Henry Samuel and Tim Stanley, The Telegraph, November 26, 2021
Paris’ fire-ravaged Notre-Dame cathedral risks resembling a “politically correct Disneyland” under controversial plans for its renovation seen by the Daily Telegraph.
Critics have warned that the world-famous cathedral will be turned into an “experimental showroom” under plans to dramatically change the inside of the medieval building.
Under the proposed changes, confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures will be replaced with modern art murals, and new sound and light effects to create “emotional spaces”.
There will be themed chapels on a “discovery trail”, with an emphasis on Africa and Asia, while quotes from the Bible will be projected onto chapel walls in various languages, including Mandarin.
The final chapel on the trail will have a strong environmental emphasis.
“It’s as if Disney were entering Notre-Dame,” said Maurice Culot, a prize-winning Paris-based architect, urbanist, theorist and critic who has seen the plans.
“What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter’s in Rome. It’s a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place,” he told the Daily Telegraph.
A senior source close to the renovation said the plans risked turning the global beacon of Christianity into an “experimental showroom” that would “mutilate” the work of Viollet-le-Duc, the celebrated architect who restored the cathedral following the ravishes of the French Revolution in an effort to recapture the spirit of Medieval Christianity.
“Can you imagine the administration of the Holy See allowing something like this in the Sistine Chapel?,” said the senior source with access to the latest plans. “It would be unimaginable. We are not in an empty space here.”
“This is political correctness gone mad,” said the senior source. “They want to turn Notre-Dame into an experimental liturgical showroom that exists nowhere else whereas it should be a landmark where the slightest change must be handled with great care.”
The famed Gothic cathedral was severely damaged in the April 16, 2019 blaze, when images of flames engulfing the roof and toppling its 19th century spire shocked the world.
Those parts of the building that were damaged by fire will be painstakingly restored to their former condition, but under the new plans some areas that were relatively less affected by the disaster will be dramatically changed.
A global wave of emotion saw 340,000 donors contribute €833 million to restoring the iconic edifice. Some €165m had already been spent by September on securing the cathedral, which was structurally damaged during the fire. A second chunk of €262,6 in donations will go towards phase one of restoration work.
Jean-Louis Georgelin, the general who President Emmanuel Macron tasked with rebuilding Notre-Dame, has pledged it will be sufficiently restored to stage a Te Deum on April 16, 2024 – in time for the Olympic Games in Paris.
Initially Mr Macron’s then prime minister Edouard Philippe said he would launch an international competition to rebuild the destroyed roof and spire, potentially with a modern design “that bears the mark of our time”.
After widespread uproar over architectural flights of fancy, one which even included a swimming pool, the contest was scrapped and the spire, roof and medieval wooden beams are all to be rebuilt as faithfully as possible to the original designs.
However, the same cannot be said for the interior given current plans, seen by the Telegraph and two European media.
In June, Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit said these would “bring the cathedral into the 21st century while preserving its own identity in the spirit of the Christian tradition”.
However, the plans presented by Father Gilles Drouin, the interior will look to the future, not the past.
Under the proposals, visitors will pass through the main entrance and be shepherded towards 14 themed chapels depicting Genesis, Abraham, Exodus and the Prophets but also the five continents. While Africa and Asia will have pride of place, Europe, the Americas and Oceania will either be less evident behind the apse or totally absent. The tour ends at a chapel dedicated to “reconciled creation”, namely environmentalism as set out in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ encyclical.
The idea, said Mr Drouin, was to teach a captive audience of 12 million visitors with “multiple motivations” and very little Catholic culture the basics of Christianity and the history of salvation without turning it into “catechism in the heavy sense of the word”.
On Wednesday, he confirmed that the plans were “more than ever on the table”.
Christian Rousselot, director general of the Notre-Dame Foundation, in charge of handling the lion’s share of donations, also confirmed proposals for a “visitors’ discovery trail” to “provide the keys to half the planet that doesn’t know what a cathedral is”.
“This trail going from North to South from the shadow to the light will depict the major moments of the Bible to explain in the most intelligible to common mortals, whether Chinese or Swedish, what it all means.”
He also confirmed the proposal to project foreign phrases on the walls.
“Foreign visitors see signs and magnificent paintings but don’t understand a thing. Images and sculptures and paintings count but so do words. So there are plans to project on certain words and expressions in Mandarin, French or Spanish and English.”
A call for €6 million in donations above and beyond those collected so far was launched in June for the internal restoration, he said.
Italian expert Prof Maria Luisa Ceccarelli Lemut of Pisa University said: “One should simply conduct restoration and not choose solutions that could alter the architectural layout or arbitrarily ‘modernise’ the edifice.”
The senior source said spending money to modify those parts of the interior risks eating into those used to restore Notre-Dame’s flying buttresses and sacristy, in dire need of repair even before the fire.
“When you see the seriousness with which the cathedral is being restored using top craftsmen and first-rate materials, this seems totally inappropriate,” said Mr Culot.
“Viollet-le-Duc had well understood one could add notes that didn’t exist but on condition to do it in the spirit of the original and not in a sort of ridiculous rupture that will go out of fashion in three years. ”
The plans also include the possibility of storing benches underground thanks to a “goods elevator”, which would require knocking a hole in the 18th century crypt designed by Jacques-Germain Soufflot, who built Paris’ Pantheon, “an aberration”.
An even more controversial proposal to remove the stained glass windows designed by Viollet-le-Duc from the chapels and replace them with modern ones has been ruled out, he confirmed.
In his presentation, Mr Drouin also mentioned lighting and sound effects that will take visitors “from the darkness to the light”.
According to the senior source, the majority of members of the scientific committee overlooking the restoration are sceptical of the plans but Gen Georgelin and the Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit are keen to press ahead at a crucial meeting of France’s national heritage commission on December 9.