make your fridays matter with a well-read weekend


The Death of Architecture? (2/2)

Notre-Dame Cathedral: the sanctity of heritage
Prem Chandavarkar writes about the existential aspects of how architecture can serve humankind’s sense of purpose as in the case of the Notre-Dame Cathedral post fire.

by Prem ChandavarkarPublished on : Aug 13, 2019

Continued from The Death of Architecture? (1/2)

In a brilliant analysis in his book Meaning in Western Architecture, Christian Norberg-Schulz traces the development of the architectural form of the church in Europe. Christianity had been an underground religion for the first three centuries of its existence; the central message of those early times could not offer salvation on earth, resting on a promise of salvation in heaven after one has lived life on earth. When it became a recognised religion with the freedom to build its own edifices, this message was embodied in the first churches it built, which turned their back to the surrounding town focusing inwards on a dark linear plan, with an entrance at one end and the altar at the other, symbolising the path to salvation. As the church became more established in Europe during the Romanesque era, this interiorised other worldliness that symbolised the passage to heaven began to adjust to worldly contexts. The plaza in front of the church became a site of sanctuary, bell-towers rose in height, making the church more visible from a distance, and articulation of the façade along with larger windows began to construct a relationship between the church and its context. The large separation between heaven and earth that characterised the early Christian church began to reduce, and heaven and earth began to form a continuum. As a result, the distance of the altar from the entrance could be reduced; the altar moved away from the furthest end, and the church form acquired another layer of symbolism by developing a cruciform plan. 

By the time of the Gothic era, developments in building techniques allowed the evolution of church form to reach new levels.  The development of rib vaulting and flying buttresses not only permitted an increase in building height, but also allowed a greater transparency of the façade. Increased skill of craftsmanship in stained glass lent both narrative and mysticism to this transparency. If earlier churches could only offer hope that an earthly life could reach heaven at its end, the soaring height and mystical light of the Gothic church concretised heaven right here on earth. Norberg-Schulz concludes his chapter on Gothic architecture, saying, “Because of its visual logic the cathedral was an image of the cosmic order……. From the cathedral the existential meanings of Christianity were transmitted to the human environment as a whole, and the town became the place where the medieval cosmos was presented as a living reality.” The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, and other Gothic cathedrals, did far more than communicate the ideals of the time: they offered an experience that evoked heaven and the presence of God on earth, an aura that transcended worldly concerns.  

This ability to craft buildings that balanced heaven and earth reached its apogee in Western civilisation during the Gothic era. Since then, while the pendulum has swung back and forth at times, as a whole, the trajectory has moved in a different direction, favouring the worldly over the sacred.

The political power of the church increased even further after the Gothic era, and this was reflected in changes in its architectural form. The expression of linearity as the path to salvation became overshadowed by circular plans with large domes, serving to emphasise the church as a place on earth. Moreover, the church began to misuse the political power it had acquired, provoking rebellion in the form of the Protestant Reformation. Competing factions of churches led to an emphasis of the didactic function of architecture in the Baroque and Rococo periods, using exaggerations of perspective and dramatic and flowery form for rhetorical impact: impressing people on earth began to compete with worshipping God. Scepticism of traditional institutional authority became ingrained after the Reformation, and this (along with other factors) created an increasing awareness of inequality and the lack of freedom that affected large sections of the population. We have eventually come to our modern era of democracy, where one of the fall-outs of scepticism of religious authority ingrained by the Reformation has led to the adoption of secularism as an axiomatic principle: a separation of church and state, believing that the sacred belongs only to the private realm, and must be confined within it.

Façade of the Cathedral of Amiens, France | France | Paris | STIR
Façade of the Cathedral of Amiens, France Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This must be read alongside another significant characteristic of the Gothic era: it is the last era in Western civilisation where architectural creativity flourished in a tradition of anonymity. We do not know who designed Notre-Dame, we do not even know who its master-builder was (and given it was built over centuries, there must have been more than one generation of master-builders). The printed book came into being toward the latter part of the Gothic era, and it had a decisive impact that was quite different from the one that Victor Hugo perceived: it created a tradition of personal authorship that displaced an earlier era of anonymous collaboration. The Renaissance, as the period immediately following the Gothic, was when the profession of architecture, as a specialised discipline segregated from the craft of building, was born. From Renaissance onwards, for the first time in history one always spoke of architecture in the light of individualised creators such as Brunelleschi, Alberti, da Sangallo, Bramante, Michelangelo, and others. This personality-centric orientation has dominated architecture ever since.

This has created an existential angst over how architecture can serve humankind’s sense of purpose. Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor from World War II, observes that in response to the horrific circumstances faced in the camps, some people just buckled under and succumbed rapidly, whereas others could summon the grit to resist and some of them were able to survive till the camps were liberated. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, observing that on the surface these two groups come from very similar backgrounds, he sets out to uncover the underlying cause that explains the difference between them. He finds that those who survive are anchored in a horizon of purpose and meaning that is larger than themselves as individuals. It may be religious faith, an intellectual idea, a social goal, or an art practice; a resonance between inner aspiration and wider reality empowers people with the fortitude to survive great misfortune.

Modernity has enhanced our capability as individuals to find this larger purpose but has reduced our ability to collectively do so as a society. Our governance focuses on the profane, and architectural practice (and society at large) thrives on a cult of individualism. We do not know how to physically articulate a social sense of greater purpose and meaning in our cities, and the public realm has been reduced to the comparatively mundane functions of movement, leisure, entertainment and consumption. We still find examples of transcendent architecture, but when we do so we can only ascribe its origins to the creativity of individuals, producing a superficial culture of heroes and imitators rather than one founded on widespread existential anchors. Our political economy claims validity only through a statistical aggregation of atomised individuals, and when communities seek shared meaning, they tend to do so through the tribal factionalism that characterises the politics of today.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris represents the crest of a period in Western civilisation that sought to balance the profane and the sacred within an anonymous tradition. After that we have consistently moved toward an ethos where we privilege individuals and prioritise the profane in our public life. The anonymity that created Notre-Dame reveals a humble dedication to a transcendent cause that is recognised as so great that individuals are immaterial before it. We feel helpless for we yearn for this as a public existential anchor, but precedents like Notre-Dame are too far removed from us in time to be easily applicable. The fire that burnt the cathedral deepens this angst, sharpens the pain we feel, and is a factor in the outpouring of emotion over its occurrence.

West front of the Church of Notre Dame, drawn by A. Pugin | France | Paris | STIR
West front of the Church of Notre Dame, drawn by A. Pugin Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There is a widespread and spontaneous agreement that we must rebuild the cathedral, in the hope that if we do so the pain we currently feel can be lessened. Healing of this pain will not come from restoring lost monuments, established precedent, or inherited tradition. 

We head in the wrong direction if we depend on external symbols or formulae: we need a process that transcends this, where we each reach within, connect with the sacred wonder that we inherently are, and humbly offer that wonder to our fellow beings and to the universe we inhabit, so that the wonder within us resonates with the wonder of the universe.

We need to acquire what the philosopher Morris Berman calls a ‘participating consciousness’, as opposed to the self-absorbed ego-based consciousness we pursue today. The Cathedral of Notre-Dame represents such a participating consciousness: an anonymous collective recognition of the sacred realm, not as an abstract or heavenly ideal but a reality right here on earth, recognising it to a degree that it can be concretised in architecture. The politics of that time fall far short of the ethical standards we demand today, and our challenge today is to merge this participating consciousness with democratic ideals.

Public support for rebuilding has come from all quarters, from billionaires to ordinary individuals. But there are differing opinions on how to go about it. Some say we must faithfully restore it as it was. Some say that a faithful restoration is impossible and we should keep its memory as a ruin, citing the ancient metaphysical dilemma of the Ship of Theseus, where Theseus had a ship that in the course of its maintenance had parts replaced, and if over time all the parts are replaced, the question arises on whether it is still the Ship of Theseus. And some say that we should not attempt a blindly faithful restoration and should add value from our time to leave a mark of our care for the cathedral. All these proposals make the same error, assuming that every era has its own authentic spirit that characterises it.  

History contains a heterogeneous multiplicity of events that can never be reduced to a single perception of authenticity. Our heritage does not come from the authenticity of the past: it lies in a contemporary moment characterised by the care we take in choosing what is worth remembering from the past. 

We must not see Notre-Dame merely as a physical form (however beautiful it may be) or a moment in history (however significant it may be). We must go beyond its surface form, recognise the sacred quest that it stands for, and recover that quest within us.

That is the prerequisite for the empathetic care that is needed to rebuild the cathedral, only that care can impart sanctity to the rebuilding, and it is the recovery and preservation of that sanctity that is the issue, not the precise form of the rebuilding. We can effectively rebuild the cathedral only if we simultaneously work very hard at rebuilding our collective soul.

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

What do you think?

About Author


see more articles

make your fridays matter

This site uses cookies to offer you an improved and personalised experience. If you continue to browse, we will assume your consent for the same.