficiencies and lightness so skillfully developed by Paxton presented a moral danger–architecture as commodity and entertainment rather than as an instructive model of our mortality and our limitations. Lacking character or substance, an industrially produced structure like the Palace might provide momentary pleasure of the senses, as Augustine would have put it, but it can never, as the Cathedrals did, reach our soul through them.

As a fan of both Paxton and Viollet-le-Duc, reading up on this is a bit (*ahem*) sobering. What Ruskin would have made of the current plans to replace Viollet-le-Duc’s spire is an intriguing question–but any moral critique of the fire’s aftermath would no doubt look at the ‘intolerable deal of sack’ generated as ideas for its replacement and seen a clear parallel to the breathless publicity that accompanied the Palace’s opening. One problem with the easy fluency of production is that, while it’s easy to produce intoxicating images, it’s harder and harder to come by genuine nourishment through methods so geared toward the commodification and sensationalism that Ruskin so feared.

3 thoughts on “Macron, Notre Dame’s spire, Ruskin, and architectural morality

  1. Tom. What a fine essay on Notre Dame. I had expected to see a much more interesting and satisfying polemical discussion around this issue, but it seems the architects shirked away from the awesomeness of the task at hand. And so we got nothing or cynicism. Too bad. Was there a book on entries? Your essay will show up i some critical discussions at schools (probably on ZOOM). I love your monograph and look forward to each issue. Are you doing a project with students about the Crystal Palace? Like to see what you’re doing. Stay safe. We are in state of confusion down here in steady 100 degree temperatures. Best. Bruce

    On Tue, Jul 14, 2020 at 12:59 PM architecturefarm wrote:

    > twleslie posted: ” Last week saw the announcement by French president > Emmanuel Macron that the spire of Notre Dame is to be rebuilt as an exact > replica of the one that was lost in the fire of last April. The > announcement was no surprise, given that the French senate o” >


    • Thanks, Bruce–I don’t think anyone collected the entries in one place, but that would be a worthy project! I’ve had students study and model the Palace occasionally, but haven’t ever delved into the reactions to it. Glad the essay might be of use, I think this is a discussion worth having as and when we reboot. Good to hear from you–be well.



  2. Is a great essay. It puts the restoration in context and does full justice to the history of the building. It deserves far broader circulation .Hope you find another outlet so more interested people will get to read it. Beautifully written, too, as always.

    Liked by 2 people

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