Coffman: Notre-Dame's rebuilding offers key lessons for Ottawa

Spire burning at Notre-Dame de Paris, April 15, 2019 at 19h17. Photo: Wandrille de Préville, Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 29, 2019


The following article by Heritage Ottawa Board Member Peter Coffman also appears in today's Ottawa Citizen.

The world watched transfixed as Notre-Dame Cathedral burned in Paris recently. As the French government launches a design competition to replace the lost spire, Ottawans should keep their gaze fixed there, because the debate the French are about to have is as relevant to us as it is to them.

Already, philosophical positions are being staked out. There are those who insist that the new spire must be “of our time,” which is usually code for “it must be uncompromisingly modern in style.” The assumption is that architecture can only reflect the circumstances and values of our time if it is emphatically and aggressively modern.

But anyone who was not in a coma for the whole of the last few weeks will have noticed the worldwide outpouring of reverence and love for this most iconic of Gothic cathedrals. Evidently, near universal admiration for the pointed arches and pinnacles of Gothic is one of the values of our time. So how could it be a betrayal to incorporate Gothic forms into the new spire?

In the opposite corner, there are those who maintain that the re-built spire should be a precise imitation of the one we just lost. To them, “change” automatically means loss, a decline in the beauty of the building. They see the cathedral as a complete and unified work of art, and consider it hubris for us to try to make our mark on it.

But Notre-Dame is not a single, unified artistic product of one time or vision. The current building was begun in the 1160s, significantly altered in the later Middle Ages, altered again during the Renaissance, and again in the 19th century. The same is true of most iconic Gothic buildings. London’s Westminster Abbey is largely a product of the 13th century, but a glorious chapel – the Chapel of Henry VII – was added in the early 16th, in what was then the contemporary style. I’ve never met anyone who wished it hadn’t been added, or that it had copied the style of more than two centuries earlier.

Of course there are plenty of shades of grey between extremes of imitation and violation. And within that grey area lie some pretty exciting possibilities; opportunities to create a spire that would be of its time, but also of its place. Exploring those possibilities will take time, creativity and a meeting of genuinely open minds. The upcoming competition, and the vigorous public debate that will certainly accompany it, ensure that France is about to dive headfirst into that vast, exciting, uncertain and vibrant grey area.

To Ottawans, these issues might sound grimly familiar. For well over two years, controversy has raged over the proposed addition to the Château Laurier. The architect and developer have insisted that the addition must be “of its time,” which apparently means it must be either a box or a group of boxes. Ottawans have recoiled in horror at every version of the design.

But there has been no competition, no genuine range of solutions proposed, and no public consultation that could have a meaningful impact on the result. Private property rights have comprehensively trumped the public good. If Ottawa gets an addition to the Château Laurier that turns an icon into an eyesore, it will be in large part because we were saddled with a process that excluded all but a few stakeholders, and shut out an extremely engaged public. The debate that is beginning in Paris is the one that we needed in Ottawa, but never got to have.

At Notre-Dame, hopefully a wide variety of solutions will be explored in a process that is open, inclusive and vigorously debated. This just might result in a masterpiece that will make generations of Parisians proud. And they might even get what we are likely not going to get at the Château Laurier: an “addition” that adds to the city, rather than subtracts from it.


Peter Coffman is the supervisor of Carleton University’s History and Theory of Architecture Program, and Past President of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada. He can be contacted at