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The Gothic Phoenix Burns but Never Perishes
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On April 15, 2019—Holy Monday—the Gothic masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral caught fire. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s flèche, or spire, and the thirteenth-century lead-and-oak roof, known as the Forest from the many oak trees used to build it, perished in the blaze.
Viewers were transfixed by the images on their television and computer screens, as they watched the tweets come in and followed the coverage on French and British news services. It was shocking to see the cathedral engulfed in flames and to watch and rewatch the collapse of the flèche. People who had seen the cathedral in person worried about its rose windows. Catholics feared for the Blessed Sacrament and the holy relics; musicians wondered if the organ would ever sound again.
One of the most enduring images was that of dozens of young Parisians, illuminated by the setting sun and the burning cathedral, on their knees singing the “Hail, Mary” in French.
Those same images affected the panel assembled by the American Conservative at Saint Agnes Church on the East Side of Manhattan on September 17 to discuss the rebuilding of Notre-Dame and its significance to Western civilization. That panel was composed of Duncan Stroik, a professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame and one of the country’s leading ecclesiastical architects, the American Conserrvative’s senior editor Rod Dreher, and National Review senior writer Michael Brendan Dougherty.
Although the images were striking, Dougherty emphasized that the emotions stirred up by them and by American commentators did not always convey an accurate impression.
“People said it was a symbol of France’s loss of faith, and I was struck by how many Christians and conservatives were agreeing with that,” he said. “Notre-Dame was a busy cathedral. It’s not a symbol of a dead faith but a live one.”
Yet, because of France’s secularization, rebuilding the cathedral will be the responsibility of the French state. Despite the French Senate′s passing of a bill ordering that the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was, the panelists were skeptical that it would happen without popular pressure.
“There should be popular outrage in the best tradition of French rioting,” Dougherty said, if the cathedral is not respectfully rebuilt.
But there was a broader issue at play in the discussion: the problem of beauty, or rather the lack of it, in contemporary architecture. “We can build whatever we want,” Stroik said. “I’m calling for a new appreciation of architecture. When I came to New York on this trip, I saw lots of Gothic skyscrapers not being built.”
Stroik invoked the French Gothic revivalist Eugène Violette-le-Duc as an example of how a style can find new life. Violette-le-Duc designed the flèche that was destroyed by the fire. It featured sculptures of the twelve Apostles, eleven of whom looked out over Paris while the twelfth, St. Thomas, a patron of architects, looked at the flèche with Violette-le-Duc’s own features. While Violette-le-Duc restored a number of medieval buildings around France, he also built new Gothic churches.
The nineteenth-century Gothic revival lasted into the 1930s and was very popular for church buildings in the United States, too, where it was especially promoted by Ralph Adams Cram. The Gothic also found its way into secular architecture, such as the Tribune Tower in Chicago and institutions of higher learning like Princeton, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, and Boston College. But Stroik lamented that the Gothic revival rarely extended to homes and commercial buildings.
Dreher emphasized the power of architecture.“I walked into the Cathedral of Chartres, and my life changed,” he said. “I had nothing to prepare me for that.”
“Architecture is too important to be left to the architects,” Stroik insisted. “It’s a public art, and we need to take it back. Bad architecture comes from architects.”
Doughtery suggested that organizations building affordable housing could use good architecture to win support for their projects. “Maybe we can find some way of making new homes in a beautiful architecture [so that] new buildings will not be antisocial,” he said.
Whether an architectural revival takes the form of another iteration of the Gothic or something else, it will cost money and require artists and artisans. Stroik argued that not only is the fire an opportunity to revive an appreciation for good architecture; it is also an opportunity to revive the traditional crafts that went with making beautiful buildings. He mocked the idea that good architecture is too difficult to build, saying, “Going to the moon is hard, so let’s not do it.”
Dreher lamented the fact that most conservatives are more interested in finance and politics than culture and craft, though he also cautioned that conservative art for the sake of conservatism would more likely than not end up as “right-wing kitsch.”
Good architecture is not so rare as it seems these days, however. Stroik and other ecclesiastical architects, like the Massachusetts firm of Cram and Ferguson, are doing work in traditional idioms for churches, while Instagram and Twitter accounts like newclassicalarchitecture and ArchitecturalRevival (@Arch_Revival_) feature new buildings designed according to enduring principles. The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art serves as a forum for professionals working in traditional idioms.
NPR reports that the French government has a difficult task, since many of the quarries used in constructing Notre-Dame are now part of the infrastructure of Paris, and concerns about the cathedral’s structural stability remain. But even some of France’s leading modernist architects don’t want to see any deviation from the Gothic.
“Time is blind,” wrote Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and “man is stupid.” Yet beauty endures. ♦
Matthew Robare is a freelance journalist in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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