Re-membering Notre Dame

Project

“Time is the architect, the nation is the builder”

Victor Hugo

The ongoing construction of Notre Dame has been the embodiment of more than 850 years of the city’s existence, a chronicle of its temperament, the wars and peace, captivity and liberation, struggles, progress, legends, its gods and demons, revolutions, its literature, reforms, strikes. It has been tarnished, bearing the stresses that come with age, struck by disasters, violated and restored, each time through a sense of solidarity that comes at times of deeply shared feeling.

The recent fire, another incident in its long years has once again inspired such a moment of collective will, as natural as tending to a somatic malady as it were. Our project will stage Notre Dame and Paris as a corpus of interdependent parts through the restoration process. Seen as such we would do no better than to substitute a prosthetic for a treatable limb by opting for glass, or carbon fiber and such under bombastic platitudes of ‘bigger and better’. The roof and the spire will be built as they were, as they should. The devised methods will be modern and the use of newest technology for their restoration is imperative, patently a matter of crucial necessity. However what warrants their existence, and by that we mean essence, is neither sustained by the display of novelties, nor spurs of emotion calling for the quickest remedy, but the procedure of desire that will continue in its course for as long as it takes.

Shrouded in layers of diaphanous membranes hung on an all enclosing scaffold, the visitors can experience an immersive one to one encounter with the building details, and the reconstruction of roof and spire through a series of dedicated paths accessed by lifts.

Facing Paris the scaffold built to the height of the spire can be used for curatorial display of relics or projections on special occasions. A voided cruciform sliver marks and commemorates the loss of the roof and the spire over the transepts. Notre Dame will faintly be visible as though in the transitional stage of a butterfly in chrysalis. Its presence is rather felt, throughout in an act of collective re-membering.

Interview

What defined your interest in Notre Dame?

The short answer would be the emotional reaction to a massive destructive force devouring a world heritage in real time, an overwhelming sense of reluctant admission in sight of a fatality that feels like an intimate or somatic loss, while at the same time feeling empowered by a rush of adrenaline in wanting to recover the loss by a greater creative force. The rational side in assessing the extent of damage and the determination of the restoration process and what it entails, obviously comes afterwards when the calamity is contained. So it’s a combination of, on the one hand the temperamental dimension, the visceral strands that ties us to the thing in question, the stuff of feeling and passion, and on the other, the reflective dimensions of measuring and reasoning. Then there is the existential aspect of something that vaults over 850 years, and when something has existed for that long, it isn’t just mnemonic, a relic of the past, but a very active part of what has shaped our identity to this day, on a personal level and by extension sociocultural level, that is by the various ways we have come to know it through architecture, faith, and mass media such as literature and cinema; in sum it is the very embodiment of our world vis-à-vis Paris.

What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

Cities are conscious beings with an anatomy and a network of pipelines that radiate out like the nervous system. They are personalities with a much larger memory bank than ours because they have been around longer than us, as such they are supra-historical because their life span is a continuum that amongst other systems, links the present and the past along the trajectory of its existence which is contemporaneous. It seems like an oxymoron to call ourselves modern without the ability to navigate in time when it is instantaneously present; it matters little that we are temporal, what is decisive is to be conscious, that is to connect to the sensory grid of this large organism we are living in. The restoration of Notre Dame is the case in point, what we have hoped to address is the inherent potential of a restoration act in reinvigorating the relationship we can have with the cities we live in. Concurrently we may ask what characterizes the current perception of cities and their landmark, how do we inhabit them, how does/should the restoration of a monument differ from any other restoration, what is the scope and duration of such an undertaking, how should the process be formalized, and how does it/should it expose and challenge aesthetic experience as defined by the prevalent culture industry.

What informed your approach to this enquiry as one which should be embedded and thrive of collective memory?

Seeing the cloud of smoke shrouding the cathedral became a fixed image, a cocoon of sorts through which the process of construction would take shape. The translation of this idea into built form would take the added connotation of Notre Dame layered by the ephemeral veil of a historical process that has formed and transformed it during more than 850 years of its existence, a chronicle of massive undertakings, modifications, defacements, vandalisms, restorations, of Paris, that time and again has buttressed its survival. So it could be argued that Notre Dame has been/is a perpetual scaffold of multivalent constructions albeit an invisible one, a procedure of desire. This is what our project attempts to trace, a scaffold of epic scale layered in a diaphanous membrane to frame its restoration, thus its history. It is in every sense a contemporary act, a modern act that does not negate history but motivates it without resorting to fetishistic strategies.

The project is reminiscent of works of Jeanne- Claude and Christo, are these important references within your line of enquiry? What key references did you look to?

The comparison to Jeanne-Claude and Christo is a fair one, after all their 1985 wrapping of Pont Neuf on the Western tip of Île de la Cité, the island where the Notre dame is situated is a short distance and still a fresh memory. More pointedly the similarities to their wrapping of honorific structures such as Reichstag in Berlin have to do with how by concealing a semiotically charged object, the focus is shifted from an image to content, and the added thematics of temporality, impermanence, etc. In that regard, we should note the inferred reference to Kaaba, a cubic shrine covered in black cloth housing a meteorite, and the focal point of haj and Umrah pilgrimages. ‘Crowd Looking at a Tied Up Object’, the work of the British artist, Henry Moore is another example. However there are appreciable differences that separates this project from those references, notably the tectonics of a framed structure loaded with a program brings it perhaps closer to minimalists such as Fred Sandback or Robert Irwin amongst others in whose work the hierarchical relationship between the viewer and the object is blurred as the work becomes more spacious and phenomenological notions of threshold and boundary demarcate a presencing circumscribed in experience. To cite an excerpt from Martin Heidegger’s seminal essay, ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’: “A boundary is not that at which something stops, but as the Greeks recognized it, the boundary is that at which something begins its presencing”. In the end, what if anything, is the role of architecture in all of this? A utilitarian discourse which because of its programmatic scope is not easily distilled into art unless it is freed from those aspects as in a ruin, or a hermetic monument à la Loos, here, however momentarily, as a restoration in progress, a cathedral in hiatus contained within a tentative scaffolding envelope. A question can then be raised as to the nature of the proposition as art, architecture, or their intersection vis-à-vis the expressivity of the architectural skin corresponding to what it holds within, in this case through the use of a translucent membrane engendered as a light sensitive medium that registers the trace of Notre Dame as though in the transitional phase of a butterfly in Chrysalis as well as the activities within. Moreover the site of our intervention, Paris is no stranger to the transient quality of tessellated structures and in many respects defined by it. A city of overarching influence that has historically been at the forefront of barefaced construction imbued with a myriad of examples that we have drawn from on its own grounds or elsewhere as in Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty in New York carried on the elegant latticework designed by Gustave Eiffel which can be seen as an inverted diagram of our scheme, the uncompromising bare structure of the Eiffel Tower itself, the ethereal ironwork of Gare Montparnasse, and Centre Pompidou by Lord Rogers and Renzo Piano, which in many respects because of its tentative appearance (and program) is a scaffolding, are amongst many references that we continue to draw from.

How and to what extent do your differing backgrounds (art and architecture) influence and affect the way you approach your projects?

The paradigms by which we define these respective discourses are constantly changing often interchangeable however less so in architecture because as mentioned above, architecture is still a utilitarian discipline, as a result the capacity to critic a given problem is much more limited than it would be in art which is relatively less conjunctive and is thus afforded a greater plasticity in challenging the premise on various levels: ontological, epistemological, institutional/political, etc. You could argue that neither architecture nor art are autonomous, even with a medium like painting which its parameters are much more exclusive, our ways of perceiving things are changing, or, hanging a painting or showing anything in a hermetically sealed white cube does not have the same significance as before, because the legitimacy of designated institutions as art spaces is continuously challenged.
In architecture because of its commitment to a program and client and things like codes, we are naturally not given as much latitude; the most creative phase in terms of challenging the parameters is at the beginning when we discuss things and argue a lot amongst ourselves and the clients in the interest of grounding things in a critical practice, in art, but there comes a moment when we all have to throw the towels in and get on with it.

What defined the specific drawings through which you articulate and reveal the project?

It was mostly the images that was coming through the internet, and the back and forth emails with our friends in Paris that witnessed the fire, the overwhelming sense of disbelief and resignation in their voice: “Notre Dame is gone,.. I am going to bed”. Then came the doodling on paper and the idea that disasters have always been the cradle of hope. The cloud of smoke had turned to a mental image, and that turned to the metaphor of the cocoon through which everything would be transformed.

If you could isolate one key image, what would this be? Why?

The image of all those people on stairs and ramps witnessing Notre Dame on fire, hence the idea that they should witness its restoration.

What is your take on the relationship between architecture and its image?

We could demonstrate by drawing a parallel to any linguistic system where a word is given a referent, an image that gains its meaning through syntax. On its own, the image is a thing. It is neither good or bad, hers or his; it is not significant until it is inserted into a comparative system of language. If we substitute the word ‘architecture’ for this language, the relation would be the same. This image that may be the image of a building, that may be neutral or attractive, our judgement of it will be made on subjective grounds or at best based on bland aesthetic conventions of beauty. But it will not have a value until it is set up within the contrasting taxonomy of architectural vocabulary. It is not significant. That said an image in facilitating an oscillation between a proposition and its situational prospects, the grafting of extraneous material into a given ground, by definition a collage, a construct, is a powerful device in gauging the project, fundamentally the same as the insertion of a body into the systems present in a context.

What is the power of the architectural drawing/image?

Insofar as drawings are in and of themselves constructions- it matters little if that is paper or earth- they embody an idea, a vision. Something is deposited on a ground, a stain, graphite, a trace like a tractor wheel- an index is produced, it becomes a thing of memory. Let’s remember that buildings (without confusing the term with architecture) are made in the likeness of our drawings and not the other way around, so their power resides in the way something as immaterial as thought takes shape, like a fragment of writing, a string of letters that when placed in such and such a way can produce a distinct sound, it may be harsh, abrupt, or transient, evocative of something else. But also drawing and its consequent image belong to a phase of the architectural process that you could still call essential because it is a more a less solitary act before turning into documents and sent out, at which point it enters the structure of production and continuously revised.
The problem begins when an image, too quickly substitutes a drawing, like a slogan, the irritating stuff of texture mapping and such which is far from thinking, given to algorithm, that’s when we begin to forget, and we have to watch out for that.

What is for you the architects most important tool?

Desire

About

Soltani+LeClercq was founded in 1992 in New York City and combines the work of Ali Soltani, an architect, and the artist Francine LeClercq. Alongside his practice, Ali Soltani has taught at various schools of architecture including Parsons School of Design, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. (RPI). Francine LeClercq completed her education in interior architecture and fine arts at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg/ France. The duo met at Gaetano Pesce’s atelier in New York. Their collaboration draws from a range of media with projects varying in scale, type and context. Their diversified portfolio includes projects in architecture, design, painting, installations and writings. Individual and collaborative works have been exhibited in galleries, museums and other notable institutions in United States, Europe and Asia.

www.soltani-leclercq.com

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