Museum or Church: What’s Your Choice, Notre Dame?

In this Q&A, architect Susan Tusick reflects on the core values of the cathedral.

Our Lady of Paris burned on April 15, 2019. Notre Dame cathedral is the heart of Paris, and for Catholics a symbol of faith. In this Q&A with architect Susan Tusick, we explore how the restoration could reflect the core values of the city.

When the fire happened in April, how did you first react to the news?

Deeply saddened by the event, I mourned the incredible building and much more. The cathedral’s proper name is Notre Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris. For many of us, it felt as though Mother Mary’s house had suffered. From 1160, it took a hundred years to build — generations of workers to create the beautiful details and flying buttresses. Europe and Christianity don’t go hand in hand anymore. Christ stood his ground, in the form of the stone foundation, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this a sign from God?

Pope Francis calls Notre Dame an “architectural gem of a collective memory.” Why is it important for architects and other professionals to collaborate on this project?

It’s a wake-up call and important for all involved to consider whether it will be rebuilt as a shell or as something that honors God. Depending on what the church means to the people most instrumental in the design, it could be rebuilt like a museum or like a church. If they build it like a museum, yes, it’s an absolutely beautiful building, a great feat of architecture, engineering, and design working together. But to me, it means more. Paris has to decide: Where’s your soul? Where’s your ego? If Notre Dame is the soul of Paris, it’s burning.

The French president plans for the restoration to be done in five years, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Does it seem feasible?

I admire his optimism. I hope it’s more in the spirit of God, not ego. As an architect, I know it will take a long time to uncover the expertise needed, especially if they want to restore the original. Something could be done in five years if they plan well. Upfront planning takes time and requires finding the right team, historical architects, researchers, and craftspeople.

Millions of dollars are pouring in from UNESCO and other donors. What does all this aid and attention symbolize?

I see it as a sign of these people being gracious and acting from their heart. But you’re going to need more than millions. This is a very expensive project requiring extreme specialties.

The cathedral has endured riots, wars, and revolutions. How does this event contribute to its story?

The building is a symbol, just like the Eiffel Tower. We will see in the restoration how Paris expresses its core values to the world — what it means to be Parisian, French, or Catholic. Perspective down the road depends on how Paris responds today: Where’s your soul, in a museum or a church?

About the author

Sienna Mae Heath

Sienna Mae Heath is a writer for Architect News. She helps architects and designers find their voice.