When Penn State graduate Michael Snyder heard the news that Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire in April, he was saddened by the loss of history but saw the opportunity to rebuild as a chance to tell another generation’s story.
Snyder serves as vice president and senior architect at Camp Hill-based Gannett Fleming Architects, Inc. He said it is hard to fathom the process of rebuilding a historic and significant structure like Notre Dame, but when GoArchitect’s People’s Notre Dame Design Competition was announced, Snyder knew he had to enter.
Collaborating from across the country with Penn State alumna and Harley Ellis Devereaux architect Jennifer Cole, Snyder spent over two months designing a new spire, roof, ceiling and plaza sculpture to enter in the contest.
In 1998, Cole visited Europe with a Penn State Architecture program. Having climbed the steps of Notre Dame herself, she said she was “physically ill over the feeling of devastation and loss for the world” when the fire broke out.
While her initial reaction was for a full restoration, Cole said she began thinking about how the spire was added in the 1800s. Even in historic preservation and restoration efforts, Cole said there are guidelines that recommend distinguishing new construction — “to not falsely represent the history and timeframe of construction.”
“I began wondering what a powerful solution would be in this time period, with our current materials and technology,” Cole said.
The final submission consists of a stainless steel spire that aspires “to be majestic, but humble like Christ,” reads the designer’s description. Representing God’s love and mercy, the description says the gothic arch is meant to symbolize time and is reimagined as the Holy Spirit, hovering above Notre Dame. Snyder said he and Cole wanted to incorporate religious themes into the design because of Notre Dame’s Catholic roots.
“If a new design for Notre Dame is to be undertaken, we believe it should be more than just aesthetically beautiful,” Cole said. “The design should be deeply meaningful on multiple levels.”
The design for the ceiling and roof honors the “legacy and ingenuity” of the French and the significance of Notre Dame “as a world heritage site.” The architects proposed that the roof will resemble the original; however, it would be enhanced with sustainable features like wind turbines and invisible solar cells.
Snyder and Cole included plans for a plaza sculpture to complement the spire. The nine-piece sculpture would be made of mirrored stainless steel. Every piece would be inscribed with one of the nine fruits of the spirit: self-control, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, patience, peace, joy and love. Visitors would be allowed to touch the statue and make paper rubbings to remind them of their visit. The description proposes that each sculpture has a QR code or link to nine charitable organizations from around the world — “striving to bring peace, love, service and mercy” — across the globe.
Their design is one of over 200 submitted by professionals and kids from all over the world. Individuals can vote online through July 31. The contest winners are awarded a $1,000 prize, but it’s unlikely that the winning design will become a reality. The competition, Snyder said, is an effort to convince the French government to reconsider rebuilding the roof and spire exactly as they were before the fire.
“We, in this day and age, need to build the way we are able to build and make our statement in order to understand where we are coming from,” Snyder said.
Millions of dollars have been pledged to rebuild Notre Dame, and Snyder thinks the architecture should be anything but the same.
“If something is built and in place and has historical value, then I am all for keeping it as it is and trying not to change it,” Snyder said. “If it’s completely gone, as is the spire and the roof of the church, building it exactly as it was is kind of a disservice to our culture and also to future generations because we’re not really being true to ourselves in terms of our current times.”
Historically, cultures build with what they know, Snyder said. If France rebuilds the spire and roof to look like the original, Snyder said the materials used still won’t be the same as the 18th century. Rather than “resting on the laurels of 200 years ago,” Snyder thinks the features should be built using today’s materials to create a contemporary design. By doing so, he said future generations will be able to learn about the 21st century.
“We’re not really informing future generations of who we are, and we’re not really being imaginative,” Snyder said.