Notre-Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris by L. Gerard
Architecture is formally defined as the art or practice of designing and constructing buildings. In my opinion, the discipline can be more intimately described as an interpretation, an image, a mode of expression, for architecture is—above all things—a reflection of the architect and the setting—both the location and the era. Oftentimes, when viewing a structure, we do not go past its aesthetics, its visual appeal, and, in doing so, we sacrifice the deeper understanding and appreciation we could obtain by choosing to delve deeper into the building’s history and value to society. Of course this does not mean that one should ignore the explicit beauty of a site; I, for one, am often guilty of basing my judgment on such qualities. However, after detecting such allure and elegance, I would like to suggest that one should take this recognition a step further by asking oneself, “why do I find this beautiful?” In studying and exploring architecture—as well as film, art, music, etc—we owe it to ourselves—as well as the architects, directors, artists, and musicians—to sincerely analyze that which entices and intrigues us with the hope of grasping a more profound understanding of our passions and their value to our lives.In the two years that I have formally studied architecture, I have soaked up what I believe to be a considerable amount of knowledge on architectural form and function. Each building and architect offers its own unique agenda, providing a distinctive design and a discrete human experience. The “human experience” is just as much what we get out of our visit to a building as the intentions of the architect through the supplied human factors of the structure. For example, one might ask, “when visiting Notre-Dame de Paris, how can one avoid the feeling of being dwarfed by the scale of the cathedral?” Being “dominated” by Notre-Dame is as important as being embraced by the cathedral. One can tell immediately by the size of the three entry portals that the space in which he or she is about to enter will be one of immense and impressive size and scale—no doubt about it. Such conclusions are confirmed after accessing the interior, where one finds himself amid sky-high vaulted ceilings, colossal chandeliers, majestic stained-glass windows, and columns of a thickness similar to that of a Redwood tree. It is true that if the exploration of this national treasure ends here, in the areas of the nave and sanctuary, one could easily assume that the cathedral’s primary goal—other than religious inspiration and international acclaim—was to diminish the value of the intimacy of the religious experience. This is, in fact, a valid thought. The religious experience Notre-Dame de Paris was aiming for was one that emphasized the unity of a congregation through devotion to G-d rather than that of a personal bond. The simplicity of the individual wooden chairs that make of the pews of the nave assert the desire for the congregants attention to be directed towards the grandeur and unrivalled splendor of the cathedral, an example of elegance and glory that could be outmatched only by the Supreme Power.
During my last trip to Paris in late July 2009, I was resolved to visit Notre-Dame de Paris, despite the tourist trap, and, furthermore, to brave the climb to the top. After entering the cathedral, my group of twenty-or-so visitors was ushered into the gift shop before the trip up. Ready for our climb, we began the trek, greeting each of the 387 steps with exaggerated breathing. While it was not a difficult climb per se, the 387 steps were arranged in a continuous, tight spiral—similar to those at the Arc de Triomphe—throwing me slightly off-balance from time to time and forcing me to take a break every now and then. This climb put new meaning in “communal experience” as I found that I was not the only one suffering from periodic dizzy spells. However, the staircase was only wide enough for one person; thus, before being used for “the Tower tour,” the climb was a chiefly individual—and seemingly never-ending—experience, almost simulating the ascension to the heavens. Upon arriving at the top, the “observation deck” and pathways between the towers further insist the experience on a personal level. Aside from the impressive size of the bells and the statues of the twelve apostles that decorate the spire, one is able to interact with the gargoyles, disturbing as they may be, and appreciate the detail of the cathedral’s construction. Yet, this sort of appreciation differs from that inspired by the cathedral’s interior, for here, atop the famous structure, one can interact with the design, feel the materials, view the ornamentation under natural light and without the grand distraction of the gorgeous stained-glass, exquisite paintings, and stunning organs. From this viewpoint—both physical and mental—the experience becomes less religious and more focused on spotlighting the home of the cathedral, Paris, providing panoramas that, in my opinion, surpass those offered by the Tour Eiffel. To some, such an outlook may, again, dwarf the viewer, forcing him or her to feel almost microscopic within the density and monumentality of Paris. However, I seized this moment; while standing atop one of the most famous and most beautiful cathedrals in the world, I saw Paris from a height where I could distinguish one area from another, pick out a bookstore I had perused while also note Sacre-Coeur, Montparnasse, and La Défense with a very slight turn of my head. Standing alone and far away from the hoards of tourists, I soaked in the intentions of the original anonymous builder, Pierre de Montreuil, and, later, Eugène Viollet-le-Duc (among others) in shaping their desired “human experience.” I felt, in my moment, a sort of confirmation of my presence in Paris; I knew exactly where I was and what, one day, I could be a part of—a city that simultaneously inspired and comforted me despite the almost 5,000-mile distance from home. While there are plenty of places one can escape to in Paris, few astound and take one aback like Notre-Dame with its periodic moments of intimacy amid such glory and resplendence. During the 384 steps back down to ground level, I sensed a gradual return to reality, a gravitational pull towards the world of which I was a part, like a unit that would re-establish the balance that had been altered during my ascension. I arrived at the bottom and, as I exited, I greeted the façade of Notre-Dame once again, confirming my achieved understanding of not only the cathedral’s inspiration to artists, writers, and architects but also, then more than ever, the power of architecture.