Culture Gabfest

“Notre Dame Is a Living Building”

The great fire at Notre Dame will eventually become just as much a part of the cathedral’s history as Viollet-le-Duc’s statues or the stained-glass windows.

A statue on an alter with stained glass behind it, with burned rubble in front.
A picture taken on Tuesday shows the altar surrounded by charred debris inside the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the aftermath of the fire. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

On this week’s Culture Gabfest, New Yorker staff writer Lauren Collins joined the show to talk about the burning of Notre Dame and the church’s place in the city’s life. This interview, which took place Tuesday morning, has been condensed and edited for clarity. You can listen to the Culture Gabfest for free every week via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

Stephen Metcalf: You were already the person we would have called to ask to come on the show anyway, but by coincidence you were reporting a piece on the renovation of Notre Dame, so you were one of the final people to come in and see the work that was being done. Talk a little bit about how that came about.

Lauren Collins: I have been reporting just kind of a … not a lark of a piece, but just a light curio of a thing, for the Talk of the Town section, about the restoration that was going on on the roof. I was up on the roof on March 27, and I took a construction elevator up, and put on my hard hat and was able to climb up in the scaffolding that was surrounding the roof and the spire, the part that burned. I was there to see the decapitation of the 12 statues of the apostles, that Viollet-le-Duc added to the roof sometime around 1850.

Metcalf: I mean, this is a structure that signifies in so many different ways. It’s hard to pick one. Begin just by saying what it means to the city and the life of the city as you live in it.

Collins: First of all it’s just something that everyone who comes here sees, and so it’s meaningful to tourists. But it’s meaningful to locals too, because it’s kind of a wayfinding point by which you can orient yourself for a lot of things, or just a meeting place. Kind of a friendly and familiar—but maybe until yesterday unappreciated—companion and sentry to life in Paris.

One thing I was really interested in was Victor Hugo’s concept of graft. The way that we think of the Constitution, for instance, as a living document, it’s kind of a living building, that is constantly dying and growing and changing. I found that very comforting somehow, this notion that something could kind of break off and wither and turn to ash, but then we can just place something right back on it. As far as Victor Hugo was concerned, that was fine. So that’s something I’m drawing a little bit of literary historical comfort from.

Dan Kois: And in Hugo’s time the cathedral was in a similar state of disrepair. Not as bad as it is this morning, but you know, it was falling apart. It had not been taken care of for centuries. Can you just tell us a little bit about what it was that this reconstruction was meant to be doing, and why? Why, perhaps, the cathedral was underappreciated by the city?

Collins: The Hunchback came out in 1831, and as you said, the cathedral was in just abject state at that point. This guy, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, was brought on to renovate it, and he just had this mania for all things kind of Gothic and ornate. He’s the one who plugged the spire on there. I posted something on Instagram, and someone left a comment that I thought was so fascinating. She was a woman who has just finished, or maybe is in the midst of finishing, a thesis on Viollet-le-Duc. Her thesis is that for him architectural restoration and national renewal are inseparable. I just thought that was such an interesting point to make now, in a moment where France is in this kind of social and political crisis. Before Notre Dame even went up in flames yesterday, Emmanuel Macron was in fact scheduled to address the nation last night at 8, and I think it was about 6:30 that everyone started noticing that Notre Dame was on fire. And so, he canceled his speech and I guess will do it when things calm down. I think it’ll be interesting to see how the notion of rebuilding Notre Dame and France’s patrimony and national pride dovetails with the challenge of fixing the social fracture that the gilets jaunes and other things have brought about in France.

Kois: It’s particularly heartening to see just how quickly it seems France is sort of circling around this cause now, at a moment of fracture in its social and cultural space. You know, for 10 years they’ve been trying to get people to contribute to a fund to get to renovate Notre Dame.

Collins: We’re also in the midst of this burgeoning debate and crisis in France over extreme wealth and how it should be taxed. I mean that’s kind of considered Macron’s original sin, that led to a lot of the things that have happened this year, with the gilets jaunes and all that, and so it’s really interesting because Macron got rid of this tax called the ISF, this wealth tax that really rich people had to pay. It was largely symbolic, but anyway, he got rid of it. There’s this feeling that super-rich people like Pinault and Arnault aren’t paying as much as they should have to in taxes. So now, they’re voluntarily saying, “OK, we’ll give all this money that we were supposed to give anyway until our enormous tax got canceled.” And so there’s a whole polemic, as they say in France, arising around that too.

Dana Stevens: I don’t know about you, or about how people in Paris feel about this, but I feel like I almost started the day with a spring in my step today, knowing that the cathedral had not fallen to the ground and that more had survived than I would have thought. It did make me think about, as you were saying, just what a palimpsest of history it already was, that there were all these Viollet-le-Duc additions that were from the 19th century, and that the windows were replaced, some of them, in the 1960s with nonreligious designs, and that after the French Revolution, the statues were beheaded by revolutionaries. So it already has all of these inscriptions of history on it, and it’s not as if it’s this pure piece of patrimony that was preserved and then burned.

Collins: That’s what’s so crazy. When I went in there and was kind of climbing around in the rafters, and I’d had this experience in other French churches and cathedrals, too, you think they’re these kind of corporate, really sanitized national monuments. I mean you think, OK, what is it, 35,000 people a day go to Notre Dame. You’re thinking people who went to business school are running these things, and they’re not. I mean they’re these living monuments. And that was what I was so struck by, when I was up on the roof and looking at these things, I mean, they’re just like weird things lying in corners. There are little parts of statues that have fallen off and somebody just put them somewhere.

I remember going up in a part of St. Sulpice, for instance, that’s not open to the public, and people were living up there in grace-and-favor apartments until the 1970s and they would have parties, and there were still posters on the walls and things. I mean, you really do get this Hunchback of Notre-Dame sense that there are just strange beings and remnants and spirits and things crawling around up there. So I mean, I felt much the same way you did, Dana. As soon as it became clear that the belfry towers were going to stand, I felt a giant sense of relief. Just kind of knowing that at least from the front, where everybody goes in, Notre Dame as we know it would remain.

Stevens: I assume the entire building has been documented down to the square inch, and it can be reproduced. Obviously, it’s not going to be the original materials, but that again is going to be part of a cycle of destruction and renewal that it’s been going through for 800 years.

Collins: There is some precedent for this. The cathedral at Reims was bombarded by the Germans in 1914, and I think they had a bunch of hay bales inside, because they were using it as the hospital. Anyway, the spire, hay, lead roof, the whole thing caught fire and bubbled and burned and was totally obliterated, and that was rebuilt, I think with a lot of help from the Rockefellers actually. If you go there today and you don’t know what happened, you kind of wouldn’t.

Kois: The inside of Notre Dame was laser scanned in the last decade to, like, the nearest micrometer or whatever. I’m so curious about whether they will replicate it as it was, whether they will attempt to replicate the agedness of it. This, as you say, this sort of accretion of decades and centuries of bits and bobs here and there is part of what makes it, I think, such an emotional place to go into. The sense that you can see everywhere, not just the big history, right? The huge stained-glass windows, or the things that have been there for hundreds or a thousand years. But you can also see the evidence of the accretion of history on every wall and in every corner, and that seems hard to replicate or renew. Or maybe the rubble from the fire will just become another set of additions to the structure.

Collins: I went to bed with this sense of just total grief and woke up with this kind of sense of opportunity. I’m like, Do something crazy, come on. You know, you don’t have to just like replicate Viollet-le-Duc. Let’s have a Pompidou Notre Dame.

Metcalf:  I have to say, I did not see that coming, Lauren Collins.

Collins: I know, I know. But the more you read about the history of it, you realize that you really could stick absolutely anything up there and in 200 years have people think that it was immemorial.

Stevens: You know what would be at once historically accurate and also just a completely insane step to take is that the statues in the front, the sculptures of saints and religious figures all across the front, were originally painted and gilded.

Collins: I’m all for it.

Metcalf: Or, replace images of the Madonna with images of Madonna.

Kois: There’s got to be a Pikachu gargoyle up there somewhere.

Collins: Gargoyles. We haven’t even talked about gargoyles! I mean, gargoyle artists, they just take people’s faces they know and stick them on there. I mean, think of what you could do with free rein on some gargoyles.