October 28, 2021 - 4:00pm

On the 15 April 2019, Notre-Dame de Paris was devastated by fire. The near loss of the medieval masterpiece shocked the world. And yet there were those who spotted an opportunity. Why not rebuild the destroyed parts of the cathedral in a modern style? How about a glass-and-steel spire? Or what if we turn the roof into a swimming pool? 

Fortunately, the modernist interlopers were seen off. The cathedral is in the process of being restored as it was before the fire. However, Angers Cathedral in western France may not be not so lucky. Accord to Dezeen, plans have been drawn up for a contemporary extension — specifically an entrance gallery designed to protect the magnificent, but fragile, portal (i.e. the front door).  

What makes this such an interesting test case, is that the proposed extension is not a “monstrous carbuncle”. It hasn’t been designed to provide a deliberately discordant contrast to the older building — like the additions to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto or the Museum of Military History in Dresden. Rather, the cathedral extension will be built from stone and take the form of rectangular structure composed from five arches. 

The design is unmistakably modern, however the cathedral itself is already a mixture of styles. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, the lowest level is Romanesque and the upper levels Gothic. There are Renaissance additions too, including the central tower. So why shouldn’t the architecture of our own age make a contribution? After all, a cathedral should be a living institution not just a monument to the past. 

The trouble is that the modernist style — even at its best — just isn’t capable. Because of the insistence on extreme uniformity and resistance to ornament it denies itself the pattern language required to relate to earlier styles. The central tower of the Angers Cathedral is clearly of another age to the spires, but the Renaissance architecture is sufficiently rich in detail to pick up on the cues provided by the gothic architecture and answer back in a visual dialogue between the ages. 

Modernist architecture is like the monoglot tourist who thinks he can make himself understood by talking loudly — and dropping in the occasional, badly-accented fragment of local lingo. 

Like tourists everywhere, contemporary extensions to old buildings are only tolerable when they don’t get in the way. It may have become a bit of a cliché, but some sort of discrete glass pavilion is usually the least worst option.   

Still, what it does it say about a style of architecture that it’s preferably invisible?

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.