An essay about restoration and renewal at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in the wake of the April 2019 fire. Published in the Los Angeles Review of Books

Translated as: “Der mittelalterliche Mythos von Notre-Dame” in Notre-Dame de Paris: Bilder einer Kathedral, edited by Lothar Schirmer, 9-19. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Verlag, 2020.

“RESTORATION,” THE 19TH-CENTURY French engineer Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc wrote, is “a modern word and a modern thing.” His Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVI siècle, a multi-volume corpus of architectural history, painstakingly defined and diagramed by Viollet-le-Duc, describes restoration as a practice both to protect buildings and to improve upon them. “To restore an edifice,” he explained, “is not to maintain it, to repair it, or to remake it. To restore is to reestablish [rétablir] it in a complete state that could never have existed at a given time.” Restoration, Viollet-le-Duc theorized, was the practice of technology, of engaging the wisdom and the ideals of the present moment to perfect the past.

Led by Viollet-le-Duc, architects, engineers, and laborers across Western Europe in the late 19th century turned to many of the crumbling architectural monuments that surrounded them with a newfound interest. Armed with the industrial technology of iron girders and ferro-concrete, these restorers reestablished countless parish churches, shored up innumerable cathedral bell towers, even rebuilt entire cities, improving upon the edifices of past using the finest modern technology available.

As these architects and masons published encyclopedic catalogs of historical architectural styles, built “Gothic” facades supported by iron and steel, and reengineered stained-glass production on a massive scale, they were restoring the past exactly as Viollet-le-Duc advocated. In so doing, they at once relied on the advances of modernity to restore the past while constructing a past suitable to their modern moment. Furthermore, as borders that had been porous for centuries became fixed, newly redefined nation-states relied on the past that they “restored” to establish themselves as nations distinct from one another, each endowed with a historical tradition. Regional styles of architecture across France, for example, became unified French patrimoine, while the diverse landscapes of Prussia, Bavaria, and the Rhineland became the heimat of a new Germany.

Viollet-le-Duc’s definition of restoration reveals a fundamental truth about how societies consider the past: history — who tells it, how, and to whom — is as much a reflection of the present as it is informative about the past....

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