Nearly three years ago, the world watched in stunned disbelief as Notre Dame de Paris burned. To watch one of the world’s most iconic landmarks engulfed in flames was a surreal reminder that nothing can be permanent or certain, no matter how central it is to our collective imagination.
After fifteen hours of firefighting, the blaze was finally extinguished. While the fire damaged the lead and oak-beam roof extensively and destroyed the building’s flèche (a spire towering above the nave), much of the building—including its two towers and its breathtaking stained-glass windows—survived. Almost immediately after the fire, conversation turned to swiftly rebuilding and restoring the landmark. And it didn’t take long for that conversation to turn into a spirited argument.
Over the course of 850 years, Notre Dame de Paris has often been the object of dispute, a crown jewel constantly changing hands, shifting meanings, and reflecting the moments that make up France’s turbulent history.
Sitting on a site that’s believed to have once been a Roman temple to Jupiter, the cathedral has been renovated, expanded, and re-contextualized so many times since that a short history is impossible.The cathedral held the relics of the Passion of the Christ, including the crown of thorns said to have sat on Jesus’s head. During the French Revolution, Notre Dame was desecrated, stripped of precious metals, and converted into a Temple of Reason. Soon after, the cathedral hosted the coronation of Napoleon. Later in the 19th century, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in an act of architectural advocacy, raising awareness of the building’s neglect and decay leading to a restoration effort that would cement Notre Dame as a national symbol. By the 21st century, it was the most visited monument in Paris.
It’s no wonder, then, that emotions ran high in the immediate aftermath of the 2019 fire. When the French government announced an international design competition to design a roof and spire “more beautiful than before,” backlash was swift and strong. The wounds of the fire still fresh, there was little appetite for contemporary reimagining, and soon French president Emmanuel Macron backtracked, vowing that the restoration would be “exact” and completed in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Thanks to Covid-related delays, Macron’s timeline may need a series of miracles.
Logistically, the restoration will need to go to elaborate lengths to match the cathedral’s condition pre-fire. In 2021, a national search was conducted to source the 1,000 oak trees required to reconstruct the “forest” of wooden roof beams that fueled the fire. Crews scoured forests throughout France—sometimes by drone—for trees 150 years and older. The effort drew considerable opposition from ecological groups who objected to the harvesting of such old-growth stock.
Concerns about potentially-dangerous fallout from the building’s incinerated lead roof also linger, especially among the neighborhoods around the cathedral. France’s aggressive timeline for restoration could put workers at risk, as testing of the site has shown lead levels hundreds of times higher than the safe threshold. And yet, the restoration’s plan calls for continued use of the toxic metal for the roof and spire. Perhaps ironically, the spire in question dated back only to the 19th-century restoration when Eugène Viollet-le-Duc recreated the weakened medieval-era flèche.
More recently, alarmist scrutiny has turned against proposed updates to Notre Dame’s interior, drawing fire in a larger, ongoing culture war. Those who see “traditional” French history and iconography as under threat have begun to panic about a “woke” and modernizing restoration of Notre Dame. Intended to invite wider audiences into conversation with the divine, the additions include more open space, digital projections of welcome, and the incorporation of contemporary art.
Objections to the updates may have more to do with freezing Notre Dame in time than the intent of the cathedral. The building’s many sculptures were intended to offer a “liber pauperum” or a “book of the poor,” illustrating biblical stories for illiterate visitors. Multilingual digital projections may serve a similarly inclusive purpose.
No matter how it’s done, Notre Dame’s restoration is bound to incur the wrath of some concerned party. And if Notre Dame reflects our times, maybe it’s fitting that its current incarnation is that of the subject of virulent debate.
IN THE REALM OF historical architecture, perhaps no question is as perplexing as that of restoration. To put it simply: where do you stop?
The clichéd goal of restoring a structure to its “former glory” isn’t as straightforward as it may sound. First, you need to decide which version of the building you’re trying to recreate. Buildings evolve over time—adding features, removing components, and adapting to current trends. Restoration, then, can sometimes be a matter of undoing unwanted renovations to better suit your target period.
Next, there’s the question of just how extensively to restore. Do you want to return the building to pristine condition? Careful. If your building is old enough, its deterioration could be part of its charm. For instance, while scholars have fiercely debated certain renovations to the Acropolis, few of them would advocate for a truly period-accurate renovation of its buildings. Such a makeover would see the Parthenon painted in eye-popping bold and bright hues. Despite our visions of gleaming, sun-bleached stone, the Ancient Greeks embraced color in ways that would shock a modern sensibility.
The truth is that when it comes to our oldest buildings, many of us prefer the aesthetics of ruin. While we’re enamored with the idea of an enduring icon, we also need to see the patina of time written on its face. And so, restoration is always a fine balance. It freezes buildings in the amber of our imagination in a way that both conjure a bygone era and evokes the gulf of time between then and this moment.
This precarious balance between persistence and decay has brought millions of visitors to Rome’s Colosseum. Completed in 80 A.D., the building persists as Italy’s most popular tourist attraction. And over the past decade, it’s been the object of extensive renovations.
At peak use, the 80,000-spectator amphitheater hosted dramas, gladiatorial matches, animal hunts, and was even flooded for mock sea battles. Despite its subsequent uses as a cemetery, as living quarters, as a fortress, and a shrine, it is the era of bloodsport and spectacle that captures our imagination. To visit the Colosseum is to picture fighting for one’s life in front of thousands of eager spectators.
Thanks to a three-stage, $29.8 million effort, this kind of speculation should become easier. Funded by the Italian fashion brand Tod’s in a private-public partnership, the restoration seeks to let visitors to stand where gladiators once did, fulfilling their cinematic Gladiator fantasies. This past summer, after an extensive, years-long cleaning effort, a team of archeologists, engineers, and topographers completed the renovation’s most extensive phase: the excavation of the hypogeum, a warren of underground tunnels and chambers beneath the Colosseum. In this once-hidden, candlelit area, enslaved gladiators prepared for battle and workers prepared props, animals, and scenery to be raised on elevators to the arena’s wooden floor. Today, tourists can wander the exposed passageways, illuminated by natural sunlight.
Soon the hypogeum will be covered once again. The third phase of the restoration will replace its floor with a cutting-edge solution by 2023, permitting visitors to imagine themselves at the heart of the action. Fully retractable, the carbon fiber and wood floor will also let visitors see the hypogeum’s corridors from above. Critics of the renovation deride the proposed floor as an excessive and indulgent architectural gesture—a triumph of experiential tourism over archeological integrity. After all, for the past few centuries, the charm of the Colosseum was how open-ended it seemed to be. Thanks to centuries of earthquake damage and “quarrying,” in which builders pilfered its stone for other projects, the building resembled a kind of cross-section of itself. Any attempt to fill in the gaps will always feel absurd when you remember what’s left is a mere skeleton of the original building.
However, the soul of the Colosseum was always one of artifice, theatre, and myth-making. It hosted elaborate scenarios aided by lavish set dressing that included real trees, exotic animals, and thousands of people. While an $18 million vantage point isn’t period-accurate, it will serve the same impulse that the Colosseum once did: to indulge fantasies. Ultimately, all restorations are works of fiction. While the Colosseum was a state-of-the-art facility in its time, boasting running water, an elaborate sun-shade mechanism, and marble facades, the recent renovations still serve an important function. They give us a better view of what we want—a beautiful ruin.