There’s a particularly strange chapter in Victor Hugo’s strange and wonderful novel, Notre-Dame de Paris (Charles Gosselin Libraire, 1831), titled “This Will Kill That.” In it, the author digresses from the Gothic tale of a gypsy girl and the hunchback who loves her to expound a pet cultural theory: “Le livre tuera l’édifice.” “The book will kill the building.” That simple sentence—subject, verb, object—defines an epochal moment, when the book usurped architecture as humanity’s chief mode of expression. (Hugo put those words in the mouth of a medieval character, the cathedral’s archdeacon, which explains the use of the future tense to refer to an event that occurred in the 15th century.)
“The invention of the printing press is the greatest event in history,” Hugo wrote, and he’s right. (Or, at least, he was right, until the internet came along.) But Hugo is also wrong: The printing press may have taken architecture’s place as the medium of choice, but it didn’t kill architecture, or even mute it. For proof, look no further than the great outpouring of sorrow when Notre Dame was ravaged by fire on April 15. Clearly, that 800-year-old church embodies the spirit of a city, and a nation.
Hugo’s dead-architecture thesis depends on the supposition that buildings are inherently static and singular, whereas books, to their advantage, are transient and numerous: “One can demolish a mass; how can one extirpate ubiquity?” While a building as old as Notre Dame is undeniably singular, it isn’t static. After a century or so, buildings achieve a kind of slow, viscous fluidity, changing on a seemingly geological time scale. Over the course of eight centuries, the cathedral has been expanded, altered, ornamented, pillaged, adapted, restored, and renovated into a physical history of France, written in stone, lead, timber, and glass.
The church that just burned was as much a monument of the 19th-century Gothic Revival, courtesy of enthusiastic restoration architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, as it was a relic of the 12th-century Gothic. And given the slow pace of medieval construction, one cannot even pin the original to a single phase. A succession of anonymous master builders deployed Early, High, Rayonnant, Flamboyant, and Late iterations of the style.
And in-between those Gothic bookends, Louis XIV had Robert de Cotte give the choir a Neoclassical face lift (which Viollet-le-Duc indignantly removed); revolutionaries sacked the place and used it for atheistic pageants; and monarchs from the houses of Bourbon, Bonaparte, and Orléans as well as officials of the various republics staged weddings, coronations, and funerals there—each necessitating elaborate, though not always permanent, reinventions.
French President Emmanuel Macron promises the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral will be complete in five years, and French billionaires and megacorporations have already pledged more than $700 million toward that goal. Will Notre Dame Cathedral be the same as it was before the fire? No, that is beyond the capacity of the most meticulous preservation efforts. But Notre Dame Cathedral can be as meaningful as it was before the fire. While tragic, the fire creates an opportunity to write a new chapter in the history of the cathedral, the city, and the nation. That story will be written in architecture.