Is Notre Dame Cathedral Set in Stone? Not Yet.

How the Notre Dame Restoration could stand for Viollet-le-Duc’s “Top-Down Method

Reflecting on lessons learned in the past, let’s consider how they can be implemented for the benefit of the cathedral’s future. In this Q&A with architect Stuart Peaslee, we explore the philosophy of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored the landmark after it was severely damaged in the French Revolution. What would Viollet-le-Duc do today?

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

Beyond shocked. For me, it was like watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center. And I saw 9/11 happen first-hand, I was there that day. I wanted to help, but unless you’re trained to serve those needs, that’s the last thing you should do during such a catastrophe. Similarly with Notre Dame, many feel the instinct to rectify, resurrect, or make it better than what it was. Looking ahead is exciting, yet we could learn a lot from architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored the cathedral in the 19th-century. He said: “To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.”

Many are asking how we can save it. Meanwhile administrative cleric Patrick Chauvet stood in shock at the scene and asked, “Why?” As an architect, what deeper meaning do you find?

“Why” is not ours to ask in the architecture community. The questions at hand for us are: What could we have done better? How can we do better in the future? Let’s accept what is and make the most of what could be. As we learn how to deal with adversity, the restoration will come naturally. Adversity is a condition of any existence, whether a building or person. There are two tools to cope — with a trusting heart and by understanding the dimensions of your mind, and in the case of Notre Dame, the structure.

How is this both a tragedy and an opportunity for restoration?

The tragedy is in the loss of material representation in history. But that’s gone forever; we must accept that it cannot be completely restored. People want to preserve these moments in history, which is possible in photographs and stories, but preservation (or complete restoration) is not nature’s way. Life, like the limestone and wood of Notre Dame, is constantly subjected to the powers of the atmosphere. Today, Notre Dame gifts us with the opportunity to improve, to restore the elegance of hard work and bring it to the future.

The French president is making a big effort. Emmanuel Macron plans for the restoration to be done in five years, in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Does it seem feasible?

It took over ten years for the World Trade Center to be restored, and that type of construction was a lot more straightforward. I think that any expectation, any timeline, for Notre Dame is unrealistic. First, you’ve got to employ people with high-level skills that are uncommon in today’s society. Second, the design and construction process needs to be put in place. Without the foundation, it’s a fool’s errand to try. High expectations mean high disappointment. In five years, perhaps there will be a temporary solution but, we hope, a satisfactory one.

When the right team assembles, I foresee an exciting period of history for architects, builders, and tradespeople, who can learn from each other. Education is the cornerstone of the Notre Dame restoration. Each apprentice can benefit from inclusive work experiences, to explore and ensure the very best for Notre Dame. Both the acts of designing and building are extremely meaningful to the team, and to the world at large.

Millions of dollars are pouring in from UNESCO and other donors. What does all this aid tell us about Notre Dame’s greater meaning?

The intent is great but I worry that the funds will be squandered. Depending on the management of the process, unreal expectations makes it more ripe to major mistakes. The question is between feasibility and viability. If they want feasible, then the results won’t satisfy the donors. If they want viability, then they will have to temper expectations. This historical landmark deserves viability; feasibility would just satisfy expectation. I have a feeling it’ll take at least 15 years. Any cathedral of note takes time to build.

From a more technical perspective, let’s talk about fire safety. Why is it a challenge to protect historical buildings from fire?

Fire protection systems take up space and so are not easily integrated into a historical building. The major systems are sprinklers and alarms. Applying those to historical structures while maintaining aesthetic is an immense challenge, almost impossible.

Notre Dame is widely known as “built to burn.”

It’s been reported that Gothic architecture is built so that if the timber roof burns off, the fire is not likely to spread to the rest of the building. Builders of the Middle Ages believed stone vaults could prevent fire from spreading. How accurate is this?

The thick walls of Notre Dame are very thick and very expensive. Viollet-le-Duc made a point that if you can accomplish the same thing with a thinner wall, then do it. But the priority then, as it is now, is how to maintain fire proofing.

Philosophically, landmarks like this one are profound expressions, homages to the architects and builders in their time and place, when more was accomplished with less. Essentially, the previous architect of Notre Dame believed that a true landmark balances classical education with experiential training — the mindset I hope those in power will follow.

What lessons can be learned? How can they be implemented in the restoration?

This brings us to Viollet-le-Duc’s “Top-Down Method.” The master builders leading up to his time created tradition through trial and error. The definition of tradition evolved, and continues to evolve, with time, place and materials. Through his own experiences, he realized that construction, like architecture, is an art and science based on the person’s academic knowledge and experience … and a certain feeling.

The Top-Down Method showed that formulas wouldn’t have been enough, rather it is instinct, observations and experience supplied the means with which to work more assuredly, to develop what would work correctly. The tasks of architecture and construction were separated in the latter half of the 19th century, when the Industrial Age generated the standardized processes that have since hyper-evolved.

Moving forward in the 21st century, the current Notre Dame restoration presents an opportunity for builders, architects, and tradespeople to reunite. We need to adapt, and we need to accept that we won’t be able to completely restore “the original” (which to most people, means the 19th-century version). Yet the spirit of teamwork can live on. My advice is to pay respect to the past and build into the future.

How faithful should architects be to the 19th-century version?

The discussion we need to have is how the essence can be expressed in the new version — less about materials, more about the unity of the spirit. Notre Dame Cathedral possesses the enduring power to create a sense of place, and elevate one’s evolving belief system. For the people of Paris, hopefully they think of it as a church but in reality it is also a museum. Do we even address that? How do we not?

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

Interestingly, it survived WWII but not the tragic accident of April 2019. Nothing is forever. Despite the foundation of the structure, nothing is fully set in stone. Notre Dame has lasted for centuries and not many buildings can say that. Among a few others, we have Stonehenge, the Egyptian pyramids, and Notre Dame. It truly is a gem.

While the building may not be the same, how can it be just as meaningful?

Hopefully it will continue to inspire many generations to come. First and foremost, I believe it should serve as a place for community worship, and second that it adds value architecturally and historically. The relationship between design and spirituality holds invaluable meaning.

When people look back on this in 50 years, what perspective might they gain?

Building is a process. It evolves through challenges and comes out with different manifestations of those challenges. One example of evolution is NAB Studio’s proposal to replace the roof with a greenhouse. While this may resonate on one level, I think it lacks the spiritual if not the physical heights of the previous enterprise. Think of all the thousands of people, apprenticeships and education who worked in those buildings, of their communal and cultural values. My hope is that the next generation continues to honor that in whatever way possible.

How can this spiritual space rise from the ashes yet again?

The restoration can rise in the form of education. Teaching people how to adapt and overcome is an important life lesson, and the lack of available technical skills may present the opportunity to teach young people to get their hands dirty.

How does this theme of hope and education connect to your design philosophy?

Through my own designs, I find ways to honor the past and design for the future. Growth challenges us and beautifies us. It’s not what you get from your efforts, it’s what you become through them. Evolution is prominent in my work — it’s nature’s way.

About the author

Sienna Mae Heath

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