Nine centuries of renovation and renewal: A brief history of Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris. Image: Getty.

The Notre-Dame de Paris had been damaged and changed many times since it was begun in the mid-12th century. But the fire on 15 April might have been its most catastrophic event.

Located on the eastern end of the Ile-de-la-Cité, an island on the Seine River, the site was a Christian church since the 4th century. And for a long time, it remained a powerful symbol of church authority. Even today, it is the seat of the archbishop of Paris.

As a scholar of Gothic architecture I have studied how this and other buildings were continuously adapted to reflect changing architectural fashion and to enhance the spiritual experience of the visitor.

Key part of religious district

The current cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady, or the Virgin Mary, replaced an earlier cathedral that was built during the Merovingian period which lasted from the 5th to 8th century. The earlier building was dedicated to Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Maurice de Sully is believed to have initiated the rebuilding of the cathedral around the same time that he became bishop of Paris in 1160. Maurice had previously served as archdeacon of the cathedral where he also taught theology.

Other church officials likely also had a role in this rebuilding as the cathedral canons, or clerics, and not the bishop, held authority over the structure.

Reconstruction of the cathedral was part of a larger redesign of the eastern part of the Ile-de-la-Cité. This neighborhood housed the church officials, masters, clerics, servants and others who worked to run the diocese of Paris and the cathedral school.

Maurice’s other projects at the time included construction of a new street, the rue Neuve Notre-Dame, which ran from the cathedral to the west – now replaced by the square in front of the cathedral. He also built a new palace for the bishop and a new charitable hospital.

How structures were added

Construction proceeded under a series of master builders.

The first part of the cathedral to be built was the eastern part, or choir. This was to serve as the religious heart of the structure where the main altar would be located. Construction then generally proceeded westward, though multiple parts of the building were sometimes worked on simultaneously.

The design, however, was continuously revised during the course of construction. For example, in the 1220s the upper wall of the cathedral, which had already been constructed, was demolished and rebuilt to allow for larger windows. This transformed the building from a four-story to a three-story structure.

The new cathedral was largely completed by around 1245, although, construction continued in various parts until the mid-14th century. During these 200 years chapels were added along the exterior of the cathedral, some structural supports modified and the transept arms were extended, giving the cathedral a cross-like shape.

In my assessment, these many remodels during the Middle Ages demonstrated the vitality of the cathedral in medieval life and the creativity of the builders, as they adapted the building to changing architectural fashions and social practices. The change to a three-story structure, that had become the standard by the early 13th century, is one such example.

My forthcoming book shows how cathedrals, including Notre Dame of Paris, were connected to the daily life in the city. There were markets around cathedrals and also spaces where disputes could be resolved. In other words, the cathedral was an important part of medieval city life.

Meaning for France

Notre Dame was the most colossal church of its generation – wider and taller than other European churches of the mid-12th century.

There were several technological breakthroughs made in its construction. For example, it was a site of early experimentation with flying buttresses, the externalised buttressing arches that transfer the weight of the heavy stone vault away from the walls, which can then be pierced by large window openings filled with stained glass.

It was the first French Gothic cathedral to receive a line of chapels along its exterior. These were added to the building between the projecting buttress piers after 1228. Many other cathedrals would later adopt this pattern.

The chapels appended to the choir on the eastern end of the cathedral were the only ones from 1300-1350 to survive the French Revolution.


Later restorations

Paris Cathedral played an important role in religious and secular life.

As the seat of the bishop, Notre Dame was the most significant religious building in the city. Its size and luxury symbolized the power of the church and the authority of the bishop. It was also the site of ceremonies connected to the King of France, including royal funerary processions and the royal entry, a ceremony in which the city received a new king.

Consequently, it was one of the many churches that were attacked during the French Revolution in the 1790s. This violence resulted in significant losses of medieval sculpture and stained glass and damage to the building itself.

By the 19th century, the cathedral was in a state of disrepair.

A major restoration effort began in 1843 under the supervision of architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, which was spurred by a larger renewal of interest in Gothic architecture. Viollet-le-Duc completed the restoration work in 1864.

Many of the building’s iconic features date to the 19th-century restorations. These include the crossing spire that collapsed in the recent fire. It also includes the many gargoyles and chimeras that peer out from the upper parts of the cathedral, many of which are modern replacements of medieval sculptures.

The 19th century also saw the construction of the parvis, or square in front of the cathedral, which significantly altered how one encounters the structure. Visitors to the cathedral now have a much larger area from which to view the front of the building which facilitates spectacular views of the cathedral’s twin towers.

Why it will survive

The roof of the cathedral was largely destroyed in the recent fire. While much of the building is constructed from stone, the roof was supported by enormous wooden beams that sat above the vault or curved stone ceiling of the church.

Details are still emerging about its priceless 13th-century stained glass windows. And it is too early to say how much of the art work housed in it survived.

The cathedral has stood for 800 years and withstood damage on many previous occasions. I am confident that it will survive this fire as well.

Although the 2019 fire may appear to many as a cataclysmic destruction, the cathedral is exceptionally well documented. Andrew Tallon, a scholar at Vassar College, who died last year, had digitally scanned the building, resulting in measurements of the structure that are more precise than any data previously gathered.

While some parts of the cathedral might be irreplaceable, I believe many future generations continue to admire and learn from this magnificent building, as well as its rich history.

The Conversation

Maile Hutterer, Assistant Professor of the History of Art and Architecture, University of Oregon.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.