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Conservation n’est pas préservation

The UK press is waiting with baited breath for publication of migration statistics at 09.30 today. Each outlet will then pick over the statistics and find a of presenting them which reinforces their pre-existing view of the world.

So, allow me to write preemptively about something completely different that’s due to be unveiled today, in a way which entirely reinforces my views.

Today, a major part of the work going into the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris is being unveiled, as the triangular structures that make up the framework of the choir and apse begin to be unveiled. These have been made using techniques dating back to the 1200s.

We’re supposed to be awed by this, but I can’t help but feel a little depressed. In the great tradition of cathedrals, Notre-Dame included, the French could have chosen to blend spectacular history with spectacular modernism, to have explored and redefined the meaning of the cathedral for the modern age. This could have become a beacon, something to rival La Sagrada Família for demonstrating how ancient traditions apply to the twenty-first century.

Instead, the response was “put it back as it was,” using centuries-old techniques to reconstruct a centuries-old building, neither truly preserving anything (it’s newly built) nor connecting it to the modern world (it was designed to work in the 13th century). Through striving to avoid controversy, the project also avoids relevance.

Pretending things are preserved in aspic is very rarely the best way to conserve them.

This song, which is somehow more than two decades old, has been in my head while I’ve been writing this. It has northing to do with either of today’s revelations, and yet somehow feels like it connects the two:

The image at the top is by Ranopamas on Flickr, used under this licence.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

I’ve been reading ‘Heaven on Earth’ by Emma J Wells

Published in 2022, this is a brief history of sixteen cathedrals. I decided to read it after seeing a review in The Spectator. As I’ve previously reflected, one of the major things the book made me consider was that—at least traditionally—cathedrals have had functions which span way beyond the sacred. As Wells puts it,

Between them, the cathedrals featured tell a narrative faith, intellectual culture, art, politics and economy.

In her introduction, Wells drew a comparison between buildings and books:

We can argue, quite plausibly, then, that buildings are books without words—and through their stones the dead may speak.

What I failed to realise before embarking on this tome is that while buildings may be books without words, I’m not necessarily all that interested in what they have to say. Most of this book was detailed histories of buildings with which I have no particular relationship. Therefore, while I’m sure these histories represent years of detailed research, if I’m honest, I found it all a bit dull. However, it did still give me some tangetial food for thought. This was, in part, because this isn’t normally the sort of thing I read.

Wells has a short section about the devastating fire at Norte-Dame de Paris in 2019. In the context of the histories of these 16 cathedrals, a devastating fire does not stand out at all: nearly all of them have suffered over the years. However, the response to the fire—to replicate and rebuild as closely as possible to what went before—is truly exceptional. In the history of these grand historic buildings, fires have generally been followed by modifications befitting the social and architectural mores of the time. This trend is also true of the York Minster fire of 1984, also briefly covered in the Wells’s book.

I remember feeling a tinge of disappointment when President Macron announced the plan to rebuild exactly what was destroyed. The announcement came after fevered speculation about possible new additions, and it felt a little dull. It wasn’t until I read this book that I also reflected on how historically anomalous it was.

I was reading earlier this year about an inspired campaign to introduce a new Grade III listing for buildings on ecological grounds: “The status would apply automatically to every building and it would come with just one rule: the property may only be demolished if it is structurally unsafe, or is given special dispensation by the local planning authority.”

It strikes me that preserving old building often means modernising them, not dunking them in aspic. And I think that’s what Wells made me reflect on most. Cathedrals were once ever-changing hubs of both religious and secular activity, adapting to serve society as the world changed. These days, they typically feel frozen in time, suspended in antiquity, serving more as curiosities than as community hubs.

Given the opportunity to redefine one of the world’s greatest Cathedrals for the 21st century, with a dash of modern relevant architectural flair, society shrugged its shoulders and said, “put it back like it was before.”

And maybe that means Cathedrals are over.

Thank you to the London Library for letting me borrow this book.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, What I've Been Reading, , .

I haven’t visited Newcastle Cathedral

Further to previous on cathedrals, my brother was agog to learn that, despite living in Newcastle for 15 years, Wendy and I have entered none of its three cathedrals.

I set out to resolve this by visiting the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, which seems to have rather cheekily rebranded itself as Newcastle Cathedral. I wonder how the other two feel about that.

Regrettably, despite attending at a time when both the website and the sign on the door declared the building to be open to visitors, the door was firmly closed. So I still haven’t been in any of the three Cathedrals.

I have, however, followed what is possibly the world’s shortest ‘heritage trail’ outside the building, which took all of 45 seconds, and gazed upon Newcastle’s celebrated vampire rabbit, pictured above.

Better luck next time, I suppose.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

Cathedrals as secular spaces

I’m currently reading Heaven on Earth, a book about cathedrals by Emma J Wells. In it, she frequently makes the point that cathedrals have historical importance in secular as well as religious terms. A moment’s thought makes this obvious, most of all in this coronation year, but it’s something that’s never previously given me pause for thought.

It should have done. I feel a degree of personal connection to Durham Cathedral not because of any religious connection, but because it was where I matriculated.

It leads me to wonder: do we have enough secular oversight of these ‘religious’ buildings? Is there a clear separation of, well, ‘church’ and ‘state’ in terms of finances? Are we celebrating their secular functions sufficiently?

As religion continues its inexorable decline, I suppose these questions will steadily grow in importance if we are to protect key historical sites.

This post was filed under: Post-a-day 2023, , .

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