Adam Miller on the Tragedy at Notre Dame

In the lore of the traditional French carpenters guild, the compagnon charpentiers, Notre Dame is a sacred structure. For a timber-frame carpenter with a particular interest in historical French carpentry, this is a difficult situation. I have been deep in correspondence with my colleagues in the hours since news of the fire. Here are my initial reactions:

I am glad to have spent some time around the cathedral while visiting Paris last October at the end of a tour of French carpentry museums, and I have good reason to be hopeful about the future of this building. The fire is a catastrophe, but the skills and passion to rebuild this structure are present in the compagnon craftspeople of France like in no other western country. The traditional knowledge that originally built this monument is still alive. The Compagnons du Devoir actively transmit this knowledge to young people through intensive, long-term apprenticeships, setting a high standard against which to measure any vocational training.

There is hardly a more well-documented building anywhere in the world, and traditional craft knowledge can fill the gaps of any architectural survey.

It’s easy to lose sight of history, including architectural history, as an evolving process. While some parts of Notre Dame are over 800 years old, and built upon prior ruins, its famed spire was designed by Viollet le Duc and completed in 1859, over 30 years after Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback. At least one of the massive rose windows was replaced in the 1960’s. Maintenance is a necessary and continuous process tying the past to the present, ensuring a future for history, as the massive scaffold enveloping much of the cathedral recently attests.

Shinto shrines in Japan are entirely rebuilt on a regular schedule, the Ise Grand Shrine every twenty years, 62 times. This is a radically different approach to maintenance than we are accustomed to here in the US or Europe, its critical function to train subsequent generations of craftspeople. The longevity of these shrines rises from the spirit and continuity of their creators and supporters, not from a faith in persistent materiality alone.

A similar spirit brought members of the Timber Framers Guild together with international volunteers to create a replica of the Gwoździec synagogue in 2011. This structure now represents the lost wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

French culture, with the compagnons at the ready, is uniquely prepared to deal with the fire at Notre Dame, and to benefit from the audacity of its grand scale. Smaller reconstruction projects are always underway throughout the country, even to the extent of Guédelon, an experimental archaeology project to create a new 13th-century chateau.

One of my greatest worries at the moment is that any efforts to rebuild the lost structure might be hampered by requirements to use modern materials, in a well-meaning but mistaken attempt to improve upon the original. I don’t think the original can be improved upon, and its soul would be lost in the attempt. Additionally, no modern materials have proven as durable as the original stone, wood, and lead, each of which can be maintained and repaired indefinitely. Buildings must inspire care to long persist, something no technology can replace. Far better for any reconstruction to be carried out in the full spirit of the original work, by committed craftspeople setting their efforts in search of the ineffable.