True Green Cities / Celebrating One Year – How a Hunchback Started the Modern Preservation Movement

Celebrating One Year – How a Hunchback Started the Modern Preservation Movement and saved some Gargoyles and Flying Buttresses While He Was At It

The front facade of Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cite in Paris.

If you’re an architect, or even an architecture aficionado, you’ve likely had the experience of visiting an icon you’ve dreamt about for years or even decades, and wanted to drop to your knees and declare “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.”  I am fortunate that I can say that I’ve had that experience many times, being lucky to visit so many icons, but the most recent time was my visit to the cathedral of all cathedrals, Notre-Dame on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, last month. Victor Hugo Embarrasses the Powers that be in Paris

Notre-Dame at night from a dinner cruise on the Sei

Started in 1163 over Roman ruins, Notre-Dame is the model of religious architecture from the 12th century, probably the most famous Gothic building in the world and thought by many to be a seminal point in the history of the modern preservation movement.  Nearly every century since, some new section was added or existing one altered until the Revolution, which ravished many of the monuments including Notre-Dame.  By the mid-1800s, the cathedral was languishing and plundered and threatened with demolition.  Victor Hugo led the charge to save Notre-Dame and his novel “Notre-Dame of Paris” helped spread his interest and love to the masses, whose pressure convinced the government to act. From 1841-1864 Jean-Baptiste Lassus and Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc oversaw the restoration, in many cases creating the methodologies and philosophies of what “restoration” was and meant.  Sadly, many of its medieval-style treasures - its interior furnishings, gargoyles and statues, for example – are not originals, but reproductions and reinterpretations that owe their design to medieval-era drawings. (from p. 554 of “Five Hundred Buildings of Paris”, Kathy Borrus) How Many Gargoyles and Flying Buttresses Can One Building Have

Gargoyles, sculpture and towers on Notre-

Books have been written about the statuary and the sculpture at Notre-Dame and I seem to have most of them.  I brought almost 10 books on Paris architecture with me to Europe, because I couldn’t choose among them.  Of course, I barely looked at any of them, other then to get directions to the monuments.  Of our 5 days in Paris, we spent 2 separate visits at the cathedral – the first one to just get an overview of the exterior and interior.  The second to study the buttresses and gargoyles from every possible angle and take as many photos as my camera’s battery would allow.  We went across the bridge to the Latin Quarter seeking a lunch restaurant that would give us a view of it and finally spent our last night on a delightful Seine dinner cruise where we were able to see it lit at night.  Yes, I know I’m not the first architect to visit Paris for the first time.  But what seeing a world monument like Notre-Dame for the first time reminds someone like me who spends all my work time thinking about sustainability AND preservation, is that there are some places that are so important to our culture, heritage and psyche, that even if they weren’t “green” it wouldn’t matter.  But look at Notre-Dame.  Its substance of material, its durability, its ability to revive a style globally and practically create a movement known now as “historic preservation” (or “heritage conservation” outside of the US!) – if that isn’t the definition of “sustainable” then I don’t know what is. Does Authenticity Outrank Everything?

Looking back at Notre-Dame from the Pont de l'Archeveche, a bridge over the Seine to the Latin Quarter.

I go on and on all the time about authenticity.  And this would be a perfect study on authenticity.  What remains from the 12th century?  Whose design hand is really on the gargoyles and buttresses we see today?  And does it really matter?  Lines wrap around the square to go on the tour, to see the interior.  Views of the cathedral draw your eyes from so many areas of Paris.  If I hadn’t thought I would have created a ruckus, I would have bowed down and murmured, “I’m not worthy, I’m not worthy.” Celebrating One Year This week is the one year anniversary of my firm, BAC/Architecture + Planning, PLLC.  In honor of that, I am writing a blog a day for at least the five days of this week.  I’m hoping that if I get into the habit of writing daily it might just stick!  Thank you to all my readers, clients and colleagues for making this past year so wonderful and memorable.  Yesterday was my actual year anniversary and I had a great day that included finishing the syllabus for a class that I’ve been torturing over and getting a 90 minute massage to manage the aches and pains that too much driving around the east coast can bring on! And if you’d like to “subscribe” or follow this blog, True Green Cities, please sign up through the “Subscribe” button at the bottom left of this page. You’ll receive a daily recap when new blogs are posted.  
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