16 Apr 2019

Notre Dame: on buildings, brands and power

As the world mourns the damage wrought to Notre Dame, Paul Cardwell reflects in Creative Review on brands trying to help in its restoration, and questions whether it should even be rebuilt at all.

   Photo credit: Creative Review

As the smoke clears over the Ile St Louis the only sound that can be heard is French billionaires vying to stump up the biggest bid for the rebuilding of Notre Dame. As the world reacted to the disaster, the first bids came in. Well if you’ve amassed your Euros in ‘luxury’ brands then I guess conspicuous philanthropy is a logical step. Discreetly branded, of course.

But here’s a heretical (and for once I use this expression literally) thought: is it worth it? Is it even possible? Can we actually rebuild Notre Dame? Should we even try?

If religion is your thing, then the answer is clearly ‘Non’. The Provost of Paris had a great quote last night: “This building was built on conviction. Today we have only opinions. Opinions cannot build gothic cathedrals.”

To get the full effect you have to read that aloud. From a pulpit.

The old boy is a famously controversial figure, but he has a point.

He also, like any good Man of the Cloth, knows how to ignore the inconvenient bits of history. The great cathedrals were never really intended to honour God, that was a smokescreen. They were erected to make the men who built them immortal. (I don’t mean the actual builders, we don’t know who they were. I mean the guys who put the money up. We do know who they were. They made sure of that.)

That magnificent old building lay drenched in its own grim history, stained black by incense, candles and blood. I shuddered to step inside, it always felt cold. That wasn’t the temperature. The sins of the centuries hung silent in the still air.

It’s arrogance to think that we can replace that. What with? 3D printing? That’s a modern miracle, isn’t it?

But what we see across the Channel this morning is exactly what we would have seen nine centuries ago. The Great And The Good scrabbling to put their names on a billboard that is designed to last forever. An immortal media opportunity. Plus ça change.

So what will the new Disney Dame look like? The Louis Vuitton Nave? The Chanel Tower? The Lagerfeld Alter?

You must admit, that last one has ring to it…

First published in Creative Review.