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The Many Lives of Notre-Dame

Far from being a single author’s definitive text, the beloved cathedral’s history is a palimpsest.
There have been at least five sacred buildings on the site where Notre-Dame stands today. The cathedral has had numerous alterations and incarnations, reflecting a turbulent history of its own and has been a symbol of continuity and radical disruption.
There have been at least five sacred buildings on the site where Notre-Dame stands today. The cathedral has had numerous alterations and incarnations, reflecting a turbulent history of its own and has been a symbol of continuity and radical disruption.Wikimedia Commons

As television crews captured the fiery pillar of smoke billowing from the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral, the collective feeling seemed to be curiously personal. Reaching beyond religious and national boundaries, so many people spoke of an overwhelming sense of grief. President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “I am sad to be watching this part of us burn tonight.” The “us” felt not just French or Catholic but universal and intimate. The story of Notre-Dame, of how it has changed and survived for centuries, reveals why we care about the survival of buildings and why even that may not be enough.

Cities are temporal as well as spatial, and iconic architecture can be seen as a form of time travel. The oldest buildings accumulate memories and meanings that are crucial to collective identities and in connecting us to long-vanished generations and eras. So much of who we are is tied to storytelling and as Victor Hugo, the literary protector of Notre-Dame, claimed, “Architecture is the great book of humanity.” Speaking at a televised conference as the cathedral burned, Macron agreed, “Notre-Dame is our history, it's our literature, it's our imagery. It's the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations.”