What follows is a guest post by philosopher Saul Fisher, on the recent tragedy of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The burning of the roof and spire of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15 was a moving and dramatic event, variously interpreted as architectural disaster, economic loss, flashpoint for myriad heritage issues, and moment of French national unity. The cathedral has endured since medieval times: construction began in 1163 CE, the towers were completed in 1250, and figurative elements were added in the mid-14th century. From this endurance alone, it is little wonder that the cathedral captures the imagination of the French, the devout, the appreciators of architectural history, and the every Parisian visitor. Little wonder, too, then, that the fire consuming the cathedral prompted strong emotional response.
While lamenting the event’s tragic dimensions and symbolism, I find consolation, or perhaps refuge, in formalist and abstractist ways that I think about architectural objects.
Cathedrals are not a big draw for me. I have occasionally wandered in for a special event or to see the vast enclosed spaces, marvel at glories of medieval design and construction, or get at some sense of the Church’s sheer authority as represented to feudal parishioners or as telegraphed through the ages to our present day. My main activity, though, in relation to large cathedrals—including Notre-Dame—has been walking by a relatively fast clip.
One reason I have tended to stroll past Notre-Dame or other cathedrals is that the cultural particularities are not my own, and this is true in ways that become rather complicated rather quickly. It’s one thing to strive towards cosmopolitanism; it’s another to engage wholeheartedly with structures featuring alien historical symbolism. And yet there is a general obligation to not be churlish or unceasingly aggrieved—and beyond that, a special obligation, relative to aesthetic self-development, to try to fully appreciate world-historical built structures as signal contributions to human cultural heritage.
Indeed, this sort of aesthetic self-development drives endless streams of tourists to take photos in front of Notre-Dame, with or without themselves in the picture. They may recognize the majesty and beauty of the cathedral but they surely recognize at least an obligation to look for such majesty or beauty, or at a minimum to capture the moment as they try to do so. This is where aesthetic self-development obligations tip into the territory of touristic obligations.
Twice upon a time a Parisian resident, I may have escaped those attendant obligations—yet I still should have incurred aesthetic self-development obligations. My override clause: as a dyed-in-the-wool modernist (in architectural and design frameworks), I tend to see medieval cathedrals, along with much else in deep Western architectural history, primarily as the old stuff that helpfully provides contrastive background for the modern built environment. We don’t get to have modernist built structures or urban design without the older built structures, for reasons of both historical continuity and disruption. (What continues from the old makes better sense when we see the older stuff; and what presents as new benefits from its detectable divergence relative to at least some historical predecessors.) So when I take in the urban fabric of Paris or other largely modern cities in the West, I tend to be attuned first to its modernist structures and only second to the less modern ones. Further, through a modernist lens, I may also see the older structures primarily through their forms—perhaps in the manner of Matisse’s 1914 impression of Notre-Dame.
My own formalist-calibrated lens turned on Notre-Dame partly results from not investing deeply in the content, history, spiritualism, or lore. I don’t so much reflect categorially on the cathedral as I walk by, either because it doesn’t capture my interest or because I have previously reflected deeply in that fashion and—given either cultural or aesthetic stakes—I resist categorial framing. Much of the detailing (the statuary or the colonnade on the west facade) even blurs for me, if I don’t stop to change my frame of mind and focus. From my particular perspective, the cathedral can seem a massive medieval hulk to hurry across, as I travel from one side of Haussmann’s 1870s Paris to the other, busily navigating the contemporary urban context. In my haste, though, I still envisage, however peripherally or dimly the outlines of the cathedral’s forms—they cannot be missed. And what I perceive, if in marginal or incidental fashion, is the outline of twin rectangular forms, rising nearly 70 meters, joined at the base and framing the view east of the Rue de la Cité across the Place Jean-Paul II.
The only positive news of this destructive fire: It appears that the greater part of the built structure of Notre-Dame de Paris, including my dimly perceived forms, remains structurally sound. The three main structural losses comprise the 19th century spire over the transept, the cathedral’s lead roof, and the wooden frame that supported the roof—itself built in the 13th century. Even from my idiosyncratic perspective, and modernist severity, I can join all who are grateful that despite the raging fires these forms still stand today, as does most of the cathedral’s exterior, splendid flying buttresses and all.
I can also be grateful, looking beyond my parochialisms or tastes, that others may continue to appreciate such a vitally significant, historically rich built structure as Notre-Dame in a multitude of fruitful ways.
A second source of solace is this. Even if Notre-Dame the built cathedral had fully burned down, Notre-Dame the cathedral would still be with us—on an abstractist view.
Many of those who care deeply about Notre-Dame are calling for—or offering to help fund—its being rebuilt. The idea that the structure can be rebuilt is odd, though, if we think of the actual, original built structure being built once again. After all, the built structure erected in the 12th and 13th centuries—or some large part of it—has been irreparably destroyed by fire and so that can’t be rebuilt. It seems instead that what is to be rebuilt is the architectural object as defined abstractly, by reference to either the original plans or else some subsequent notion as to what the built structure should look like. In this way, the built structure—whether the versions from the thirteenth century through the 1860s, or the version from the 1860s through 2019, or the probable version from 2019 until many years from now—is in each case a physical instantiation of the abstract architectural object.
Across these historically different versions, the cathedral has served a common core of ends—religious, ceremonial, symbolic, community-building, etc. By contrast, much about the built structure itself has varied, including its builders and custodians, its engineering challenges and damage, and the principles guiding, and aesthetic or structural results from, its repairs, restorations, or reconstructions. Thus, as Caroline Bruzelius details: a 13th century fire, per Viollet-le-Duc’s account, prompted reconstruction of the clerestory and the flying buttresses; other repairs in the 1400s and 1500s likely included additional flying buttresses on the north side of the choir, for reinforcement; the spire which fell in the April 2019 fire was added in Viollet-le-Duc’s controversial mid-19th century restoration, to replace a prior spire—which itself was a medieval era addition to the original design; and so on.
As many and varied are the built structural versions of Notre-Dame of different eras, so the corresponding abstract object has to be generously construed and allow for a range of interpretations in initial construction and subsequent additions or renovations. This much is reflected, for example, in plans that don’t proscribe additions or subtractions, or aren’t overly prescriptive relative to style. Thus, for example, the plan that appears in Ferdinand de Guilhermy and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s Description de Notre-Dame, Cathédrale de Paris (1856) is at least roughly consonant with all proposed period-wise versions of instantiated structures.
Sara Uckelman recently offered a related, moving thought about churches in general, as occasioned by the Notre-Dame fire: that “It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.” Here she suggests that, while religious built structures may feature additions, subtractions, and other amendments through phases of a ‘lifespan’, the corresponding religious communities may continue to invest significance in the structures as sacred space, through any number of transformations.
The sacred space concept provides powerful inspiration in such cases, and the concept of a ‘lifespan’ of a built structure—enduring trials and changes but somehow retaining its identity—is possibly fruitful, possibly fraught. Their potential merits aside, however, we do not need either point to motivate optimism about future lives of built instantiations of Notre-Dame. We know future built instantiations are possible because, as Uckelman and others have noted, there is terrific documentation on the past built structure as has been instantiated over time. But what makes that documentation possible and also have enduring value—conceptually and practically, in this terrible architectural loss—is that it in turn reflects the abstract Notre-Dame object. (This is also what enables such documentation to detectably pick out a single object, where, within a range, documentation varies.) Our lasting knowledge of that indestructible architectural object serves as guarantor of our capacity to rebuild, or re-instantiate the corresponding built structure with all its majesty, at whatever focus level or categorial commitment, for future appreciators of all ideological stripes.
Notes on the Contributor
Saul Fisher is Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy and Associate Provost for Research, Grants, and Academic Initiatives at Mercy College (NY). His research is focused on philosophy of architecture, for which he was awarded a Graham Foundation grant (2009) and which includes publications in JAAC and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He is also pursuing a research program on developmental aesthetics.