“Can’t things just go back to the way they were?”
We’ve all asked some version of that question. The pandemic understandably inspired a lot of it — we want to go back to the way our lives, companies, industries, or whatever once were.
But here’s a follow-up question we should always ask ourselves: Was it actually better back then… or was it just what we were familiar with?
Because sometimes, the thing we’re longing for might not have been so great.
As evidence, I give you Notre Dame.
About two years ago, as you might remember, Notre Dame went up in flames. Parisians watched in horror at the burning symbol of their country. Now they’re fighting over what a restored Notre Dame should look like.
Some want it to go back just as it was. But when you look closer, you’ll see how crazy that idea actually is.
A quick refresher on the news: Notre Dame is a medieval Catholic cathedral that was completed in the year 1345, and has since become the most visited monument in Paris. During a renovation in 2019, its roof caught fire and burned for about 15 hours. The damage was severe but not beyond repair. So the city set about restoring the church.
What’s new? It’s all in the visitor experience. There will be “different visitor circulation patterns, lighting and seating improvements and the addition of new artworks,” reports Bloomberg. There will also be “new light and sound installations” and some other stuff.
But here’s what interests me: These critics want the church to be restored the way it was before the fire — but the pre-fire church is not the original church either! Notre Dame was seriously transformed in the 1800s during a renovation by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a forward-thinking architect who was into the (hot at that time) Victorian style. In keeping with the trends of the day, he decorated and elongated the church’s spire and rotated a rose window slightly, and added 100 new statues to the building.
That surely upset people back then. So in 1849, the British art critic John Ruskin summarized restoration this way:
In other words: What’s gone is gone. The only way forward is forward.
Notre Dame has been here before. And the repeated moments of cultural alarm underscore a tricky truth: People who fight for a “return to how things were” don't necessarily want to preserve the original of something. They just want to preserve whatever THEY are most familiar with.
That’s selfish — because catering to old comfort prevents everyone from moving forward. In fact, it can even be dangerous.
Know what led to the Notre Dame fire? Preservationists have worked to keep a lot of the original elements, many of which are of course made of wood (flammable!). To keep the space visually open, there’s limited access to places like the spire and the roof. Even the fire warning system was built so delicately around the building’s medieval intricacies that a French fire expert New York Times, “The only thing that surprised me is that this disaster didn’t happen sooner.”
As I read about this, I’m reminded of the housing battles I once covered as a local newspaper reporter. A developer would want to build something new in town, and a group of “concerned citizens” — also known as NIMBYs, for Not In My Back Yard — would come out to oppose it.
The NIMBYs always had the same complaints: The new development would lead to too much traffic, overcrowded schools, and overtaxed local services. They’d often throw something fun into the mix, like a sudden concern that the proposed development is on a Native American burial ground.
After watching many of these, I grew skeptical. What I saw were people opposing a change in their community, not because they want to protect the original vision of the community, but because they believe that the community should hit pause THE SECOND THAT THEY ARRIVE. Like, a new housing development is fine so long as it’s the development they moved into. But once they’ve moved in, nobody else should get a new housing development.
A developer once told me that if a city isn’t growing, it’s dying. I’ve come to agree with that. The drive to preserve whatever we’re most familiar with, or most attached to, drives us to illogical solutions. Paris, for example, has a rule against buildings over six stories in many areas, which has contributed to a severe housing shortage.
The way I see it, this is a lesson about so much more than architecture. It’s about life in general. You cannot stay the same and also accommodate the needs of tomorrow. I'm not saying to throw out everything old; there is beauty and greatness worth preserving. But something must give.
Sometimes a change makes things less comfortable for you while fueling the common good. If Notre Dame kept being a stuffy old cathedral, maybe young people — and, heaven forbid, tourists — would eventually lose interest. Then it would stop being such an important global monument. Is that the future we want for one of the world’s most iconic landmarks? I’ll bet not.
Resistance to change is a barrier to progress. As the experts say, if Notre Dame had been in any worse condition, it would have burned to the ground.