The tragic slowness of our reaction to the coronavirus and the putting of systematic safety measures in place has contrasted with the relatively swift and mature reaction of the French (and other nations) to this emergency. But is it a sign of a wider conservative and sclerotic inability to act that has taken hold of our society? How could we measure these things? Clarisse Godard Desmarest sets the ball rolling with a description of the terrible fires at both Notre Dame in Paris and Glasgow School of Art, and the reaction of the authorities in each case.
The recent fires at the Glasgow School of Art and at Notre-Dame in Paris have led me to reflect on the value of our built heritage. On the day after the Notre-Dame fire, which started in the afternoon of 15 April 2019, I was able to join the crowd standing on the Riverbanks and watching the ‘Grande Dame’ (Lady), as it is affectionately known to Parisians. The Cathedral, situated in the heart of Paris on the Ȋle de la Cité, was standing right before us, a cloud of smoke still floating as the building was cordoned off, recovering from a severe blaze which had lasted through the night. The main structure was intact; firefighters managed to save the west façade and its two towers, walls, buttresses, and stained glass windows. It was reported that the Great 18th-Century Organ had been saved, but had sustained water damage. The rooster weathervane, which stood atop the collapsed 19th-century spire, was unexpectedly recovered in the rubble; some said it was a miracle. Fortunately, the sixteen statues around the spire, the twelve Apostles and four Evangelists, had been taken down just four days earlier and sent off to be restored – as part of what was originally intended to be a large-scale restoration of the cathedral over the next ten years, costing an estimated 60 million euros.
As was the case with Notre-Dame, an immense sense of loss and grief prevailed when one of Scotland’s, and indeed Britain’s, most iconic buildings went on fire. The Glasgow School of Art (GSA), built 1897-1909, was designed by the celebrated Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1929), and was being restored under restoration after the first fire in 2014 when it was almost entirely destroyed by a further blaze in June 2018; this time, leaving only a burnt-out shell. Founded in 1845 as the Glasgow Government School of Design, long before the present building existed, the school changed its name to the Glasgow School of Art in 1853. In addition to being an Art-Nouveau gem, the School was — and still is — an institution with an international reputation; it has produced most of Scotland’s leading contemporary artists including, since 2005, thirty per cent of Turner Prize nominees and five recent Turner Prize winners. Architecture, Art and Design are taught to the highest academic levels.
Both the Glasgow School of Art and Notre-Dame are buildings of international significance, albeit for different reasons. Notre-Dame is over 800 years old, and is both a church sanctuary and a historic building; its status as a ‘historic building’ was recognised at an early date, in 1862, which has meant both rights and obligations (e.g. it may be eligible for special funding, and any work within its premises needs to be placed in the safe hands of certified architects and craftsmen). It shelters – or sheltered – some of the Christian world’s most valuable relics, and has been home to important ceremonies, including Napoléon’s coronation ceremony on 2 December 1804, President François Mitterrand’s requiem mass in 1996, and the funerals of President De Gaulle and President Pompidou’s in 1970 and 1974, respectively. The coronation is recorded by Neo-Classical painter Jacques-Louis David in a fine painting kept in the Louvre. The building has also shaped our literature – in both France and no doubt beyond – and inspired one of Victor Hugo’s greatest novels (Notre-Dame de Paris, published in 1831). Set in medieval Paris, the novel contributed to raising general awareness as the Cathedral was suffering from extensive dereliction. The spire of the Cathedral had been dismantled at the end of the 18th century, the building then transformed into a Temple of Reason during the Revolution, and subsequently used as a storage place for wine. Napoléon’s coronation provided a chance to do patchy restoration work, but it really took some serious commitment – taken by King Louis-Phillippe (July Monarchy, 1830-1848) – to save the building. Safeguarding the national heritage was an entirely new concept promoted by the Romantics like Victor Hugo. The architecture of the Ancien-Régime was showcased at its best in the Louvre, Versailles, Saint-Denis and Notre-Dame which King Louis-Phillippe and his minister François Guizot were determined to enhance; work on Notre-Dame started in 1843, under the supervision of architects Eugène Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus.
It was also in Notre-Dame that Mary Queen of Scots married the future Francois II with spectacular pageantry and magnificence, and with innumerable Scots in attendance. The wedding, which took place on Sunday 24th April 1558, and which celebrated both the union of the spouses and their duty as joint future monarchs of their two kingdoms, was followed by a procession past excited crowds in the Paris streets to a grand banquet in the Palais de la Cité (Palais de Justice).
Like 86 other cathedrals in France, Notre-Dame became the property of the State under the law of 9 December 1905, relative to the separation of the Church and the State; which means that responsibility for its maintenance, repair and restoration rests within the State (not the Church or the Mairie de Paris), via its Ministry of Culture. By contrast, London’s St Paul’s is owned by the Church.
Following the blaze, discussion immediately focused on restoration and, because in France the executive has considerable influence over many issues in the Fifth Republic (the current republican system of government established in 1958), President Macron soon called for an international architectural competition to be launched, paid lavish praise to contemporary architecture, and pressed for a rapid reconstruction (to be completed within five years, in time for the Paris Olympic Games in 2024). He also insisted on the setting up of a new public body (‘établissement public’ established by decree on 28 November 2019), directly accountable to the executive, to take charge of the reconstruction work, thereby creating tensions with the already existing ‘Direction du Patrimoine’. The ‘établissement public’, the creation of which was included in the emergency law voted in July 2019, was to provide the best conditions for as speedy a reconstruction as possible. These hastily-made announcements drew immediate criticism from heritage academics and professionals, including Professor Alexandre Gady (chairman of the ‘Association Sites et Monuments’), as many questions were raised; how to redesign the roof and spire; whether it would ever be possible to resurrect the now disappeared “forest” of oak roof beams which had supported the lead roof. A new quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns was inaugurated.
Almost a year onwards, ex-Army General Jean-Louis Georgelin, President Macron’s nominee (decree of 2 December 2019), presides over the future of Notre-Dame as head of the newly created ‘établissement public’, as disagreements with Notre-Dame’s chief-architect Philippe Villeneuve are increasingly obvious (in June 2019, Villeneuve had spoken out in favour of the spire being rebuilt to its original form, when President Macron suggested an international competition). Under General Georgelin the managing board of the ‘établissement public’ is constituted of a team of thirteen members (like Jesus and his apostles); representatives of the region, the prefecture, the Mairie, the Church, and the ministries of Labour, Culture and Finances. Current priorities over the course of 2021 include finishing the safety procedures (especially the scaffolding around the spire), clearing the rubble, checking the mortar and the stone, before starting the restoration itself. One of the most contentious issues is what to do with the spire which, by far, concentrates most of the public’s attention; the law requires that a public consultation be organised on the matter.
In Glasgow, also, the discussion immediately started as to whether it was feasible and legitimate to save the School of Art. In parallel to the Scottish Government’s commitment to restore the building, a report carried out by the Scottish parliament’s culture committee into the 2014 and 2018 fires (published March 2018), showed that inadequate risk management contributed to both GSA fires; MSPs questioned whether the school had learned any lessons since the first blaze, and whether it had done enough to prevent the second fire from being so damaging – GSA has had to hit back at MSPs criticism. It is uncertain whether sufficient funding will be available to fund the reconstruction.What is interesting is that the decision has been made to rebuild the GSA as it was originally designed by Mackintosh, and also to repair Notre-Dame. It is uncertain whether Notre-Dame will be rebuilt in the original style (even though the cathedral was significantly transformed by architect Viollet-Le-Duc in the 19th century). But the commitment to rebuild in the original goes back a long way; for example, St Mark’s Campanile (or Bell Tower, in Venice) was rebuilt in 1903 after its sudden collapse the year before. Closer to our time, countless reconstructions have been made on the Continent after WW2, and Germany has supported many reconstruction projects in war-damaged historic city centres outside its own boundaries. The reconstruction of Dresdens’s Frauenkirche, for instance, was completed so recently as 2005. Today, the shells of the GSA and Notre-Dame still stand, and perhaps we will witness a similar outcome in both cities.
Dr Clarisse Godard Desmarest FSA Scot, FRHistS is a lecturer in British Studies at the University of Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens) and a fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France. She is author of numerous publications on the history of Scottish architecture and culture, and is the editor of The New Town of Edinburgh: An Architectural Celebration (Edinburgh: John Donald, 2019).