Notre Dame vs. Modern Architects

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Have you ever done something that at the time seemed like a good idea but then after the fact, you realized, not so much? Once you actually follow through with the thing that was tempting you and you get the full perspective of what the effects of that decision were, wisdom and experience rush to the scene to inform you that it was, after all, a bad idea. This is how we learn from experience so that the next time a similar strand of logic proposes itself to us we can say, nah, that was a bad decision then which is why it will be a bad decision this time. So, for example, the last time you went out on a drinking bender, you woke up the next morning with an awful hangover and some embarrassing experiences and so now you’re making all kinds of resolutions never to do that again because in this moment, you are of sober mind and the wisdom of experience is reinforcing this conclusion. But, a few weeks go by, and the occasion to go and party presents itself again and there’s this little nudge saying, this time it will be different. This time it will be fun and you’ll be smarter about it, you’ll moderate yourself more. And it’s in moments like this that you can stay true to the logical conclusions you made when your emotions weren’t rising up against you tempting you to betray your own commitments or you can discard the wisdom of your past experiences and break faith with what you knew to be true. And I think there’s a similar pattern that persists in our culture as well and one of the easiest ways to see it for what it is, is by looking at fashions and trends we thought were heartbreakingly cool 15 or 20 years ago. They were new and novel and we hadn’t seen or heard anything like them before and we were mesmerized by them. But with the passage of time and experience, wisdom sets in and we’re able to look back and see how vapid and empty those things were. And this pattern has been grown in prominence over the last 100 years. That’s not to say that trends and fashions didn’t always influence our culture, but there have been places and times when they took a backseat to more objective criteria – like beauty. And so when we look back at what we were infatuated with 15 years ago, we feel a similar kind of pain of regret that we do after we’ve made a bad decision and wisdom sets in and I think it’s important to ask ourselves what that should teach us. I think it should teach us a few things. The first is that our culture’s expressions of popular art, design, and fashion are predicated on arbitrarily defined criteria. They aren’t grounded in anything objective. Their appeal relies exclusively on the fact that they are new and different – in other words – novelty. And novelty is not objective, and it isn’t good and that’s why it has no lasting quality. We take an interest in it because it’s a strange spectacle that is foreign to us and then once the novelty wears off, we lose interest. And tragically, our culture has entirely bought into this as a means to producing and selling art to us. This philosophy dominates popular music, it dominates architecture, it dominates graphic design, and it dominates fine art. And sadly, those of us who hunger for objective beauty in the world, have to remain famished because the powers that be aren’t going to give it to us. So what can we learn from this with respect to the Notre Dame fire and potential reconstruction? Notre Dame, and other buildings like it, are left over from an age that believed something fundamentally different about art and design. It believed that beauty is objective and timeless and so they sought to produce design that was commensurate with that attitude. And that’s why Notre Dame has had appeal to people of every generation and culture. It transcends fashion and trend in a way that novelty cannot. The philosophy and culture that gave us buildings like Notre Dame were able to do so because the “times” it was built in took a backseat to the pursuit of objective beauty and the results speak for themselves. People from all walks of life and from every generation have travelled from around the world to visit sites like Notre Dame. Nobody is designing buildings like that anymore. All we get are glass and steal monstrosities that pollute our field of vision and go out of style within decades at great cost to either consumers or taxpayers. And now with calls for a design competition to rebuild the spire and roof of Notre Dame, the earliest proposals are already calling for absurd modern sensibilities that will do nothing more than desecrate a once heroic manifestation of beauty. Nobody will go out of their way to visit Notre Dame if they allow this to happen except to stare dumbfounded at what happens when you let people who worship the current date simply because it is the current date come near something that is incomprehensible to them because it transcends time altogether.