Notre-Dame: Apocalypse… and now?

Antoine Laurain, author of bestselling novels including The Red Notebook and the forthcoming Vintage 1954 (June 2019), was born in Paris and has lived there all his life. Here he shares his thoughts on the potential rebuilding of one of the city’s most famous and well loved landmarks.

News of the Notre-Dame blaze has travelled around the world and my heart goes out to those who, just like me, were horrified by the live footage and cried. These were images of the end of a world, and the fall of a burning spire a vision of something out of the apocalypse.

The cathedral will never be the same again, as the structure of thousand-year-old tree trunks felled in the thirteenth century collapsed in flame. The time, silence and wisdom held in these beams disappeared with the fire. These qualities will never be returned in a metal or concrete structure; they are the stuff of magic. It was not only wood, but a timeless relic of the ages that went up in smoke before our eyes. We will never find this wood again and it has been a long time since there were such large, old trees in France.

It only happened a few days ago and already, I hear that politicians and architects are having ‘aesthetic’ doubts about the cathedral’s reconstruction: rebuild the spire exactly as it was or launch a competition to design a modern one? A spire to suit the times, transparent, I suppose, perhaps with a lift for tourists so they can take selfies with the hashtag ‘Notre-Dame’. I imagine the architects are already at work on their 3D screens, graphic pen in hand.

What will become of the rooster of the spire, miraculously retrieved from the wreckage? They will put it in a glass cabinet…

Let me make myself clear: any intrusion of modernity in the cathedral would be blasphemy. Viollet-le-Duc fixed Notre-Dame in its eternity. The cathedral’s history ends with him and Victor Hugo closed its doors once and for all. The clocks stop forever with the architect and the writer. The men of the twenty-first century could not save the treasure handed down through centuries and it is a miracle that the vault did not collapse; that the rose windows did not melt and the glass explode in the heat; that the building is still standing.

These same men can now only make amends for this by rebuilding the cathedral exactly as it was, so they don’t add to the great error made on Monday 15th April 2019 with the hubris of modern renovation.

Turn off your computers and forget your dreams of glass and steel. Get out the wood, lead, iron and copper and rebuild the spire just as it was. And then close your eyes and cross yourself.

Antoine Laurain.

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