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.
EVERY STRUCTURE TELLS A story. Sometimes, it’s the relatively straightforward story of its function: train terminals, grain silos, and sports arenas generally follow the contours of their purposes. Sometimes, a building’s story is bound to commemoration or dedication. The Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramids, and the Parthenon all pay tribute to gods and favored mortals. And sometimes, a building’s iconic design becomes the story—as is the case with the Sydney Opera House, the Chrysler Building, or the Eiffel Tower.
However, in each of these stories, there’s room for interpretation. The Eiffel Tower’s stark geometries were famously the subject of fierce aesthetic debate. One can find both enduring romance and troubling ostentation in the Taj Mahal. And as we saw in our last issue, a train terminal’s story can launch an entire movement to restore historic architecture.
But now, in an age of monumental gestures and tourist-courting designs, we may be seeing the rise of a new class of buildings. These structures tell stories that are more didactic than open-ended, with their stories printed right on their skin. While murals, mosaics, and frescos are nothing new, these two buildings come with their interpretations pre-loaded—as if serving as architectural press releases for their regions.
Northwest of Hong Kong lies the Chinese city of Guangzhou, a wealthy port that historically connected the Pearl River to the international traders. It was here that the Silk Road met the South China Sea, and today it’s surrounded by China’s most populous and developed metropolitan region. Like many Chinese cities, Guangzhou has seen a surge of construction in recent decades, including the Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre.
Billowing like a silk scarf in the wind, the Grand Theatre would be notable enough for its rippled aluminum cladding, made up of thousands of triangular tiles. The nearly windowless crimson structure was purpose-built by Steven Chilton Architects for Franco Dragone, a theatrical impresario, and Cirque de Soleil alumnus with a flair for the flamboyant. The theatre houses a round amphitheater, rigged for acrobatics and containing a 9-meter-deep pool that can be raised or lowered for aquatic performances.
Perhaps most notably, however, is the Theatre’s embellished facade. The building’s bright red exterior boasts two layers of graphics. The subtler, darker background print recalls contemporary tattooing with its intricate, radiating line-work. Superimposed over this is a layer of golden illustrations that recall delicate embroidery and complete the effect of narrative tapestry. Based on a local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix,” the building itself becomes a kind of allegory for art, patronage, and performance. The effect is like a picture book, as the building makes its case for Guangzhou as a hub for artistic endeavors.
Thousands of miles away from Guangzhou is another wealthy port city with a daring, donut-shaped cultural center: Dubai. In this case, it’s the audaciously named Museum of the Future, whose relatively vague mandate promises “a hopeful future for all” and pledges to be “a place of tolerance, inviting varied cultural, philosophical, social and spiritual outlooks.”
The $136 million project, led by Dubai’s Killa Design, contains four floors of exhibition space. Its 77-meter-tall metallic form looks like a stretched, asymmetrical ring—an opulent and shiny sculpture in the middle of the desert. Like its neighbor the Burj Khalifa, its goal is clear: to signify Dubai’s presence as a global beacon for trade and wealth and draw seven-star tourists to the lavish city.
Any reading of the Museum, however, is dominated by the building’s bold incorporation of Arabic calligraphy on its façade. The building is inscribed with excerpts from a poem written by the Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. At night, the script—which also serves as the structure’s windows—is illuminated from within. Ironically, despite their prominence, the designers have yet to specify what the quotations actually say or signify. Without a transcript, the fragments mainly serve as an elaborate signature of the country’s autocratic leader.
As with the Grand Theatre, the Museum of the Future made extensive use of digital modeling technologies. Both projects feel so thoroughly contemporary that one can’t imagine them without software’s role in their conception. In fact, many of the Museum’s components were 3D-printed to bring its precise rendered forms to life, and the project even leveraged a “digital growth algorithm” to manage its wildly complex logistics.
With both buildings, one also senses the designer planned a digital appreciation, too. Both buildings feel tailor-made for Instagram feeds and blog posts with their singular ideas and narrative hooks. It’s fitting, then, that their stories are prescribed, controlled, and brief. It’ll be fascinating to see whether there’s room for interpretation of their stories in the future, or whether they simply serve as very expensive essays.
HISTORY IS NOT ALWAYS kind to great design. What seems like sure-footed progress in one era can often look more like series of missteps with additional hindsight and changing values. We’ve all seen renovations that only made things worse, robbing a property of its original charm, mistreating historical materials, or simply ruining the romance of a space.
However, what happened to New York’s Pennsylvania Station in 1963 stands alone as a crime against architecture. Its decapitation to make way for the new Madison Square Garden overhead—was so regrettable that it launched the historical preservation movement in the United States.
After more than five decades, New York is still reckoning with the legacy of the loss. However, in January 2021, the city partially healed an architectural wound with the opening of the Moynihan Train Hall. The result of a $1.6 billion conversion of a historic post office facility, the project finally returned a worthy threshold to one of the city’s busiest transit hubs through a little creative problem-solving and a commitment to civic grandeur.
Many young New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that Pennsylvania Station—a rundown and cramped punchline of a place with its low ceilings and confusing underground tunnels—once rivaled Grand Central Terminal in majesty. But when it was completed in 1910, Pennsylvania Station was an absolute marvel, spreading over two city blocks and flanked by dozens of elegant columns.
Designed by McKim, Mead, and White, the Beaux-Arts icon, when it opened it was the largest indoor space in the city, rivaling St. Peter’s Basilica in scale. Modeled after the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, the station’s immense, light-filled main waiting room had a 150-foot ceiling, welcoming travelers to the city with a generous and impressive flourish.
However, as rail travel fell out of favor and the city’s priorities shifted, Pennsylvania Station gradually lost its luster. The building’s pink granite had taken on the grime of the city and haphazard maintenance left the building a shadow of its former self. By the 1950s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was seeking a buyer for the building’s air rights, citing upkeep costs for the massive complex.
But when the wrecking balls came in 1963, the citizens found themselves shocked by the station’s perfunctory destruction. When a New York Times photographer captured one of the building’s sculptures in a New Jersey landfill, regret came quickly. Within two years, the city passed a landmarks preservation act, which would save Grand Central Terminal and prevent the destruction of countless other historic buildings.
For decades, New Yorkers bemoaned Pennsylvania Station’s lost glory. But serendipitously, Pennsylvania Station wasn’t the only massive Beaux-Arts building in the neighborhood. McKim, Mead, and White had also designed the James A. Farley Building, which still stands on Eighth Avenue. Originally meant to adjoin and complement the station, the complex served as a mail-sorting hall with direct access to some of the tracks.
Throughout the 1990s, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the late Senator from New York, began lobbying to repurpose a section of the Farley Building as a new train hall. In 2016, Governor Andrew Cuomo seized the reins of the project and deputized Skidmore, Owings & Merrill to perform the conversion. Despite the pandemic, the project came across the finish line early and under budget, opening on the first day of 2021
The result is breathtaking—an optimistic and audacious combination of historical splendor and smart modern design. With its ample public space, retail tenants, and handsome waiting areas with walnut benches, it’s sure to become a destination for Instagram tourists looking to capture the New York of tomorrow.
The train hall’s stunning glass ceiling boasts exposed steel trusses and four bulbous vault sections that jut dramatically into the sky. And in the heart of it all is a beautiful Art Deco clock, reminiscent of an era when we looked up for the time instead of squirreling for our phone in our pockets and purses.
While the Moynihan Train Hall isn’t a full replacement for Pennsylvania Station, it gestures in the right direction: ahead. Talks are already underway to connect the building with the High Line pedestrian park and a long-planned initiative promises to extend the regional Metro-North railway system to the west side of Manhattan.
While Pennsylvania Station will never match its former glory, it could still return to its former prominence as old ideas—like rail travel and prominent civic spaces—come back into style once again.
decades, Colorado Springs has been a city defined by its prominent
institutions. Home to the United States Air Force Academy, the city has seen
the proliferation and gradual downsizing of massive industries, including
dozens of prominent defense contractors and some of the country’s largest high-tech
manufacturers. But the city also has another identity altogether.
With a mild climate, mountainous terrain, and high altitude, Colorado Springs prides itself as an ideal training ground. Home to the Pikes Peak Marathon, a grueling trial run with nearly 8,000 feet of vertical climb, Colorado Springs is a place that rewards the hardy and the tough—which is perhaps why it’s become a headquarters to those seeking Olympic glory.
as Olympic City, USA, Colorado Springs is home to the United States Olympic
& Paralympic Training Center, the United States Olympic & Paralympic
Committee, and 24 national federations for individual Olympic sports. The
result is a city flourishing with sports therapists, fitness companies, and
athletic administrators. And each year, approximately 15,000 Olympic and
Paralympic hopefuls will make the pilgrimage to Colorado to condition, hone
their skills, and grow stronger.
tourists drawn to Colorado Springs for its world-class hiking and natural
beauty, an Olympic attraction is an easy sell. More than 140,000 visitors
already flock to the Olympic Training Center each year, touring the extensive
complex that can host up to 500 top-tier athletes and coaches at any given time.
so, Colorado Springs was also the natural fit to host a dedicated attraction that
honors the efforts and accomplishments of Team USA: the United States Olympic
& Paralympic Museum (USOPM).
in July 2020, the complex was designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who also
helmed the extensive, $450 million renovation of New York’s Museum of Modern
Art. Compared to MoMA, USOPM is a far humbler affair at $91 million and 60,000
square feet. However, its influence could be just as monumental.
up of two structures and an adjoining amphitheater-like plaza, the USOPM
complex sits on the edge of Colorado Springs, ready to attract Olympic
enthusiasts and architectural tourists alike.
main building’s elegant, origami-like shape is intended to evoke both nearby
Pikes Peak and an athlete in motion. Clad in 9,000 entirely-unique reflective
aluminum panels, the building feels simultaneously rounded and angular, the
taut drape of the facade forming a kind of architectural spandex over four
petal-like volumes. The building stretches upward like a runner in starting
position, an abstract but recognizably athletic form. From above, the structure
is modeled after a spinning discus-thrower.
the most remarkable thing about the United States Olympic & Paralympic
Museum is its pioneering devotion to universal accessibility. Every effort has
been made to accommodate visitors of all capabilities, ensuring total ADA
compliance and developing the museum’s content in ways that reach all
Exhibit cases take multiple viewing heights into account, ensuring those in wheelchairs get the full benefit of the displays. And guests are issued RFID-embedded lanyards that enable tailored engagement with interactive exhibits, prompting captions, descriptive audio, or translation where preferred.
though, the museum’s visitors take its journey together—no matter their
abilities. Whereas many museums push accessibility features to the margins with
afterthought ramps or hidden elevators, the USOPM has planned a common path
open to all. Visitors share an elevator ride to the top floor and then descend
continuously along a gradual, gentle ramp over its three stories and twelve
to the pandemic, the immediate future of the Olympics is uncertain, with the
planned 2020 Tokyo Games pushed to 2021. Questions surround travel, attendance,
and how the games themselves can adjust and accommodate the challenges we
Until we’re able to gather en masse again, the spirit of the Games, along with its icons: torches, medals, and uniforms, are on full display in Colorado Springs, where masked visitors can make their socially distanced way through the museum. In a perhaps-fitting twist, visitors’ RFID lanyards also make things safer in the time of Coronavirus. They enable the museum to monitor guest movement and prevent over-crowding—proof that thoughtful design isn’t merely a matter of altruism or generosity. It’s also our best way forward.