When we were in our late 20s, my wife and I were backpacking across Europe.  On one of our train journeys, we struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Austrian gentleman who was curious to know the places we had chosen to touch on our journey.  When we revealed that we had devoted considerable time to Paris, his eyes lit up, enthusiastically professing that Paris is a city that holds a special place in the hearts of all Europeans (this was eight years before the European Union came into being).  This sentiment is not confined to Europe.  For centuries, artists from all over the world were attracted to Paris (until neoliberal economics outpriced them by the late 20thcentury), seeing its culture and galleries as fertile ground conducive to honing their art. Paris has been a cultural capital to the world.

If Paris holds this special status, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris, a globally significant monument of Gothic architecture, lies at the geographical and emotional centre of this imagination.  The cathedral and its surroundings were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991, listed as “Paris, Banks of the Seine”; and this listing was a mere formality, affirming what was already in the hearts of people from Paris, Europe and the world.  When news spread about the recent fire that devastated the cathedral, I was struck by comments made on internet groups and social media: it was not just Parisians, people from all over the world were so affected by this tragic event that the emotion that spontaneously spilled out bore at its heart a trauma of personal bereavement.  It was as though a part of the soul of architecture had died.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame was involved in another death of architecture, proclaimed close to two hundred years earlier by Victor Hugo in his classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.   The scene introducing this death has the archdeacon of the cathedral, Don Claude Frollo, sitting in his room which commands a view of the cathedral, in conversation with two others.  At one point in the conversation the archdeacon points first to a book lying open on his desk and then at the cathedral and says, “Alas! The one will kill the other…..the book will kill the building.”  Hugo goes on to spend an entire chapter talking about architecture, expounding on this enigmatic remark.  He argues that every civilisation has its own philosophies, and every generation seeks to immortalise the ideas that it stands for. To do this, it seeks the most endurable form of expression for those ideas, which for many centuries was architecture.  The spatial arrangement, narratives of ornament, symbolism of proportion, rituals consecrated within buildings, all these served to make architecture a living register of humanity’s dreams, ideals and myths.  But all this changed in the fifteenth century with the invention of printing, and the printed word offered a means of expression that was not only more durable, but also far easier to mobilise.  Thousands of copies of an idea could be made and scattered all over the world.  Architecture could not compete with this ubiquity, and the printed book replaced it as the register of human thought.  Deprived of its historical role, architecture lost its status as mother of the arts and was reduced to a primarily utilitarian role, provoking Hugo to remark, “the architectural form of the edifice becomes less and less apparent, the geometric form growing more and more prominent, like the skeleton of an emaciated invalid.  The beautiful lines of art give way to the cold and inexorable lines of geometry.  A building ceases to be a building; it is a polyhedron.”

What can we learn by juxtaposing these two deaths of architecture epitomised by the Cathedral of Notre-Dame?  Do we share Hugo’s lament that the glorious days of architecture are lost to us forever? Do we grieve the ravage fire wrought on the cathedral because it diminishes the historical record of those glorious days?  I sense this is not the primary case, that the acuity of personal loss expressed by so many reveals something far more significant and totally contemporary.  In the Cathedral of Notre-Dame we recognise something that resonates with the core of our soul, we yearn for it, we sense that we can still have it today, but humanity has forgotten how to have it with the consistency that could be had in days past.   And when we lose a monument from those days, we sense that the chance of recovering what we yearn for recedes further.  Consequently, a bit of us burns with the cathedral, we mourn that too, and the global outpouring of personal sentiment after the fire reflects this.

Our limitation is that we are continuing the same error that Victor Hugo made, believing that the primary purpose of architecture is to be didactic, to communicate to us so that we may be enlightened by significant ideas and ideals that history wishes to hand to us.  Hugo feared that the loss of a didactic role to printing has led to the death of architecture, but the assignment of a primarily didactic role to architecture is a larger error.  The problem in this error is twofold.  Firstly, the inhabitant of architecture has his/her autonomy and agency derecognised and is rendered passive: a mere recipient of ideals concretised by somebody else in the edifice’s physical form, with an arrogant expectation that the inhabitant seeks nothing more than gratitude and fulfilment in the receipt of this ‘gift’.  And secondly, even if we accept that architecture is a form of language that communicates something valuable to us, how does this value survive the repetitive daily routine that characterises the inhabitation of most architecture?   If someone were to repeat the same phrase to us every day, we would stop listening to them; and similarly, any didactic value offered by the symbolism of architecture will dissolve over time into the anaesthesia of habit.  The power of communicated value depends on a freshness of the image, which can survive in architecture only within tourism or the ersatz world of media.  Neither of these is fundamental to the inhabitation of architecture, yet a persistent belief in the primacy of didacticism grants to both an influence that is far beyond their importance.

Clearly something else is at stake in the purpose of architecture, and a direction is suggested by Juhani Pallasmaa in his classic book The Eyes of the Skin, where he says, “In the experience of art, a peculiar exchange takes place; I lend my emotions and associations to the space and the space lends me its aura, which entices and emancipates my perceptions and thoughts.  An architectural work is not experienced as a series of isolated retinal pictures, but in its fully integrated material, embodied and spiritual essence.  It offers pleasurable shapes and surfaces moulded for the touch of the eye and the other senses, but it also incorporates and integrates physical and mental structures, giving our existential experience a strengthened coherence and significance.”   

In the schema that Pallasmaa identifies, the inhabitant is far from passive, and actively participates in a dialogue with the aura of architecture that strengthens his/her sense of existential coherence and significance.  It is significant to note that the architect is not a participant in this dialogue.  The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘aura’ as “The distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place.”  The aura of the architect and the aura of architecture are two distinct things, and when the construction of a building is completed and handed over for inhabitation, the architect’s aura departs from the scene, and all that is left to speak is the aura of the building.  This is a moment from which the architect, as a person, is forever silent, and there are very few architects who have come to terms with the implications of this enforced silence.

The key to the architect’s success is the mastery with which he/she releases the kind of aura in architecture that offers an emancipatory experience to the inhabitant.  When that happens, the strength of the dialogue between inhabitant and aura increases over time.  Firstly, each encounter produces memories that feed into subsequent encounters, thereby enhancing them.  And secondly, once the aura offers emancipatory experience, repetition of that experience serves to augment the existential and spiritual development of the inhabitant.

The work gradually absorbs meaning through experiences and memories of inhabitation.  This aesthetic, that evolves over time, is an aesthetic of absorption:  a far cry from the aesthetic of expression that Hugo speaks of, which forms an axiomatic foundation of much of contemporary architectural education and practice.  I would not argue that we should completely eliminate an aesthetic of expression from architecture, for to do so would be to deny an inherent and significant aspect of the architect’s creativity.  I only suggest that the aesthetic of expression should be freely allowed, but on the condition that it humbly serves the aesthetic of absorption, offering itself to a sacred purpose of life that is greater than any one person, even the creator of architecture.  This humble yet sacred purpose is what the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris embodies in its aura, so let us explore how the aura of Gothic cathedrals came to be.

In a brilliant analysis in his book Meaning in Western Architecture, Christian Norberg-Schulz traces the development of the architectural form of the church in Europe.  Christianity had been an underground religion for the first three centuries of its existence; the central message of those early times could not offer salvation on earth, resting on a promise of salvation in heaven after one has lived life on earth.  When it became a recognised religion with the freedom to build its own edifices, this message was embodied in the first churches it built, which turned their back to the surrounding town focusing inwards on a dark linear plan, with an entrance at one end and the altar at the other, symbolising the path to salvation. As the church became more established in Europe during the Romanesque era, this interiorised otherworldliness that symbolised the passage to heaven began to adjust to worldly contexts.  The plaza in front of the church became a site of sanctuary, bell-towers rose in height making the church more visible from a distance, and articulation of the façade along with larger windows began to construct a relationship between the church and its context.  The large separation between heaven and earth that characterised the Early Christian church began to reduce, and heaven and earth began to form a continuum.  As a result, the distance of the altar from the entrance could be reduced; the altar moved away from the furthest end, and the church form acquired another layer of symbolism by developing a cruciform plan. 

By the time of the Gothic era, developments in building techniques allowed the evolution of church form to reach new levels.  The development of rib vaulting and flying buttresses not only permitted an increase in building height, but also allowed a greater transparency of the façade.  Increased skill of craftsmanship in stained glass lent both narrative and mysticism to this transparency.  If earlier churches could only offer hope that an earthly life could reach heaven at its end, the soaring height and mystical light of the Gothic church concretised heaven right here on earth.  Norberg-Schulz concludes his chapter on Gothic architecture saying, “Because of its visual logic the cathedral was an image of the cosmic order…….From the cathedral the existential meanings of Christianity were transmitted to the human environment as a whole, and the town became the place where the medieval cosmos was presented as a living reality.”  The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and other Gothic cathedrals, did far more than communicate the ideals of the time: they offered an experience that evoked heaven and the presence of God on earth, an aura that transcended worldly concerns.  This ability to craft buildings that balanced heaven and earth reached its apogee in Western civilisation during the Gothic era. Since then, while the pendulum has swung back and forth at times, as a whole the trajectory has moved in a different direction, favouring the worldly over the sacred.

The political power of the church increased even further after the Gothic era, and this was reflected in changes in its architectural form.  The expression of linearity as the path to salvation became overshadowed by circular plans with large domes, serving to emphasise the church as a place on earth.  Moreover, the church began to misuse the political power it had acquired, provoking rebellion in the form of the Protestant Reformation.  Competing factions of churches led to an emphasis of the didactic function of architecture in the Baroque and Rococo periods, using exaggerations of perspective and dramatic and flowery form for rhetorical impact: impressing people on earth began to compete with worshipping God.  Scepticism of traditional institutional authority became ingrained after the Reformation, and this (along with other factors) created an increasing awareness of inequality and the lack of freedom that affected large sections of the population. We have eventually come to our modern era of democracy, where one of the fallouts of scepticism of religious authority ingrained by the Reformation has led to the adoption of secularism as an axiomatic principle: a separation of church and state, believing that the sacred belongs only to the private realm, and must be confined within it.

This must be read alongside another significant characteristic of the Gothic era: it is the last era in Western civilisation where architectural creativity flourished in a tradition of anonymity.  We do not know who designed Notre-Dame, we do not even know who its master-builder was (and given it was built over centuries, there must have been more than one generation of master-builders).  The printed book came into being toward the latter part of the Gothic era, and it had a decisive impact that was quite different from the one that Victor Hugo perceived: it created a tradition of personal authorship that displaced an earlier era of anonymous collaboration.  The Renaissance, as the period immediately following the Gothic, was when the profession of architecture, as a specialised discipline segregated from the craft of building, was born.  From the Renaissance onwards, for the first time in history one always spoke of architecture in the light of individualised creators such as Brunelleschi, Alberti, da Sangallo, Bramante, Michelangelo, and others.  This personality-centric orientation has dominated architecture ever since.

This has created an existential angst over how architecture can serve humankind’s sense of purpose.  Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor from World War II, observes that in response to the horrific circumstances faced in the camps, some people just buckled under and succumbed rapidly, whereas others could summon the grit to resist and some of them were able to survive till the camps were liberated. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, observing that on the surface these two groups come from very similar backgrounds, he sets out to uncover the underlying cause that explains the difference between them.  He finds that those who survive are anchored in a horizon of purpose and meaning that is larger than themselves as individuals.  It may be religious faith, an intellectual idea, a a social goal, or an art practice; a resonance between inner aspiration and wider reality empowers people with the fortitude to survive great misfortune.

Modernity has enhanced our capability as individuals to find this larger purpose but has reduced our ability to collectively do so as a society.  Our governance focuses on the profane, and architectural practice (and society at large) thrives on a cult of individualism.  We do not know how to physically articulate a social sense of greater purpose and meaning in our cities, and the public realm has been reduced to the comparatively mundane functions of movement, leisure, entertainment and consumption.  We still find examples of transcendent architecture, but when we do so we can only ascribe its origins to the creativity of individuals, producing a superficial culture of heroes and imitators rather than one founded on widespread existential anchors.  Our political economy claims validity only through a statistical aggregation of atomised individuals, and when communities seek shared meaning, they tend to do so through the tribal factionalism that characterises the politics of today.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris represents the crest of a period in Western civilisation that sought to balance the profane and the sacred within an anonymous tradition. After that we have consistently moved toward an ethos where we privilege individuals and prioritise the profane in our public life.  The anonymity that created Notre-Dame reveals a humble dedication to a transcendent cause that is recognised as so great that individuals are immaterial before it.  We feel helpless for we yearn for this as a public existential anchor, but precedents like Notre-Dame are too far removed from us in time to be easily applicable.  The fire that burnt the cathedral deepens this angst, sharpens the pain we feel, and is a factor in the outpouring of emotion over its occurrence. 

There is widespread and spontaneous agreement that we must rebuild the cathedral, in the hope that if we do so the pain we currently feel can be lessened.  Healing of this pain will not come from restoring lost monuments, established precedent, or inherited tradition.  We head in the wrong direction if we depend on external symbols or formulae: we need a process that transcends this, where we each reach within, connect with the sacred wonder that we inherently are, and humbly offer that wonder to our fellow beings and to the universe we inhabit, so that the wonder within us resonates with the wonder of the universe.  We need to acquire what the philosopher Morris Bermancalls a ‘participating consciousness’, as opposed to the self-absorbed ego-based consciousness we pursue today.  The Cathedral of Notre-Dame represents such a participating consciousness: an anonymous collective recognition of the sacred realm, not as an abstract or heavenly ideal but a reality right here on earth, recognising it to a degree that it can be concretised in architecture.  The politics of that time fall far short of the ethical standards we demand today, and our challenge today is to merge this participating consciousness with democratic ideals.

Public support for rebuilding has come from all quarters, from billionaires to ordinary individuals.  But there are differing opinions on how to go about it.  Some say we must faithfully restore it as it was.  Some say that a faithful restoration is impossible and we should keep its memory as a ruin, citing the ancient metaphysical dilemma of the Ship of Theseus, where Theseus had a ship that in the course of its maintenance had parts replaced, and if over time all the parts are replaced, the question arises on whether it is still the Ship of Theseus.  And some say that that we should not attempt a blindly faithful restoration and should add value from our time to leave a mark of our care for the cathedral.  All these proposals make the same error, assuming that every era has its own authentic spirit that characterises it.  

History contains a heterogenous multiplicity of events that can never be reduced to a single perception of authenticity.  Our heritage does not come from the authenticity of the past: it lies in a contemporary moment characterised by the care we take in choosing what is worth remembering from the past. We must not see Notre-Dame merely as a physical form (however beautiful it may be) or a moment in history (however significant it may be).  We must go beyond its surface form, recognise the sacred quest that it stands for, and recover that quest within us.  That is the prerequisite for the empathetic care that is needed to rebuild the cathedral, only that care can impart sanctity to the rebuilding, and it is the recovery and preservation of that sanctity that is the issue, not the precise form of the rebuilding. We can effectively rebuild the cathedral only if we simultaneously work very hard at rebuilding our collective soul.

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