Thursday, April 18, 2019

Notre-Dame: Coming to Terms with Near-Disaster

The first fire alarm rang out at 6:20pm (GMT) on Monday.

The news about the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris took a while to sink in for me. It's always been so distant from me, and not only geographically. Not only have I never been to France, but I don't know much about architecture or French history, and I'm only vaguely familiar with Catholicism. Of course I know of the cathedral as the pinnacle of Gothic architecture and a symbol for the arts and Christianity around the world, but I have little emotional connection.

Most of my knowledge of Notre-Dame comes from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the Disney classic. It has arguably the best soundtrack of any Disney animated movie.

My reaction upon hearing of the fire was that of surprise, disappointment, and hope that no one would be harmed.

Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Agence France-Presse. Getty Images. The cathedral’s 295-foot spire collapsed as smoke and flames engulfed the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on Monday. From Despair and Grief Amid the Smoke and Flames of Notre-Dame, NY Times, 04/15/19.
Over the following hours, my feelings grew deeper as I considered the implications of this event. By the time I awoke Tuesday morning, my relief at the absence of physical injuries remained, but was joined with an intense sorrow.

Sorrow for Catholics and Christians, for the arts and architecture communities, and especially for France.

I thought of the Paris terrorist attack a few years ago, and the depth of pain experienced then. So many disasters occur every day around the world, natural and contrived, and it's impossible to give each the media coverage it deserves. It's impossible for the entire world to mourn every single tragedy together, though I wish we could. But when horrible things happen to international symbols like Notre-Dame, it's good to take time to mourn... and important that we treat it as a reminder of the lesser-known tragedies going on every day.

Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, daguerreotype, 1841.
Rose Window on the southern façade.
Fortunately only one firefighter was injured, though hundreds were involved in controlling and putting out the fire. Though the spire and two-thirds of the lead-covered wooden roof and attic were destroyed in the blaze, the main structure remains intact.

It was a close call, however: the fire lasted over 10 hours, but it's estimated that the structure would have been seriously compromised if it had burned for only another 15-30 minutes.

The world's art community breathes a sigh of relief over all the priceless paintings and sculptures which avoided damage. Even the famous stained-glass Rose Windows are intact. However, the art community mourns the still-unknown extent of smoke and water damage which was incurred. Fire is among an artist's top fears, after all.

The world's Christian and Catholic communities breathe sighs of relief that we believe in a God who is a greater than any building, and that damage to a building—even one so beautiful and historic as the Notre-Dame Cathedral—doesn't damage the roots of our faith.

This is evidenced by the beautiful videos circulating of crowds gathering around the burning cathedral, singing hymns. It's a powerful reminder of the resilience of  the Christian faith, and the persecution Christians have suffered for 2,000 years. Church buildings come and go, but the true Church is forever.

The Quai Saint-Michel and Notre-Dame by Maximilian Luce,
oil on canvas, 1901. 
That leaves France, which breathes a sigh of relief that only one person was injured. Nonetheless, this is a shocking emotional blow. It's apparent that the fire was an accident, and I'm very glad for that, but France must still face this damage to one of its most beloved and symbolic destinations. For many, this cathedral is far more than just an old and beautiful building.

For many, Notre-Dame is a symbol of their faith and heritage, an almost-living piece of French history. It's been around for 800 years. I can hardly fathom this, since America is such a young nation. Few of our buildings and monuments are older than 250 years. But there stands Notre-Dame, the Lady of Paris, three times that age.

French authorities are still investigating the extent of the damages, and those answers may take some time. However, with the structure pronounced intact, French President Emmanuel Macron has already announced the decision to rebuild. Donations of all sizes have been pouring in.

Furthermore, France's Prime Minister, Edouard Phillippe, has announced a competition to rebuild the spire, open to architects around the world. It's yet to be seen whether the new spire will be a copy of the previous design by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, or a new design altogether. The 90-foot spire, completed in 1869, replaced a previous spire which had suffered severe wind-damage and was removed in the late 18th century.

French authorities are optimistic about the future, and with good reason. They were just beginning a much-needed restoration project, and although Monday's fire is a dramatic and painful setback, the cathedral will be restored and measures will be taken to safeguard it against future accidents.

One element of this event that I found particularly interesting is the opportunity for modern technology to shape the future of the cathedral. Had this fire occurred only ten years ago, the rebuilding plans might have been very different, because in the past decade, two highly-detailed, nearly-perfect digital replicas of Notre-Dame have been created.

Cover of Assassin's Creed Unity, Ubisoft. Notre-
Dame is visible on the left in the background.
Caroline Miousse, a level artist at the video game company Ubisoft, spent almost two years studying every detail of the gothic cathedral for the 2014 game Assassin's Creed Unity.

I'm no gamer, but even I am aware of the reputation Assassin's Creed has for painstakingly recreating historic sites. I'm told Unity's Notre-Dame is no exception. Miousse replicated everything from the structure design to the texture of the wood and stonework, creating a life-like digital cathedral which players can explore in-game.

Ubisoft has offered free access to the game for a limited time in honor of the cathedral, and made a substantial donation for rebuilding. There have not been any official conversations on using the game model as a resource for restoring the building, but Ubisoft has made it clear they will be happy to help if needed.

In 2015, American art historian Andrew Tallon of Vassar College used lasers to digitally map the entire cathedral.

Miousse's and Tallon's digital replicas are two nearly-flawless scale models from which the rebuilding and restoring efforts can be modeled. I'll be interested to see if and how these digital models play into the reconstruction. How many other artistic renderings of Notre-Dame de Paris exist around the world? How many internal and external photographs, drawings, paintings, sculptures, and digital creations pay homage to this larger-than-life gothic masterpiece? These resources, along with existing building plans, could make this one of the most-informed rebuilds of all time.

We all just witnessed a dramatic piece of history: the day Notre-Dame caught fire. The day two-thirds of her roof burned, and her spire collapsed in flames. The week a video game became a memorial. The week digital reconstructions became possible blue-prints for rebuilding an 800-year-old architectural treasure. Wikipedia has already been updated; it's only a matter of time before the history books are, as well.

But for nor now, it's okay to be sad. It's okay to look at photos from before the fire and mourn for France, for the Church, for the arts community.


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