Technology, History, and Place

Category: Archeology and monuments (Page 2 of 7)

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)


The ex-churches of Quebec

Quebec was colonized in the 17th century by France, a country that remained largely Catholic even as England, northern Germany, and other parts of Europe were turning Protestant. Like the mother-country, Quebec became Catholic. Protestants were not even allowed to settle there. Only after the British takeover of Canada in the mid-18th century was Protestantism even tolerated in Quebec.

In much more recent times, Catholic Church membership and attendance have dropped off sharply in Quebec, and many congregations have had to close their doors. The availability of deconsecrated church buildings has given rise to some intriguing examples of adaptive reuse. On a recent visit to Quebec, I saw one church that had been converted into a restaurant and another that was a fitness center. Neither use really makes sense to me, because they do not take advantage of the single large, enclosed space that is a hallmark of churches.

Decline in church membership is only one reason why churches might be converted to other uses or torn down. Another is urban redevelopment, which is carried out with particular ferocity on the land-hungry island of Montreal. Churches—along with many other buildings of historic value—disappear and are replaced by new construction.

But they don’t all disappear without a trace. On the corner of Viger and St. Denis streets, there stands a lonely church tower without a church. This is the tower of Trinity Anglican Church, built in 1865 and demolished in 2011 to make room for a giant new hospital, University of Montreal Health Centre. The tower was rebuilt in 2016, using the original stones. Even as the city is redeveloped, this memento of the past has been retained.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The Gothic church tower has been integrated into the glassy facade of the hospital.

The Gothic church tower reflected in the glassy facade of the hospital.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church (in French) is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

Vanishing Montreal blog has pictures of Trinity Anglican Church shortly before and during its demolition.

Benjamin Franklin Bridge

Farewell factories, hello luxury lofts

Industry in North America has changed enormously in the seven decades since World War II. Manufacturing has moved away from the industrial heartland of the northeastern and midwestern United States and eastern Canada, to other parts of the continent or overseas.

This process is commonly referred to as deindustrialization. I don’t like this term, because it seems to imply that the industrial revolution has somehow ended and moved on from a region or a country. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least not in the case of North America. The ex-industrial heartland of North America still has plenty of manufacturing—Ford Motor Company still has an enormous operation in Dearborn, Michigan, for example—and people living there continue to live by the clock, consume large amounts of energy, and use manufactured goods. The United States is no longer the world’s leader in manufacturing, but it holds the second place with a very comfortable lead over third-place Japan.

Yet even if the term deindustrialization is misleading, its effects are real enough. The closing down of a major operation in an industrial town can be traumatic, as the town loses a major source of tax revenue and the employees lose their jobs and union wages. The effect of industrial relocation is portrayed in a memorable (if maudlin) way in Michael Moore’s 1989 debut film Roger & Me.

Another example of industrial relocation appears in a book I read way back in my first semester of grad school: Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, by Jefferson Cowie. The book describes how the Radio Corporation of America moved its manufacturing from New Jersey to Indiana, Tennessee (briefly), and finally northern Mexico.

RCA made some of the twentieth century’s most popular consumer electronics products, radios and televisions. At its peak, it was one of most profitable companies in the country. Thirty Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, now called the Comcast Building, was originally named the RCA Building.

RCA opened its first factory in 1929 in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The factory produced radios, the hottest consumer electronic product of its day. Management had hoped that the largely female workforce of the factory would not be interested in unionization. When the workers did unionize after a four-week strike—and with help from Depression-era labor legislation known as the Wagner Act—management decided to set up a new facility with a new, non-unionized workforce in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1940. Over time, as RCA and other industries left Camden, the former industrial tracts of the city turned into a desolate wasteland of boarded-up factories.

At length, and after a short but failed venture in Memphis, Tennessee, RCA moved its manufacturing of consumer electronics out of the United States entirely, and across the border to Ciudad Juárez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The RCA operation in Bloomington finally closed down in 1998, after the laserdisc players manufactured there had failed to become popular.

Two months ago, I went to a conference in Philadelphia, and out of curiosity I skipped a few sessions and rode a train across the Delaware to check out the remains of RCA’s industrial empire in Camden. Like many cities in the old industrial heartland of North America, Camden is slowly being redeveloped, its old factories and warehouses being torn down or converted to new uses.

RCA Building #17 still stands tall above Camden, its ten-story tower visible from parts of Philadelphia. In 2003, it was converted into apartments, with some commercial space on the ground floor.

RCA Building #17 in its new incarnation as a luxury apartment building.

RCA Building #17 in its new incarnation as a luxury apartment building.

Detail of the tower of the RCA factory, with the company's logo in stained glass.

Detail of the tower of the RCA factory, with the company’s logo in stained glass.

Awning of The Victor, as the building has been rebranded.

Awning of The Victor, as the building has been rebranded.

Plaque on The Victor.

Plaque on The Victor.

I am glad that the RCA factory was saved from the wrecking ball, although I wonder if the redevelopers could have come up with more creative uses for the building. As RCA Building #17 and its neighbors are transformed from boarded-up shells to luxury lofts, Camden is leaping from one urban crisis to another. The new urban crisis is caused by ballooning property values that make the city classist and segregated.

This is not a problem that I can solve in this short blog post—or anywhere. But it is something that should give pause to the redevelopers of old urban industrial sites.

New luxury lofts in the works in Camden.

New luxury lofts in the works in Camden.

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