Why we don’t love modern public spaces as much as Notre-Dame – Laura Waddell

Notre-Dame is clearly a much-loved building but some modern architecture – with spikes to stop homeless people sleeping and other forms of hostile infrastructure – may struggle to attract similar feelings among the public, writes Laura Waddell.

Crowds of clearly moved people took to the streets as Notre-Dames roof was engulfed by fire (Picture: Kamil Zihnioglu)

For many people, Notre-Dame will figure in their first trip to mainland Europe. Paris, easily reachable from the UK, has become all the more so in the last several decades with the arrival of budget flights, whether landing amid Charles de Gaulle’s 70s glamour or at the poky Beauvais, which feels that at any moment it might take off itself like a tent in a field, decanting passengers somewhere to the outer periphery of their target.

On most days, boats filled with tourists craning sun-reddened necks to one side cruise down the Seine, gliding the length of the cathedral’s gothic brickwork, flowers picturesquely spilling over the embankment. Or they jostle for a space out in front of the two towers, among those who have paid vendors for seed bags to coax pigeons onto outstretched arms, like beads on a string, for a photograph with fluttering wings.

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It’s the second destination, after the Eiffel Tower of course, that many visitors associate with the city. Despite the occasional complaint of over-crowding, common to all popular tourist attractions, TripAdvisor users list it as second in satisfaction too (after the Musee D’Orsay), and it looms in the backdrop when visitors exit the bookshop Shakespeare & Co, the charmingly ramshackle Parisian gateway to worlds of words, and arrive back in the hustle and bustle of the city. Distances to Paris are marked officially from the site of Notre-Dame at its heart.

Like other places of worship, the iconography of Notre-Dame was conceived as a “poor people’s book”, a rather blunt description for a beautiful thing. Scenes from the Bible throng its walls, inside and out, so those unable to read or without access to books (a great many Parisians at time of construction) might understand its stories. Detailed frescos within the building which look at this stage to be mainly preserved from fire damage were grandly designed, and some literally gilded too.

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Despite this, Notre-Dame has not had a straightforwardly idyllic history. Revolutionaries objecting to the church’s power made the building a focus of occupation, leaving statues decapitated. There have been spats over how faithful the restoration should be to the original gothic vision, and who should pay for it. Very quickly after the fire of Monday evening, the building had been seized upon as a symbol to bait nationalist and Islamophobic conspiracies. Although not everyone has found welcome in Christianity, the purpose of any church is to entice new followers and serve the existing, and so there is reason for the building’s popular appeal and accessibility. But any architectural design with the masses in mind deserves appreciation. While tourists are awed by its majesty, Notre-Dame has meant many things to Parisians over the centuries, not least pride. This sense of common ownership over the landmark is, perhaps, a bigger driver to restoration than beauty itself.

Many modern scenes in architecture do not encourage the public to feel possessive but rather pushed away or hurried through. Public spaces being cordoned off by private interests, such as festival fences blocking views of Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh last summer, seem to be increasing. Spikes to stop homeless people sleeping are no longer a new sight. We have become accustomed to this miserly, unpleasant spirit in our surroundings and everyday journeys, seen in benches at odd angles forcing subway passengers to lean instead of sit, lest anyone undesirable consider resting for too long.

Hostile infrastructure is not limited to repelling the human species. Although we have made natural land inhospitable in many ways, recent images of netting preventing sandmartins from nesting on cliff faces in North Norfolk’s Bacton have prompted consternation, and they are not the first of their kind.

Buildings, like any public spaces, don’t become symbolic of a city unless citizens feel warmly enough to envelop them within their personal ideas about the place, and as touchstones for journeys through the streets.

Firefighters saved Notre Dame from total collapse and signs point to the grand cathedral being rebuilt.

Stone and sculpture aside, it’s worth considering as we look around our own cities whether we are doing enough to encourage that spirit, making public spaces beloved of the people who live around them.