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A design proposal for Notre-Dame reveals the changing function of churches

Anne Quito
Pavillon Notre‑Dame

There’s a solemn air around Notre-Dame these days. Gone are the gaggles of tourists and selfie-stick-wielding masses. A labyrinth of scaffolding, tents, and fences now surround its perimeter, after a dramatic April 15 fire ravaged the 850-year old gothic cathedral in Paris’s Fourth Arrondissement.

The scene at Notre-Dame.

The scene at Notre-Dame.

French president Emmanuel Macron has a five-year plan to restore the landmark, but heritage experts say it could take up to 20 years before the beloved Catholic cathedral can safely reopen its doors to the public again. In the meantime, bishop Patrick Chauvet, Notre-Dame’s rector, expressed a wish to erect a temporary structure for parishioners and to welcome the 13 million visitors who trek to see the historic medieval structure each year.

Moved by Chauvet’s appeal, staff members of Gensler, the world’s largest architecture firm, dreamt up a temporary “pavilion” for the large public square in front of Notre-Dame, releasing the design this week. Gensler is donating its design services, not the actual cost of construction.

“This is a gift from Gensler, if you like. [It represents] what we can do as a design community,” explains Duncan Swinhoe, managing principal for the firm’s European practice. He estimates that the Pavillon Notre-Dame would take about six months to erect, with the cost depending on the contractors that the church’s administrators select.

Taking design cues from the bishop’s address, Gensler’s concept features a modern light-box structure teeming with religious references, among them translucent, light-filtering panels to symbolize the church as a beacon of hope and a frame made of fire-resistant charred timber to evoke rebirth and transformation.

Beyond the symbolic flourishes, Gensler’s proposal also reflects the changing function of grand places of worship today. For instance, the space designed for 800 mass-goers is a rather optimistic scenario, given the steady decline in church attendance in the West. A 2017 survey suggests that only 5% of Catholics attend regular service in France, though more than half the population consider themselves Catholic.

Pavillon Notre‑Dame

Symbolic light.

Once holy spaces devoted exclusively for religious ceremonies, many churches today double as venues for secular activities.

Notre-Dame has been a venue for classical music concerts. New York’s Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is available for rent to theater productions, private receptions, and parties. Evangelical Protestant churches in Germany offer free wi-fi (or “Godspots”) to anyone, including the country’s large population of atheists and agnostics.

Pavillon Notre‑Dame

Co-working space?

Pavillon Notre‑Dame

A gallery, too.

“What we wanted to do is to create a place of worship, but to also enable it to be adaptable [for other functions],” explains Swinhoe, noting the movable walls that allow the space to quickly transform into a gallery, a cafe, and, necessarily, a gazing platform for tourists, with Notre-Dame’s famous façade dramatically framed behind the cross.

Pavillon Notre‑Dame

Praise be the selfie.

Churches remain vital to the fabric of cities, argues Swinhoe. “They provide a refuge, both in terms of the noise and bustle, and function as a space to reflect as an individual in a large city,” he says. “Having a space where you can step out of that is actually very, very valuable.”


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