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Tag: Gothic architecture (Page 1 of 2)

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)

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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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.

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