Technology, History, and Travel

The spirit of Gothic and Notre Dame of Paris

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

On Monday this week, the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris caught on fire. In what appears to have been a freak accident related to restoration work going on at the time, the cathedral’s medieval wooden roof caught fire and was totally destroyed. Initial news reports indicated that the entire church would be destroyed, but the bell towers were spared and the stone vaults over the nave remain mostly intact.

With this much of the structure remaining, it is obvious that the great church can and should be rebuilt. While the structure was still smoldering, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the people of France would rebuild the beloved cathedral.

How to go about the reconstruction is another question. It will clearly be an expensive undertaking that will entail many difficult technical and aesthetic questions. What materials and techniques should be used for the reconstruction? And what should it look like?

Some articles and editorials I have read assert that the church should be rebuilt exactly as it was before, even using the very same techniques used in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as erecting giant wooden frames in the nave for reconstructing the damaged sections of the vaults. I do not see the point of this. The High Middle Ages, when Notre Dame of Paris was built, was an era of technological innovation, with extensive use of machinery and even fossil fuels. If they could know, the master builders of Notre Dame would understand if we used steel scaffolding to rebuild their church.

In the same way, I feel that it is important that the rebuilt roof of Notre Dame should not be a slavish copy of the original. The spirit of Gothic architecture is one of creativity and inventiveness. President Macron expressed this spirit well when he declared that Notre Dame would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. Doing otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of Gothic and the High Middle Ages.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexanre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexandre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

How to sail from seventeenth-century Japan

Note: This post contains plot spoilers for Shusaku Endo’s 1980 novel The Samurai.

In October 1613, a ship set sail from Tsukinoura in northeastern Japan. The ship looked like a Spanish galleon and bore the name San Juan Bautista, but it had been built in Japan on behalf of a local feudal lord. On board was Hasekura Rokuemon, a minor lord who was dispatched as an envoy to Pope Paul V in Rome.

Shusaku Endo’s novel The Samurai (1980, trans. 1982 by Van C. Gessel) is a fictionalized account of Hasekura’s voyage from Japan to New Spain (Mexico), and onward through Spain to Rome. The novel does not stick closely to the historical facts (for instance, greatly compressing the Japanese delegation’s stay in Europe), but at any rate the facts are so sparse that Endo had to engage in extensive speculation as he crafted his narrative.

The purpose of the voyage is a central question of the novel. Hasekura and three other lance-corporals are sent to initiate trade relations with New Spain. One of the envoys, Matsuki, returns to Japan from New Spain. On several occasions before his return, Matsuki hints darkly that their mission is a cover for something else, because why else would such low-ranking officers be selected for this mission? The other three continue across the Atlantic and have an audience with Pope Paul V.

When Hasekura finally returns to Japan, he talks with Matsuki, who reveals the purpose of the mission. “Haven’t you realized yet that you were nothing more than a decoy dressed up to look like an envoy?” he admonishes Hasekura. “Edo and our domain never had trade with Nueva España as their main object. … Edo used our domain to find out how to build and sail the great ships.”

In Endo’s interpretation, Hasekura’s mission was cover for technology transfer. The Japanese wanted to learn how to sail European-style ships, and sending emissaries to new Spain was a way to do that without raising the Europeans’ suspicions.

It is a plausible interpretation, albeit completely speculative. The Japanese have long been prolific cultural borrowers, and technology has always been a part of what they are interested in borrowing. Shortly after Hasekura’s mission, Japan closed its doors to foreigners, and the country would remain closed for more than 200 years before being forced open by the United States in the 1850s.

But even during this period of isolation, the Japanese continued to allow the Dutch limited access to one port, and it was through this contact that the Japanese learned about European technology and industry. When Japan reopened to the world in the nineteenth century, the Japanese already had a head-start on understanding industrial technology thanks to the Dutch.

I don’t know if Shusaku Endo had this background in mind when he wrote The Samurai, but I expect that he did. In Endo’s own lifetime (he lived from 1923 to 1996), Japan readily adopted electronics manufacturing and became a world leader in the field. One can only wonder what might have happened with technology in Japan after the voyage of the San Juan Bautista, had the country not been closed to the world.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from across the Main River.

Re-densifying Frankfurt

In 1997, after my fourth grade year, I went with my family on a trip to Europe. We flew in and out of Frankfurt, and spent a couple of weeks visiting Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, itty-bitty Liechtenstein, and Switzerland. Frankfurt did not make a big impression on me, as we didn’t spend much time there and the city does not have much character anyway. (I was most impressed by Berlin, the city abuilding, where we spent the better part of a week.) One thing I do remember from Frankfurt in 1997 is the historic city center next to the Main River. In particular, I remember visiting a cathedral made of red stone that stood in front of a plaza.

In 2015, on one of my trips out to India, Lufthansa gave me a nice long layover in Frankfurt, and I used some of the time to make an excursion from the airport to the city center by train. (For further observations from the same visit, please see my post “From fortress to Boulevard.”) The red-brick cathedral, the Frankfurter Dom, was there just as I remembered it from eighteen years earlier. But to my surprise, the plaza in front of the cathedral was gone!

In its place was a construction site. A sign at the site explained that the area was being built up to restore its pre-World War II urban density. The plaza had only existed since the war, when much of Frankfurt was destroyed by Allied bombs.

Glimpse of the Frankfurter Dom between newer buildings, as seen in 2015.

Glimpse of the Frankfurter Dom between newer buildings, as seen in 2015.

Tower of the Frankfurter Dom.

Tower of the Frankfurter Dom.

I suppose the redevelopment of the former plaza in front of the cathedral is done by now. Lately, I have been thinking about how this project makes use of previously wasted urban space, opened up by the world’s worst war. In my own country, the United States, our cities have have their own share of wasted space, created not by bombs but by overzealous mid-century urban planners working in the name of urban renewal. I wonder if it is time to redevelop some of the big empty plazas in this country as well.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from a bridge over the Main River.

View of the Frankfurter Dom from a bridge over the Main River.

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