Notre Dame and New Architecture

The renovation and repairs of Notre Dame have provided a new skin to the structure and a new way to look at architecture. We are in the Twenty-first century, and it is time for our architecture to grow out of Modernism into what is appropriate for this age. The way we view the world and the problems we face are very different to that and those we dealt with in the first three quarters of the Twentieth century. The population is looking for buildings that are comfortable and able to cope with great issues like the pandemic, remote working, climate change, and aging. Ironically, a great building from the past can be the inspiration for the great building of the future.

It is not the Notre Dame we usually see pictures of and remember from a decade ago; it is the Notre Dame of the early 2020s that is so inspiring for the design of the future. The scaffolding, screening, and lines that are used in the rehabilitation of the structure make it so exciting. The old structure is now protected from the elements with canvases, tarps, and screening. The stone walls, columns, and arches accept the binding cable and enwrapping screen like clothing, loosely cladding the cathedral and making the exterior facade an interior elevation. These spaces that were exterior now are inside, and the opening in the roof from the unfortunate fire makes the nave a courtyard, flipping the building. The strapping holding the materials to the structure are held fast and orthogonal, as the screening falls gracefully with catenary curves like a flowing garment. The transparency of the fabric sheathing the structure allows light and air to flow into the newly interstitial spaces of the building’s former exterior.

The flowing curves rhyme with the Gothic architecture, where elements of the famous structure are shaped to accommodate the structural requirements of the building, while the screening follows the natural drooping or declension required of tensile members by gravity. There is a truth and honesty in both, and straight lines and planes are not abhorred, but only necessary where the structure requires them. The flowing form of the fabric is both biomorphic and logical, coming from needs in the face of natural phenomena. Perhaps, a new structure can incorporate what exists at this Notre Dame under repair.

Another interesting part about the use of the screening is the structural efficiency. Although compressive members are necessary to hold up points of the tensile surface, most of the skin can hang, holding its shape from the hands of gravity. Working with members that hold their shape through stiffness and compression are overbuilt, relative to a structure working through tension. The act of pulling allows the material to go to its most minimal profile relative to the direction of the force or action. Whereas, elements in compression need to have their geometry reinforced with either depth, bracing, or duplicate members out of plane. Can a new architecture provide the necessary sheathing without as much waste through too many elements in compression?

The additional protection of the screen, allows the surface of the famous building to remain safe, while allowing layers of space in between for use and shelter. Can new structures do this? The additional valences allow different environmental conditions across the layers and protect the central spaces. Furthermore, the use of fabric-like partitions and screens allow the spaces to change and adapt to the conditions or for programmatic use. A passage can expand into a room, or a meeting hall can shrink into a study carol. Also, one space can become two or three, and a story can become two or more with folding.

The transparency of the screen allows light and the movement of air, when desired, and the multiple layers of screening creates ornament and visual interest through the moire effect. Penetration of air and light can be further enhanced by the expansion and contraction of the top and bottom edges of the screening to create apertures and oculi. Perhaps, the new architecture, or at least a new structural type, requires the use of flexible skins for these actions and conditions mentioned.

Beyond the addition of the materials for renovation, there is also the use and re-use of existing structures. Of course, Notre Dame is a historic and important building that we must keep. But, what about other structures? We have plenty of existing buildings, and we very likely don’t need to build more. Architecture can use existing structures as well as creating new structures. It is important to have an open mind and be creative with existing buildings, even the ugly ones. What can a building be? How can we make an existing structure feel new or special? As has been said, the building best for the environment is the one that already exists.

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