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.

 
 
 
 

Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.


So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.