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Bringing Notre-Dame and Other Buildings Back to Life, UCLA Professor Reconstructs the Lost Monuments of Medieval Paris

A photo of Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame (Photo Credit: Cassie Gallegos / Unsplash)

When Notre-Dame burned last April, people all over the world – Catholics and atheists, French people and Australians – felt it like a body blow. One of them was Meredith Cohen, associate professor of art history at UCLA. “I didn’t believe it was happening,” she says. “It was terrifying.”

Buildings, as Californians know all too well, burn all the time. But Notre-Dame has a special place in cultural history. Constructed primarily from the 11th to 13th centuries, Notre Dame’s early years coexisted, Cohen says, with the consolidation of Paris as “a center of wealth and cultural power.” Its religious weight – the cathedral is consecrated to the Virgin Mary and houses the Biblical crown of thorns – is just as substantial.

Now, centuries later, the question of how to restore the cathedral after the fire, which destroyed a 300-foot spire and badly damaged its wooden roof, is generating strong opinions. Journalists are seeking Cohen’s point of view; she’s also a member of the Scientifiques de Notre-Dame association, a scholarly group that advocates for a responsible restoration to the French government.

Cohen, grew up on L.A.’s Westside and was pleasantly surprised – after a decade in New York and Europe – to find herself returning to California in 2011 to take a post at UCLA. Besides teaching, research and her public role in the restoration, she is the Principal Investigator of a project called Paris, Past & Present, a site that allows her, with help from students, to virtually reconstruct the city’s medieval monuments.

“The majority of these buildings are lost,” she says. “Many were destroyed in the French Revolution. But we have a lot of information on them – fragments of drawings and engravings. I piece them together like puzzles in a 3-D environment.”

As for Notre-Dame, there is no consensus on the route forward. Because some of its iconic status arrived thanks to Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which rescued the Gothic style from disfavor, some want to return the cathedral to its brooding 19thcentury grandeur. Others want to leave it as is, damage included. “There are different schools of thought,” Cohen says. Her view is nuanced, and tries to honor both past and present without faking anything: In short, don’t pretend it’s 1860. “Rebuild it in a way that’s of our time,” she says, “but still respect the building’s proportions.”

Meredith Cohen

Professor Meredith Cohen Discusses Rebuilding and Restoring Notre Dame Cathedral

Meredith Cohen

Meredith Cohen

Feelings of grief and despair were felt across the globe on Monday, April 17, 2019, when a devastating fire erupted at Notre Dame Cathedral. Individuals around the world collectively mourned the state of the 850-year-old Paris landmark, posting photos and exchanging memories of the cathedral.

After officials began to assess the damage, it became clear that it will take multiple experts to develop a plan to restore and rebuild the structure, including conservators, engineers, and art historians.

Meredith Cohen, associate professor of medieval art and architecture in the UCLA Art History Department, is a specialist in Gothic architecture of Paris and high medieval Europe (c. 1000 – c. 1450). Below are some statements that she gave to various media publications regarding the Gothic building’s significance and the complicated question of how to rebuild and restore Notre Dame.

Cohen explained to Slate that the building is “the origin of our concept of Paris as a center of art and culture.” It was constructed over the course of three centuries, beginning in 1160, and “symbolically transformed the city into the center of European culture during the medieval period through its display of the new and innovative Gothic architecture and its singular architectural and artistic ambition.”

Not only did Notre Dame symbolically and culturally transform the city, but it also represents “an extraordinary feat of mankind” because it was built by hand during a time without heavy machinery. Cohen also notes that the building was “a kind of utopian vision for people in the Middle Ages, and they really wanted it to last forever.”

With most of the building’s structure still intact, Cohen told Slate that the cathedral itself is “the artwork” and that “all the other works of art attached to church are different details of it.” She expressed concern over the loss of the “Forest,” the cathedral attic’s wooden frame with beams that were each made from an individual tree.

Speaking to National Geographic about the wooden structure, dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries, Cohen added that it was a “rare example of medieval engineering.” She also stated that the cathedral’s choir might be missing some key features, including some sculptures and graffiti that medieval worshippers etched into the choir stalls.

In her LA Times response to the current debate on how to rebuild and restore the iconic cathedral, Cohen puts forth another question to consider: “Should you fake history or create something of our time?” She suggests a design that acknowledges the building’s status and relevance in the 21st century, which could mean replacing the 19th century spire with something different instead of replicating it. As a more modern addition to the cathedral, Cohen reminds the public that this spire is a piece of the cathedral’s layered history. “A carbon copy is a false history because you can’t re-create the past. It would still have a completion date of 2019.”

The question of how to rebuild and restore the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral will not be answered overnight. As a symbol of Paris’ history, this process will require a collaborative effort between various experts and stakeholders looking to preserve the history and cultural significance of this beloved architectural structure.

The Humanities Division would like to thank Professor Cohen for sharing her insight with the public in the aftermath of this destruction.

Three UCLA professors named 2016 Guggenheim Fellows

A trio of UCLA faculty members are among a distinguished group of 178 of scholars, artists and scientists from the U.S. and Canada to receive 2016 Guggenheim Fellowships.

Art historian takes reins of African Studies Center at UCLA

Steven Nelson recently joined a long line of respected Africanists who have led the African Studies Center at the UCLA International Institute. And as its new director, he is working to cultivate a sense of community among faculty and students on campus with an interest in Africa.

Measuring the sound of angels singing

UCLA professor Sharon Gerstel studies how Byzantine-era churches enhanced the performance of liturgical chants.

Pilot program to strengthen art history department’s presence in South America

A gift from the Chile-based Fundación AMA will bolster the UCLA Department of Art History’s work in Latin American art and provide students and scholars direct access to the rich culture of the Chilean region.

The $35,000 gift will establish a pilot program that will fund a graduate student research fellowship, establish an international scholar exchange and provide funding for a travel award for undergraduate or graduate students.

“This important gift will allow us to address the department’s most urgent priorities: increasing support for graduate and undergraduate students and providing faculty with the opportunity to share their research with the international community,” said Miwon Kwon, chair of the Department of Art History in the UCLA College. “I am thrilled to partner with Fundación AMA to help highlight the influence and importance of Chilean art.”

The graduate student fellowship will allow an Art History student to travel to Chile to conduct research and interact firsthand with the region’s art and its experts. Similarly, the international scholar exchange will provide travel funding for a UCLA faculty member to participate in lectures, symposia, and conferences to discuss the works owned by Fundación AMA and share the latest research topics concerning the region. The student travel award will allow one undergraduate or graduate student to travel to Chile for one to two months to study and gain internship experience.

“What interests us about this exchange is the opportunity get the point of view of academic and foreign students and how they view the current panorama of Chilean and Latin American art,” said Juan Yarur, co-founder of Fundación AMA. “This way, they may transmit their acquired perspective of the Chilean art scene when they return to the United States.”

Added Bernadita Mandiola, the foundation’s executive director, “FAMA will be a connecting bridge so that professors and academics from UCLA can study the regional arts scene.”

An important aspect of Kwon’s vision is to help students gain real-world experience and provide them with career opportunities post-graduation. This gift is an important step in fulfilling that mission, Kwon said, as it will provide students access to some of the regions most prized art and respected experts.