Interesting articles by author Nancy Huston and Joseph L. Clarke, assistant professor of architecture, in the Globe today, both focusing on Notre- Dame. Every art student has studied the Gothic cathedral built in the 1200’s by Violet-le- Duc, recalling the competition among cathedrals between towns : to build higher and higher into the heavens to reach God, until the structures unable to support their magnificent heights eventually began to tumble. Constructed from wood, churches were prime targets for the candles that kept them shadowy lit.
I chortle to recall learning the parts of the church, nave, transept, rose windows, gargoyles, spire, and the reason for the long aisles: to efficiently move the flow of tourists, yes tourists even back then, pilgrims, up one side , down the other, and out into the hubbub of throngs of stalls hawking things, stalls pushed up to the very edges of churches to tantalize the tourist trade. I chortle because I also continued to call the flying buttresses, those winged side supports to hold up the buildings, “ flying buttocks” as both ensured the bodies held upright. Even my professor guffawed.
But my memories of Notre- Dame are- as well -personal. I worked two jobs at university so I might travel to Europe and see for myself the hundreds of slides flashed on the screen during an hour in university class. I was so smitten with art history and the stories behind the artifacts. So I continually saved so I could fly to Europe every summer and haunt the churches. Paris where the most important treasures were located was my goal. As I rambled in the city, I discovered and immediately was charmed to stay at Hotel de Notre Dame, a sign I noticed as I wandered the streets with my heavy backpack that held my three wrinkle free dresses and assorted necessities for three months sojourn by myself. Sounding fabulous and magical, the name of the establishment was a revelation. Hotel Notre Dame was in reality a tiny bug- infested holeup above a café close to the cathedral, but the name called out to me and every meandering walk took me past the doors of the magnificent cathedral. So enchanted with the location and ignoring the bedbugs that laced my body, year after year I returned, even writing ahead to ensure a bed. Many years later I noted the petit hotel had been transformed to an establishment worthy of the epithet.
And when we toured Europe with our children, they absolutely had to see and climb the turrets of Notre Dame, we recounting the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo crazy in love with her. Houston picks up on the idea that the novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame dwelled on outcasts,” the usual refuge of all those wretches who came to conceal in this corner of Paris, somber, dirty, muddy and tortuous, their pretended infirmities and their criminal pollution.” :truly the story of les miserables as presently we view them on screen, in the theatre from Victor Hugo’s books. Like the grandmother rarely visited that Houston evokes in her article, Notre Dame was a bulwark, a base, an enduring presence you appreciated because you felt grounded by something eternal, a family part, a piece of history that situated you in a rich culture of dreams, society, a landmark with which you could measure how far you had come from the medieval ages, a kind of cultural talisman.You didn’t have to enter it more than once or twice a trip, but note it -you did, giving it a friendly wink, acknowledging a relationship, but like the demise of that fond grandparent, you truly miss when gone, wishing you had explored further the tales that might have been shared.
But Joseph L. Clarke, that architecture maven, takes another look at the cathedral, also capitalizing on some thoughts from art class. We,once in seminar , debated how architecture can become redundant, fossilized if these structures do not change with society: the need being that artifacts do not stay stuck, unused in the past but somehow become remain relevant so people truly interact as they are reinterpreted for the present. Clarke cites the Neues Museum in Berlin, bombed but reconstructed. What is conjured for me is Daniel Libeskin’s addition to our ROM in Toronto, criticized for not really enhancing or working with the original design , or the Louvre with the strange black pyramid set against the rest of the building. It is hard to fathom a new limb on Notre Dame that does not cull from times past in an attempt to contemporize it. Often a mixture of old and new is a plan for discord, but perhaps a brilliant architect could manage a metamorphosis.
I actually think there are those pieces that should remain in tact,reminding us of another time, another world, not necessarily better, but different and unique, hallmarks against which we can measure our own growth, our distance. The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids, the Great Wall, ancient libraries, castles and landmarks that provoke debates, contemplation of the evolving situations of freedom, liberty, strife and success. In Berlin, remnants of war ruins are juxtaposed with new joyous constructions and somehow the old and new coalesce, the old not erased with the memories they hold for those who endured during those terrible days.Perhaps ironically, however, the Memorial to the Jews Murdered in the Holocaust across from the Reichstag has become a spot for picnicking, selfies and jumping from block to block. Impossible to stop, many of the inhabitants of the city obviously feel no need to maintain the piece as a place for respect. Could one consider this a fitting tribute to the dead? Likely because a new generation is able to roam there, accept its presence as a living spot: the ghosts that may wander there can smile down that life continues and people can move freely without the fear of destruction. Yet there is something within me that would have preferred it become a shrine of sorts, the dead respected in a way I deem appropriate.
But I am of another generation, savouring all tales that connected me to the lost ancestors, cousins and relations slaughtered. Perhaps the mere words that honour that loss should suffice, for no actual relationship to the present inhabitants in the city may have caused this insouciance of behaviour.
Everything changes, but in deed, some memorials, some buildings like Notre- Dame will survive, their meaning open for learning or meaning for those fascinated by history and those who believe there is deep import and significance in preserving works of art because they hold unerasable truths.