The fire that destroyed the wooden roof and spire of Notre Dame was not yet extinguished when it began to be seen as a symbol. For some, the conflagration marked the end of a particular idea of France, one hollowed out by reactionary populism, or by homogenizing globalization, or by Macron-era technocracy. For others, the catastrophe, happening on April 15 in the midst of Holy Week, mirrored a Catholic Church imploding with scandals and ideological divisions; or it formed an exclamation point punctuating the agonizing demise of the Christian nation at the hands of overweening secularism, or of non-Christian immigration. Such anxious reflections were widespread in the weeks following the fire, especially on social media, where they merged seamlessly into ongoing debates about the past and future of France, and the social, political, and economic fragilities of the national present. 1
From the ancient Temple in Jerusalem to the World Trade Center, tales of architectural destruction have furnished ready metaphors for the destinies of nations.
From the Jewish Temple in ancient Jerusalem to the World Trade Center in 21st-century Manhattan, tales of architectural destruction have furnished ready metaphors for the destinies of nations. Though not every architectural disaster can serve equally as a pretext for prophesy. The event must correspond to some pervasive apprehension; the sort of apprehension that many people are feeling today as they sense that a historical paradigm is collapsing. In recent years France has seen the emergence of confrontational political movements that seek not reform but revolution (Nuit Debout, Extinction Rebellion, and especially the gilets jaunes) as well as the unexpected electoral successes of Marine Le Pen’s right-wing and xenophobic Rassemblement national (the erstwhile National Front). Meanwhile many have watched in dismay as the unpopular and unabashedly neoliberal Emmanuel Macron has dismantled the labor laws and protections sociales with which the French have long moderated the cruelties of capitalism. A series of bloody terrorist attacks (Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, Nice) has fueled racial animosities and produced an increasingly grim and militarized atmosphere in the larger cities, where these days the bag inspection, the metal detector, and the armed patrol have become normalized. The inferno that enveloped and threatened to destroy Notre-Dame — the cathedral that has stood for 800 years and had come to seem eternal — could hardly help but symbolize this deep unease.
Many commentators have looked to precedents that could offer some solace, especially to the histories of great buildings that had been rebuilt after fire. (On the day of the fire, the Teatro La Fenice, in Venice, tweeted in solidarity: “We burnt twice but twice we have risen from our ashes stronger. We are at your side, friends, so fear not!” 2) Here I would like to offer a largely forgotten yet remarkably suggestive historical parallel: the accidental fire that in July 1823 destroyed the immense early Christian basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura (Saint Paul’s Outside the Walls). 3 Like Notre-Dame, the fourth-century San Paolo, just south of Rome, was a holy site of the highest stature: the burial place of Saint Paul and, with St. Peter’s and the Lateran basilica, one of the three most important churches in Rome. San Paolo was also, before the fire, the biggest and best preserved church to have survived from the heroic era when Christianity, formerly outlawed, became the state religion of the late Roman Empire.
Many commentators have sought precedents that could offer some solace, especially to the histories of great buildings that were rebuilt after fire.
The fires at San Paolo and Notre-Dame had similar origins. Both churches had suffered years of official neglect punctuated by regular warnings that continued inaction would lead to catastrophe. At both churches long-delayed repairs were finally launched, only to see a cataclysmic fire erupt within the restoration workshop itself. In both cases the fire started after the workers had left for the day, and burned with shocking speed through the roof structure. Notre-Dame at least was fortunate in having a stone vault, which helped to preserve much of the interior. At the unvaulted San Paolo, the burning roof instead collapsed into the nave, destroying much of the arcade and causing half the wall to collapse. The official explanation was that two tinsmiths had been soldering pieces of metal to repair the roof, and left behind a pan of burning coals when they went home. At Notre-Dame too, soldering in the attic remains a viable theory 4; but now it seems more likely that the culprit was a “temporary” electrical system that had been installed, against all regulations, between 2007 and 2012, apparently at the request of the clergy, to operate bells located above the crossing vault in the spire. The company that installed the scaffolding for the restoration was not informed about this unauthorized system and might have damaged it inadvertently. What is certain is that these bells were “rung” electrically on the evening of the fire, and that twelve minutes later the fire alarm sounded. 5
At both churches, too, precious time was wasted before the firefighters were alerted. At Notre-Dame, an employee of the private security firm charged with protecting the building erroneously dismissed the first alarm as false (he claims he was directed to the wrong part of the attic; questions about his training have been raised). The second alarm sounded a full 23 minutes later, at which point he returned to find flames six meters high. 6 At San Paolo, the delay occurred because there was hardly anyone present; because of the risk of malaria at the swampy site of the basilica, most of the monks in the adjacent monastery had decamped to their house in Rome. The fire was only discovered around midnight when a local herdsman saw that the basilica’s tattered roof was glowing. He frantically banged on the monastery doors until the groundskeeper woke and sent his assistant sprinting to Rome. The fire brigade finally arrived at 3 a.m., but by then San Paolo had become, in the words of a contemporary observer, a “raging Vesuvius.” 7
The fire at San Paolo occurred during a period of crisis — a long via crucis of occupation and upheaval that had threatened the very survival of the Roman Catholic Church.
The debates and commentaries that followed the two fires strike similar notes. The fire at San Paolo also occurred during a period of crisis — a long via crucis of occupation, humiliation, insult, and upheaval that had threatened the very survival of the Roman Catholic Church. The crisis had begun three decades earlier, in France, when an atheistic Revolution transformed the country traditionally known as the Church’s “eldest daughter” into its mortal enemy. In the tumultuous years that followed, Rome would endure two desecrating occupations, one pope would die in a French prison, another would be bullied into a series of enfeebling international agreements, and many church buildings in the city would be damaged or even demolished. After the fall of Napoléon, in 1814, Church leaders confronted what seemed an unrecognizable social, political, religious, and economic landscape. Catholic observance was in decline across Europe; political liberalism was ascendant; rights and privileges the Church had long enjoyed abroad were truncated or gone. The Church was collapsing financially, while the Pontifical State had become little more than a stagnant welfare state — a feudal relic surrounded by neighbors transitioning to industrial capitalism. The fire at the Roman basilica could scarcely have avoided being perceived as a supercharged metaphor.
On social media, manipulated videos were used to portray the villains at Notre Dame as Muslim arsonists.
Inevitably, in both Paris and Rome, the official explanations were widely ridiculed. When the government procurer declared that at Notre-Dame “nothing pointed to arson” and a “long and complex” investigation would prove it, the popular response was swift. 8 Amateur forensic analyses and video demonstrations were posted on YouTube, purporting to show that the immense, 800-year-old oak beams would only have burned so quickly with assistance from accelerants, and that the color of the smoke proved the point. Other skeptics insisted that the massive fire must have had multiple points of origin, and that multiple witnesses had seen just that. On social media, some contended that the villains were Muslim arsonists and shared manipulated videos, including one purporting to show a mysterious figure (obligingly clad in a djellabah) lurking in an upper walkway. 9 Several commentators linked the “attack” on Notre-Dame to a recent uptick in vandalism at other Christian churches and in particular to a suspicious fire at Saint-Sulpice weeks earlier. 10 Recurring throughout these narratives was the term christianophobie, which refers to the belief that an unlikely alliance of radical secularists and Islamists has joined to destroy Christian heritage and culture, and that a politically correct government and media refuse to acknowledge it. 11
It was to prevent such disbelieving speculations at San Paolo that the pontifical secretary of state, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, published a notice on the front page of the Diario di Roma, explaining that the fire had been caused by the negligent tinsmiths. 12 Yet this was quickly derided by reactionary clerics who, behind the scenes, insisted that the faithful should be encouraged to view the fire not as a mundane accident but rather as a divine portent. Rumors circulated that the scapegoat tinsmiths had been released from police custody and quietly told to leave town 13; and, in fact, they were never mentioned again in any official document. A young priest would later recall that the fire was soon being described as “a portent, beyond statues sweating blood in the Forum, or victims speaking in the temples.” 14 A young architect wrote to his brother that “you see melancholy sages in the streets, while idiots deduce sad consequences from [the fire], prophesying misfortunes and calamities.” 15 In his travel diary, Stendhal reported the rumor that San Paolo burned because the famous sequence of papal portraits inside the old basilica had run out of space: “there is no more room to mount a portrait of Pius VII’s successor. From this there is talk that the Holy See is to be eliminated.” 16
In Rome, the infidels to be blamed were not Muslims but rather the city’s beleaguered Jewish community. Northern Protestants also attracted suspicion.
In Rome, the infidels to be feared and blamed were not Muslims but rather the city’s beleaguered Jewish community. “The arrival in Rome of the extremely rich Jewish banker Rothschild, contemporaneously with the fire, led some to suspect that it was accomplished on his orders,” wrote one observer. 17 Northern Protestants also attracted suspicion. Visiting the ruins a couple of years after the fire, the British traveler Moyle Sherer found “people from the city muttering regrets and suspicions; and divided in the latter between the Jew accursed by them and the English heretic, of whom some of them think no better.” 18 A Prussian diplomat wrote that his Roman acquaintances claimed (“or at least do not wish to admit the unlikelihood of the claim”) that the fire was set by “the Jews (alias Englishmen, alias Jews dressed as Englishmen, i.e. Jews or heretics).” 19 Suspicions intensified when news reached Rome that a similar blaze had destroyed the church of Espiritu Santo in Madrid; clearly an international conspiracy of anti-Catholic arsonists was afoot. 20 In the National Library in Rome, there is a copy of an official report published in Diario di Roma in which some excitable conspiracy theorist has annotated nearly every line. This agitated exegete cannot believe that one accidental spark could have consumed “an immense Temple built so solidly that it had resisted the wounds of time for several centuries!” 21
The similarities do not end with suspicious accusations and illiberal animosities. There are intriguing parallels also in the spirited debates that started right after the fires in Rome and Paris, centering on two essential questions: In what form and style should the church be rebuilt? And how should the reconstruction be funded?
In Rome and now Paris, the post-fire debates have centered on two key questions: In what style to rebuild? And how to fund the reconstruction?
The fire at San Paolo was widely and swiftly reported across Europe and even on the eastern seaboard of the United States. 22 There was a sense in Rome that the world was watching. Within the papal government, early discussions focused on the construction of a new modern church, which would have been the customary approach. For the sake of economy, this new church would reuse the old foundations, and for the sake of memory, it would incorporate surviving fragments, but the basic design would conform to the contemporary neoclassical idiom. The architect was to be Giuseppe Valadier, the most celebrated Roman architect of the day, then in the twilight of a long career. 23
Opposition to this plan arose immediately among clerics and scholars who argued instead for an exact reconstruction of the old basilica, which came to be known as the in pristinum solution. At the time this was unprecedented. In earlier centuries new buildings had sometimes made formal references to older ones, while repairs or extensions sometimes sought to preserve harmony with an existing building. But a complete replica of a destroyed building was unheard of. 24 Valadier’s response was blunt: You cannot resuscitate the past. What is lost is lost. What had been most valuable about the old basilica, in his view, was the patina, the aura of antiquity, and that was irretrievably gone. All you could reconstitute were the mere physical forms, and these he regarded — as had most historians for centuries — as self-evidently inferior to any new design rooted in the Vitruvian classical tradition. Far better, Valadier wrote, to memorialize the destroyed basilica with a scale model, and to mount its surviving antique columns along the interior walls of a modern design that would “do honor to the 19th century.” 25
Clerics and scholars argued for an exact reconstruction of the old Roman basilica. At the time this was unprecedented.
Valadier’s opponents reframed the argument: what was important, they asserted, was not architecture per se but rather symbolism and shared religious heritage. An in pristinum reconstruction would reassure Catholics about the continuity of their imperiled history. It would acknowledge that the old building had not so much embodied as borne witness to that history; a replica San Paolo might then attest to the lost San Paolo, which would thereby continue at a remove to do its ancient work of historical witnessing. To rebuild the shrine in the exact form to which Saint Paul had become accustomed was also to affirm the Church’s unstinting devotion to him. And the in pristinum solution would offer as well a necessary admonishment, by testifying to the bitter contempt for the contemporary age that had been engrained in Catholic Rome by its recent traumas. For while the classical style had since the Renaissance been used in many Church buildings, it had also been deployed for more questionable uses. It had been appropriated for the pagan festivals of the French Revolution, and for the paintings in which Jacques-Louis David celebrated the virtues of civic secularism. It was the language of northern European stock exchanges and deputy chambers and art museums, of Napoléon’s triumphal arches and the Protestant Berlin of Schinkel. For the Church to withdraw from this style was to mark its distance from a corrupted world. And to prefer instead the early Christian style amplified the defiance in the gesture, for this style had long been regarded as aesthetically second-rate. When Pope Leo XII ultimately selected the in pristinum solution in 1825, the decision underscored the keening sense of historical loss that Catholics and their leadership felt in these years.
Two centuries later, at Notre-Dame, the post-disaster debates are being framed in similarly ideological and antagonistic terms. Characteristically alert to the neoliberal nostrum “never let a crisis go to waste,” 26 President Macron announced that Notre-Dame would be rebuilt within five years, “more beautiful than before.” An official communiqué followed:
It has been decided to launch an international architectural competition for the reconstruction of the spire. Since the old spire was not an original part of the cathedral, the President of the Republic wishes to foster a reflection that might potentially envisage a contemporary architectural gesture. 27
Supporters of Macron’s vision, including many architects, took up the call for a transformative repair that would speak to the present era.
Supporters of Macron’s vision, including many in the architecture world, took up this call for a transformative repair that would speak to the present era. 28 Meanwhile an in pristinum faction quickly materialized, arguing for a restoration à l’identique that would leave Notre-Dame (or at least the visible parts) looking exactly as before. To buttress their case, they pointed out that Macron’s “contemporary architectural gesture” would in fact violate the laws and international agreements regarding such matters. 29 When France requested and was granted the placement of Notre-Dame on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1991, its government agreed that future work would comply with the conservation principles of the International Council on Museums and Sites, which state that “the valid contributions of all periods to the building of a monument must be respected, since unity of style is not the aim of a restoration.” In other words, the 19th-century additions of Viollet-le-Duc — including the “old spire” — had an equal claim to reconstruction simply because they were a significant part of the building as it existed on the eve of the fire. As to whether a “contemporary architectural gesture” is permissible, the guidelines also state that only “modifications demanded by a change of function should be envisaged and may be permitted.” Perhaps the most famous phrase in the guidelines states that restoration “must stop at the point where conjecture begins.” 30
The battle has continued along these lines. Macron’s team soon pushed for a law that would exempt the rebuilding project from existing regulations, which in turn prompted an opposition to mobilize in earnest. 31 More than one thousand specialists and academics signed a petition urging the president to slow down and consult the expertise available to the French state for such weighty matters. 32 An unscientific poll suggested that one in two French citizens preferred a restoration à l’identique; a petition to that effect on Change.org has received almost 10,000 signatures. All this was widely covered in the press, and helped embolden the French Senate to rewrite the proposed law and demand that the external appearance of the cathedral be faithfully restored. Since then a much modified version of the law has been passed by the French Parliament, and while the international competition for a new spire remains theoretically alive, it seems increasingly likely that the restauration à l’identique will carry the day. 33
Whatever the eventual outcome, partisans on both sides have been pursuing a provocative debate. It was especially revealing in the early weeks after the fire, as architects rushed ambitious reconstruction proposals onto the internet, as journalists critiqued them, and as ordinary citizens mostly mauled them on social media. At one point I counted almost two dozen renderings on the websites of design magazines including Dezeen, The Architect’s Newspaper, ArchDaily, Dwell, etc. More than a few of these fanciful images depicted Notre-Dame with a new glass roof, a notion with a long (though largely unacknowledged) history, spanning from the temple envisioned in Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s utopian novel of 1772, The Year 2440 (“When I lifted my eyes to the summit of this temple, I saw the face of heaven; for the dome was not covered with stone, but the clearest glass”) to Santiago Calatrava’s unbuilt project of 1991 for a glass roof enclosing an eco-garden above the vaults of Saint John the Divine in New York City. 34 Several proposals seemed indebted, shall we say, to Calatrava’s garden, while others recycled more recent ideas (for instance, a spire formed by a beam of light shooting into the sky). 35
Many in the design community seem to view the transformation of Notre-Dame as the latest high-prestige architectural opportunity.
Coverage in the professional press provoked lively comments from readers, including many architects and designers. Hardly anybody raised the subject of the special legal status of historical monuments. Most treated the transformation of Notre-Dame as simply the latest high-prestige architectural opportunity. “I find this implementation of glass to be very attractive. By preserving the architecture, it honors the past,” writes one reader, on Dezeen. “In daylight, ribs of stained glass would create an ethereal, but not dominant light,” suggests another, on Dwell. And from another Dezeen piece: “I agree that the old spire should absolutely not be replicated. Nostalgia and sorrow will dominate the discussion for some time as people come to terms with this disaster, but hopefully cooler heads will eventually prevail and find a way to rebuild that pays homage to the catastrophe without denying the fact that it happened.” 36
Much debate was rooted in the Modernist assumption that to reproduce the forms of an earlier era was to betray the authentic reality of the present.
Such discussions highlight the continuing influence of Modernist theories of progress and historical necessity, which despite everything remain a popular heuristic for judging architecture. Thus much of the debate was rooted in the assumption that to reproduce the architectural forms of an earlier era was to betray the authentic reality of the present. By this measure, historic preservation itself was a suspect practice. In the text that accompanies his proposal for a glass-enclosed “biomimetic forest” atop the cathedral, the architect Vincent Callebaut cautions that “it is hardly enough to reproduce the past as it used to be; we must project ourselves towards a desirable future.” 37 In a similar vein, Nicolas Abdelkader of Studio NAB warned that the rebuilt Notre-Dame should not become “a simply anachronistic representation or a purely plastic demonstration,” and through crocodile tears counseled us instead to “accept the sad destiny of this edifice.” 38 A young French designer who proposed, via Instagram, to replace the lost spire with a “permanent flame” made of carbon fiber coated with gold leaf, insisted that he was trying to show the absurdity of rebuilding the 19th-century spire. 39 And a commentary in the British Telegraph argued that “in London, we did very well with St. Paul’s. When the Gothic ‘original’ was destroyed in The Great Fire of 1666, Christopher Wren did not scruple to replace it with a magnificent new building, using the most advanced architectural design of the day.” 40
Such claims became a trope of the debate: builders in earlier centuries did not hesitate to innovate when repairing old buildings, so why should we? Some of the commentary reflected a serious misunderstanding of the ideas of Viollet-le-Duc. The wooden spire he designed and built in the mid-19th century was not, as often assumed, intended as a modern take on the original Gothic — a view that would have mortified the architect. Rather it was the result of his obsessive efforts to assimilate his own design habits to those of the 13th century. 41 The errors reflected a failure to grasp that attitudes towards history change throughout history; that they are themselves historical. The idea of the past as a time that no longer exists — as distant, fragile, subject to constant attrition — had not yet emerged when Christopher Wren was designing a new St. Paul’s. When a medieval or Renaissance painter depicted a Biblical scene, the clothing and settings were typically those of the time and place in which the artist was living, reflecting a sense of the past as fluidly continuous with the present. And when 16th-century builders finally added the missing north tower to the unfinished 12th-century façade of Chartres, they unhesitatingly built in the idiom of their own day, which they saw on an easy continuum with the Gothic.
The perception of the past as distant, and as different from the present, is a hallmark of modernity.
By Viollet-le-Duc’s day this was no longer the case. Already by the turn of the 19th century, it had become common to see the past as ineluctably different from the present; as a “foreign country,” in David Lowenthal’s famous phrase. 42 Painters of historical scenes were by then depicting their figures in historical garb, for they perceived the past as defined by difference from the present. This new perception of the past is a hallmark of modernity, and the rise of historic preservation was one of its characteristic manifestations. When, in 1830, the French government founded the Service des Monuments Historiques for the purpose of studying, cataloguing, and restoring the national patrimony, it was motivated by much the same sentiment that five years earlier had inspired Pope Leo XII to build a replica of the original San Paolo. There had arisen, in those early years after the revolution, a new understanding of the passage of history as loss.
The impulse to preserve and to archive has become a defining characteristic of the modern era.
In the preface to his 1831 novel Notre-Dame of Paris, Victor Hugo describes seeing the word Ananke — the personification of fatality, or inevitability, in the ancient Greek religion — scratched onto a wall at the cathedral, probably centuries earlier. When he returns, years later, the word has been scrubbed away. 43 History, in other words, is ever receding; whatever unique knowledge it can impart is always in danger of being effaced. Thus the impulse to preserve and to archive became a defining characteristic of the modern era. The Service des Monuments Historiques was founded partly in response to the popular enthusiasm awakened by Hugo’s ardent campaign on behalf of the nation’s architectural patrimony, yet it was ultimately just one component of a much broader contemporary effort to protect and promote the whole range of France’s historical patrimony. 44
Christopher Wren did not scruple to replace Old St. Paul’s with new St. Paul’s because he saw the past as broadly continuous with the present. So too did Valadier, in Rome, one of the last of the old school. Yet for Hugo, born 40 years after Valadier, the transformation of a historical structure was a violation. In Notre-Dame of Paris, the author roared against the proliferation of additions to the cathedral that “shamelessly, and in the name of ‘good taste’ … have struck their wretched, ephemeral baubles over the wounds in the Gothic architecture, their ribbons of marble, their metal pompoms.” 45 When Viollet-le-Duc removed those ribbons and pompoms, to popular acclaim, it was to enable the cathedral once again to speak its ancient wisdom. The problem with evoking the precedent of Wren’s rebuilding of St. Paul’s as a model for today lies in approaching preservation too narrowly, in terms of a formal product (the building) rather than more expansively, in terms of historical process (the modern way of making sense of the past). 46
Pope Leo XII’s decision to rebuild San Paolo triggered a massive fundraising campaign. Not only was the in pristinum option significantly more expensive than Valadier’s proposal, but recent events had largely destroyed the broad European integration of Church and state by which donations would once have been coerced, as they had been during the 16th-century reconstruction of St. Peter’s. 47 Indeed, one of the greatest challenges the Church faced in this period was to reimagine and reconstitute relations between its leadership and the international faithful. The reconstruction of San Paolo effectively forced Church leaders to begin that arduous undertaking.
The reconstruction of San Paolo forced Church leaders to reimagine relations between the papal leadership and the international faithful.
The key difference now was that the faithful would have to be persuaded to donate voluntarily to San Paolo. Accordingly, the in pristinum faction argued that a replica reconstruction would appeal far more to the ordinary faithful than would a tasteful church in the modern style. This point proved decisive for Leo XII, who longed to launch a popular Catholic revival that might heal the wounds of recent years. The fundraising drive for San Paolo became a centerpiece of that revival: an international crusade calling for obedience, sacrifice, and a cheerful spirit of Pauline devotion. Letters were circulated from Rome to be used by the clergy in making appeals at Sunday masses. What resulted was the first global fundraising drive in history. For several years, the Church collected money not only throughout Europe but also in the United States, Canada, China, the Philippines, Brazil, and Latin America. Lists of donors were published every six months in the Diario di Roma, and these were then reported in local papers from Baltimore to Tasmania — a publicity circuit which in turn fueled more donations. 48 With authority centralized in Rome and outreach extended to the hinterlands, this effort would prove to be one of the wellsprings of the great Catholic cultural and political revival that marked the second half of the 19th century. For it helped compel Rome finally to accept popular religiosity, which opened the way to the great upsurge of Marian devotion marked by the pilgrimages inaugurated at La Salette and Lourdes; the Catholic press soon expanded all over Europe, Pope Pius IX became the focus of a personality cult, and Catholic political movements gathered momentum. Catholics, in short, felt empowered as members of their Church as never before. 49
Public budgets have become punishingly austere, with predictable consequences. Numerous historic churches in France are now endangered.
Notre-Dame is now also the focus of a public fundraising drive, albeit more by choice than necessity. The French state has long regarded the protection of historic monuments as both a legal obligation and a sacred trust. Private donations for church construction have been more associated with divisive partisan endeavors, such as the right-wing campaign in the late 19th century to fund the construction of Sacré-Cœur in retaliation for the socialist rebellion of the Paris Commune. 50 But in recent years public budgets have become punishingly austere, with predictable consequences. Thousands of historic churches in France require immediate repair, and hundreds more are endangered. Some towns have sold or even demolished monuments they can no longer afford to maintain. 51 The most prominent threatened monument is of course Notre-Dame itself, for which a private foundation had been founded already in 2016 to raise money abroad to fund desperately needed repairs. 52 Security at the cathedral had been privatized and seems to have been notoriously lax, as suggested by two separate YouTube videos uploaded after the fire that showed young “freerunners” climbing unmolested on the roofs and towers at night in the months before the disaster. 53 Meanwhile the signature achievement of the Macron presidency has been the elimination of a wealth tax (affecting only about 1,000 super-rich people) that once brought €3.2 billion into government coffers. 54
Following the fire, many of those super-rich hastened to provide a very public deluge of donations for Notre-Dame, perhaps to undercut mounting outrage at the lifting of their tax burden: €100 million from the family that owns Gucci and Yves Saint-Laurent; €200 million from the family that owns Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Moët, and Givenchy; €200 million from the family that owns L’Oréal; €100 million from the French oil conglomerate Total; plus “smaller” contributions of €20 million on down. Many people protested that this public show of oligarchie oblige amounted to an acknowledgment that the national patrimony was now preserved at the pleasure of plutocrats rather than via democratically determined fiscal obligations. 55 Savage parodies appeared on social media, including photoshopped images showing Notre-Dame with a new spire in the form of a Moët bottle, or a new roof patterned with the Louis Vuitton logo. To all this the right-wing press countered with accusations of ingratitude; “the Church of Resentment,” ran a headline in the Wall Street Journal. 56
These parodies underscored an uneasy reciprocity between this fundraising spectacle and the architectural visions of glass roofs and eco-gardens — a reciprocity that suggests just how deeply neoliberal assumptions and conceits now pervade the culture. The design proposals were typically described in a progressive-seeming rhetoric of humanism, biodiversity, environmental conservation, solidarity with the poor, and, tellingly, transparency: “transparency, sharing, and openness to our society’s development,” as one proposal put it. 57
Transparency has long been a favorite architectural metaphor, even predating the technologies that made large glass roofs possible. It also has an important historical association with capitalism, as Walter Benjamin pointed out almost a century ago in his studies of the Paris arcades, and as evinced today by the glass-walled skyscrapers that have long symbolized corporate power. 58 One journalist commended the architectural firm, Eight Inc., “best known for working with Steve Jobs,” for a Notre-Dame proposal that was centered, “like the Apple Stores,” around “the idea of transparency.” 59 Likewise, with the gilets jaunes out on the boulevard demanding a less remote and elitist government, other projects insisted on their “accessibility.” In one proposal, by Studio Miysis, this was illustrated with renderings of people wandering around a leafy new glass cathedral attic while admiring what another proposal called the “unmatched views,” as though advertising a rental penthouse. 60 The neoliberal sublimation is now so complete that it seems almost natural for an architect to propose spending Louis Vuitton millions to cover Notre-Dame with a glass-roofed eco-farm and then claim that the harvest would nourish “deprived and homeless Parisians.” 61
What was perhaps most symptomatic of this ethos was the ahistorical zeal with which advocates for transformative reconstruction urged the public simply to accept the loss of the old Notre-Dame, effectively likening the fire to a form of “creative destruction” in which those who mourn are left pitilessly behind. One argument had it that the historical content of the church has gotten hopelessly muddled over the centuries; no era could make any definitive claim, given what critic Aaron Betsky called the “malleability of the originality of this particular building.” 62 So why not just keep adding to it? Such reasoning echoes neoliberal claims about the ungraspable complexity of the world’s socio-economic reality and the consequent illegitimacy of critical analysis, as opposed to a forward-moving positive acceptance of things as they are. A concern for history can only gum up one’s ability to respond unhesitatingly to the contingencies of the world as they emerge; for history always invites criticality. 63
The putatively progressive proposals for Notre-Dame end up reinforcing the neoliberal transformations that made the cathedral so susceptible to fire in the first place.
Political conflicts over history and heritage seem likely to intensify as more and more of those on the receiving end of this ideology recognize that their glamorized nomadism is a form of deracination and alienation. The present tendency is to frame the debate over heritage in terms of an optimistic progressivism versus a backwards-looking conservatism. When the left-leaning mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, stated her preference for restauration à l’identique, she affirmed her devotion to contemporary architecture before conceding that, “as regards Notre-Dame, I accept being a conservative.” 64 Which clearly reflects a longstanding cultural bias that concern for heritage likely betrays a lingering nostalgia, or worse, a sinister identitarianism. The putatively progressive proposals for Notre-Dame thus end up reinforcing the neoliberal transformations — the public losses and private gains — that made the cathedral so susceptible to fire in the first place. The right has proven adept at turning heritage values to reactionary purposes, and it was no surprise that the most aggressive French advocates for à l’identique repair are on the right. But it is not hard to see how heritage could become part of the antidote to reaction, and part of a bulwark against a hyper-capitalism that now penetrates even into places, like Notre-Dame, that had once seemed resistant.