How to rebuild Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral has become the subject of heated debates not only in France but around the world.

Driving the news

Just days after the April fire that devastated the twelfth-century landmark, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said the ravaged spire should be rebuilt in a manner “suited to the techniques and challenges of our time”.

French President Emmanuel Macron echoed soon after Philippe’s modernising sentiments, promising the cathedral would undergo an “inventive reconstruction”.

The rebuild would be a “contemporary architectural gesture” that would leave the cathedral “more beautiful than before”, said the President at the time.

But in late May the French Senate passed a resolution stating the Notre-Dame reconstruction should be faithful to the cathedral’s “last known visual state”.

Though the resolution failed to become law – for lack of support in the country’s lower house – the Senate’s call echoed the feelings of many in France and around the world who would prefer an identical rebuild to a “contemporary architectural gesture”.

The resolution also showed the debate over Notre-Dame is far from over.


Paris Archbishop insists Notre Dame more than tourist attraction

The big picture

Along with the supporters of rebuilding Notre-Dame exactly as it was, and the proponents of giving the reconstruction a contemporary touch, there are also those who favor not rebuilding it all.

Parisian translator Bérengère Viennot is one of those who would forgo the reconstruction.

“Of course, it’s not a matter of destroying what remains. We must secure what the hellfire spared, make sure the church is safe and can be reopened to the people of Paris and everyone who comes to see it from around the world. But reconstruct it? No”, wrote Viennot just after the fire.

“Just like we visit ruined castles, let’s visit Notre Dame and be conscious that with it, a part of our civilization has gone up in smoke; that this unfortunate fire is also an episode in our history, a page half-turned; that we must accept it, with its scars and its losses, because that’s what’s left”.

Go deeper

Viennot and others’ call to leave the ruins of Notre-Dame as “a memento mori of the 21st century” has attracted violent reactions.

But perhaps there is an alternative to the dilemma of a traditional or modernising rebuild, or no rebuild at all.

Notre-Dame rector Patrick Chauvet wants to erect a temporary structure for the church’s parishioners and for the more than 13 million people who come to visit the monument each year.

But judging by the designs for that temporary structure proposed last week by Gensler, the world’s largest architectural firm, there’s not reason an interim “pavillion” in the public square in front of the cathedral couldn’t become permanent.

For the record

Gensler’s concept for a “Pavillon Notre-Dame” features a fire-resistant charred timber frame with translucent, light-filtering panels, as Quartz reports.

The idea is that the new structure symbolise rebirth, transformation and hope.

“What we wanted to do is to create a place of worship, but to also enable it to be adaptable [for other functions]”, European director for Gensler Duncan Swinhoe told Quartz.

Swinhoe said the proposed pavilion’s movable walls mean the structure could easily be converted into a gallery, café or contemplation point for tourists.

Or even, as Quartz notes, into a concert or theatre venue or a party or reception area, in line with other church repurposings around the world.

The idea driving the Gensler design is that Notre-Dame remain relevant in an ever-more secularised society in which, although more than half of the population still considers itself Catholic, just 5% of the faithful attend Mass regularly.

Why it matters

Churches “provide a refuge, both in terms of the noise and bustle, and function as a space to reflect as an individual in a large city”, Swinhoe told Quartz.

“Having a space where you can step out of that is actually very, very valuable”, the architect added.

According to translator Viennot, an reconstructed Notre-Dame would be necessary as a reminder of the unavoidable “scars” on our shared history.

But then perhaps a permanent attachment to the cathedral would be an equally poignant reminder of the syncretistic – eclectic, or parasitic – nature of the human endeavour.


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.