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The Death of Architecture? (1/2)

Notre-Dame Cathedral: the sanctity of heritage
Prem Chandavarkar writes about the origins, the various meanings, and even adaptations that the famous Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris has experienced over the years.

by Prem ChandavarkarPublished on : Aug 13, 2019

When we were in our late 20s, my wife and I were backpacking across Europe. On one of our train journeys, we struck up a conversation with a middle-aged Austrian gentleman who was curious to know the places we had chosen to touch up on our journey. When we revealed that we had devoted considerable time to Paris, his eyes lit up, enthusiastically professing that Paris is a city that holds a special place in the hearts of all Europeans (this was eight years before the European Union came into being). This sentiment is not confined to Europe. For centuries, artists from all over the world were attracted to Paris (until neo-liberal economics outpriced them by the late 20th century), seeing its culture and galleries as fertile ground conducive to honing their art. Paris has been a cultural capital to the world.

If Paris holds this special status, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris, a globally significant monument of Gothic architecture, lies at the geographical and emotional centre of this imagination. The cathedral and its surroundings were inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1991, listed as 'Paris, Banks of the Seine'; and this listing was a mere formality, affirming what was already in the hearts of people from Paris, Europe and the world. When the news spread about the recent fire that devastated the cathedral, I was struck by comments made on internet groups and social media: it was not just Parisians, people from all over the world were so affected by this tragic event that the emotion that spontaneously spilled out, bore at its heart a trauma of personal bereavement. It was as though a part of the soul of architecture had died.

Illustration of Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's classic novel <em>The Hunchback of Notre-Dame| France | Paris | STIR
Illustration of Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame was involved in another death of architecture, proclaimed close to 200 years earlier by Victor Hugo in his classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The scene introducing this death has the archdeacon of the cathedral, Don Claude Frollo, sitting in his room which commands a view of the cathedral, in conversation with two others. At one point in the conversation the archdeacon points first to a book lying open on his desk and then at the cathedral and says, “Alas! The one will kill the other…..the book will kill the building". Hugo goes on to spend an entire chapter talking about architecture, expounding on this enigmatic remark. He argues that every civilisation has its own philosophies, and every generation seeks to immortalise the ideas that it stands for. To do this, it seeks the most endurable form of expression for those ideas, which for many centuries was architecture. The spatial arrangement, narratives of ornament, symbolism of proportion, rituals consecrated within buildings, all these served to make architecture a living register of humanity’s dreams, ideals and myths. But all this changed in the fifteenth century with the invention of printing, and the printed word offered a means of expression that was not only more durable, but also far easier to mobilise. Thousands of copies of an idea could be made and scattered all over the world. Architecture could not compete with this ubiquity, and the printed book replaced it as the register of human thought.

Deprived of its historical role, architecture lost its status as mother of the arts and was reduced to a primarily utilitarian role, provoking Hugo to remark, “The architectural form of the edifice becomes less and less apparent, the geometric form growing more and more prominent, like the skeleton of an emaciated invalid. The beautiful lines of art give way to the cold and inexorable lines of geometry. A building ceases to be a building; it is a polyhedron.

What can we learn by juxtaposing these two deaths of architecture epitomised by the Cathedral of Notre-Dame? Do we share Hugo’s lament that the glorious days of architecture are lost to us forever? Do we grieve the ravage fire wrought on the cathedral because it diminishes the historical record of those glorious days? I sense this is not the primary case, that the acuity of personal loss expressed by so many reveals something far more significant and totally contemporary. In the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, we recognise something that resonates with the core of our soul, we yearn for it, we sense that we can still have it today, but humanity has forgotten how to have it with the consistency that could be had in the past days. And when we lose a monument from those days, we sense that the chance of recovering what we yearn for recedes further. Consequently, a bit of us burns with the cathedral, we mourn that too, and the global outpouring of personal sentiment after the fire, reflects this.

Our limitation is that we are continuing the same error that Victor Hugo made, believing that the primary purpose of architecture is to be didactic, to communicate to us so that we may be enlightened by significant ideas and ideals that history wishes to hand to us. Hugo feared that the loss of a didactic role to printing has led to the death of architecture, but the assignment of a primarily didactic role to architecture is a larger error. The problem in this error is two-fold. Firstly, the inhabitant of architecture has his/her autonomy and agency de-recognised and is rendered passive: a mere recipient of ideals concretised by somebody else in the edifice’s physical form, with an arrogant expectation that the inhabitant seeks nothing more than gratitude and fulfillment in the receipt of this 'gift'. And secondly, even if we accept that architecture is a form of language that communicates something valuable to us, how does this value survive the repetitive daily routine that characterises the inhabitation of most architecture? If someone were to repeat the same phrase to us every day, we would stop listening to them; and similarly, any didactic value offered by the symbolism of architecture will dissolve over time into the anesthesia of habit. The power of communicated value depends on the freshness of the image, which can survive in architecture only within tourism or the ersatz world of media. Neither of these is fundamental to the inhabitation of architecture, yet a persistent belief in the primacy of didacticism grants to both an influence that is far beyond their importance.

Clearly something else is at stake in the purpose of architecture, and a direction is suggested by Juhani Pallasmaa in his classic book The Eyes of the Skin, where he says, “In the experience of art, a peculiar exchange takes place; I lend my emotions and associations to the space and the space lends me its aura, which entices and emancipates my perceptions and thoughts. An architectural work is not experienced as a series of isolated retinal pictures, but in its fully integrated material, embodied and spiritual essence. It offers pleasurable shapes and surfaces moulded for the touch of the eye and the other senses, but it also incorporates and integrates physical and mental structures, giving our existential experience a strengthened coherence and significance.”   

Interiors of the Notre-Dame Cathedral | France | Paris | STIR
Interiors of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Image Credit: Creative Commons

In the schema that Pallasmaa identifies, the inhabitant is far from passive, and actively participates in a dialogue with the aura of architecture that strengthens his/her sense of existential coherence and significance. It is significant to note that the architect is not a participant in this dialogue. The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘aura’ as, 'The distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place'.

The aura of the architect and the aura of architecture are two distinct things, and when the construction of a building is completed and handed over for inhabitation, the architect’s aura departs from the scene, and all that is left to speak is the aura of the building. This is a moment from which the architect, as a person, is forever silent, and there are very few architects who have come to terms with the implications of this enforced silence.

The key to the architect’s success is the mastery with which he/she releases the kind of aura in architecture that offers an emancipatory experience to the inhabitant. When that happens, the strength of the dialogue between inhabitant and aura increases over time. Firstly, each encounter produces memories that feed into subsequent encounters, thereby enhancing them. And secondly, once the aura offers emancipatory experience, repetition of that experience serves to augment the existential and spiritual development of the inhabitant.

The work gradually absorbs meaning through experiences and memories of inhabitation. This aesthetic, that evolves over time, is an aesthetic of absorption: a far cry from the aesthetic of expression that Hugo speaks of, which forms an axiomatic foundation of much of contemporary architectural education and practice. I would not argue that we should completely eliminate an aesthetic of expression from architecture, for to do so would be to deny an inherent and significant aspect of the architect’s creativity. I only suggest that the aesthetic of expression should be freely allowed, but on the condition that it humbly serves the aesthetic of absorption, offering itself to a sacred purpose of life that is greater than any one person, even the creator of architecture. This humble yet sacred purpose is what the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris embodies in its aura, so let us explore how the aura of Gothic cathedrals came to be.

Continued in The Death of Architecture? (2/2)

(This article has been extracted from Prem Chandavarkar’s blog Musings in Architecture and Urbanism)

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