Why Does It Always Take a Crisis to Get Something Fixed?

Notre Dame was supposed to take 30 years to fix. After the fire, it could be rebuilt in a mere five.

A general view of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral in black and white on Thursday in Paris.
A general view of Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral on Thursday in Paris. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

The nave of Notre Dame is, as we all know, currently without a roof. But still standing over it is an enormous block of scaffolding, a reminder that the cathedral was in bad shape before it was devastated by the fire on Monday night.

The scaffolding, which now looks like someone dropped a gigantic bowling ball through its center, was completed in the summer of 2018 for what was supposed to be a 30-year renovation of the aging cathedral. That plan was made before the roof burned.

And after? At a press conference on Tuesday, Frédéric Létoffé, one of the presidents of the French organization that represents historic monument restoration companies, said he thought the reconstruction would take 10 to 15 years. Yes, less time than before. The restoration project had been unable to raise any money. Then, in less than 24 hours, it raised nearly a billion dollars.

By Tuesday afternoon, French President Emmanuel Macron had declared the cathedral would be rebuilt in just five years.* April 16, 2024, mark it down. Just in time for the Paris Olympics.

Turns out, if you want to raise awareness about the state of a decaying historic landmark, inviting reporters to observe the chipped gargoyles is not the most effective strategy. Instead, Slate recommends lighting the whole thing on fire. Just when it looks like the blaze is contained, suggest the structure may not survive—before concluding a little later that it will. After the world has mourned the vast, resonant nave, open the front doors of the cathedral to reveal the rib-vaulted ceiling largely intact. And once it is assumed that the enormous organ is burned and 13th-century stained-glass rose windows have melted into pools on the ground, prompting a global moan from the hundreds of millions of people who have stood awestruck in their glow, reveal that actually, they survived.

To be clear, I am not doubting that the French firefighters and engineers worried the 850-year-old building might not survive. And I’m definitely not suggesting that a desperate priest tiptoed into the “forest,” as the warren of 13th-century oak beams supporting the pointed roof was known, to set the whole thing on fire, though I encourage you to pick up my thriller Notre Drame, coming soon to a Hudson News near you.

But I am saying that the thought of a world without Notre Dame just wasn’t real until you could smell it.

France owns Notre Dame, but the Paris archdiocese is responsible for its daily operations. In 2017, the diocese asked the French state for 150 million euros to restore the church, whose masonry was coming off in chunks. Then-president François Hollande offered 4 million euros a year. So the archbishop set up a Friends of Notre Dame charity to raise money from, among others, the church’s many well-pocketed American admirers. Results, as Létoffé emphasized, were mixed.

Then, the cathedral went up in flames. Before the fire was even out, the floodgates had opened. By Tuesday evening, the French families behind LVMH and L’Oréal had pledged 200 million euros each; a number of others joined in from France and elsewhere. An insurance company offered 1,300 oak trees for the reconstruction of the roof; grassroots campaigns raised thousands too.

The response to this outpouring has been mixed. Gilles Carrez, a deputy from the right-wing party Les Républicains, noted that the French public was really paying for the reconstruction, since those enormous charitable gifts would spare their donors the country’s 65 percent tax rate. Every hundred million euros given to the Notre Dame project means 60 million euros missing from the 2020 budget, he said. There was agreement on the other side of the aisle—the economist Julia Cagé, who worked for the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon in 2017, wrote on Twitter that “billionaires should pay taxes, not give when they feel like it, benefiting from enormous tax breaks.” And on Wednesday, the secretary general of the CGT labor union said on television, “If they’re capable of giving dozens of millions to reconstruct Notre Dame, why don’t they stop telling us they don’t have enough money to address social problems.”

Obviously, this is not the ideal way to go about restoring the church. The work will be long and onerous, beginning with the rush to stabilize the walls and windows weakened from thermal shock. Europe’s biggest tourist attraction will be closed for years. Much of the magic of its ancientness and its continuity is lost forever.

Numerous 3D scans will ensure the building can be rebuilt as it was—if that’s what we want. But why? The warren of ancient beams that upheld the roof, built from 50 acres of oak trees, was a marvel in the middle ages, but one that no visitor then or now ever saw and few even knew existed. After the cathedral at Reims burned under German bombardment in 1914, a roof of reinforced concrete served the same purpose with greater security and lesser cost. The mid-19th century restoration of Notre Dame, undertaken by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, caked the cathedral in gothic revival. Whitney Krahn, who recently competed her Ph.D. on Viollet-le-Duc’s writing, said the architect viewed his additions not as historicist pastiche but as modern and vital. Shortly after I spoke with her on Tuesday, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an architectural competition to redesign the spire. Would a jury dare choose something modern, like IM Pei’s celebrated glass pyramid at the Louvre? Victor Hugo argued the church’s special beauty owed something to its amalgamation of centuries of art and science, each of which had left its traces like sediment from an ebbing flood.

Notre Dame, but with a baguette as the spire.
Did someone say architectural competition? Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by harmpeti/iStock/Getty Images Plus, IakovKalinin/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Notre Dame is at least the third priceless historic building to go up in flames during a renovation in the past year, after the Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art and the National Museum of Brazil both caught fire last summer. (There’s no use speculating about what kind of construction site mishap set Monday’s first spark in motion. Workers were using flammable solvents and blowtorches as they dismantled elements of the roof for preservation.) Like Notre Dame, the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro had been unable to secure government funding and had resorted to crowdfunding its own restoration. What gets saved and what gets gutted too often depends on the whims of the plutocracy. The Washington Monument? Restored, posthaste, thanks to the donations of the private equity tycoon David Rubinstein. As the tax analyst Victor Fleischer observed in a New Yorker article about Rubinstein’s philanthropy and the carried-interest tax loophole that makes it possible, “If we had a government that was better funded, it could probably fix its own monuments.” The French seem to be on the precipice of similar realization: This money could have and should have been raised years ago.

Why does it always take a crisis? The inferno at Notre Dame belongs not just to the recent spat of historic structure fires, but more broadly represents our inability to give the proper consideration to maintenance and repair. A very literal example of this: Not everyone is sure France currently has enough skilled tradespeople to rebuild a cathedral in five years. In a 2013 essay, “Rethinking Repair,” the information scientist Steven Jackson argues for a “broken world thinking” that treats decay, rather than growth, as the default state of the affairs. (It hardly needs to be said anymore that this seems equally true of physical structures, human institutions, and the natural world.) In November, the anthropologist Shannon Mattern issued a call to arms for the caretakers: “What we really need to study is how the world gets put back together.”

Our tendency to mortgage the future in favor of the present shows up in everything from the single-use disposable plastics that rain down on the snow-capped Pyrenees to the planned obsolescence of each iPhone to America’s obsession with spending billions more building new roads than maintaining old ones. This sense of “care” as something to be meted out at intervals, in beach clean-ups and temporary scaffolding set-ups, is at its core a blissful misunderstanding of our broken world, where the falling apart begins before the building is even complete. It shouldn’t take a fire to illuminate the glory of good repair. At Notre Dame, the past seemed so firm, no one thought of the future.

Correction, April 18, 2019: An earlier version of this post misspelled Emmanuel Macron’s first name.