Notre Dame's days of old are held in the deep folds of its stonework, which was set in 1163. One look at the rich texture can transport you out of Paris, out of the century, and to legendary days when knights slew dragons. Or else you think of Quasimodo, the cathedral's bellringer in Victor Hugo's novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” Two chapters in the book are devoted entirely to the description of the structure and its fairytale air – now without a roof and signature spire from a fire this week.

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Bringing back the past

The towering spire and sections of the elaborate rib vaulting that's both girding and ornamental toppled. It felt like a rock through the heart. French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he would rebuild the structure. But how can you bring back something from the 12th century? 19th-century architecture critic John Ruskin answered the question in his 1849 book, “Lamp of Beauty.” You can't. All that you can do is produce a mock-up, not unlike the replicas of iconic buildings of different lands at Disney World's Epcot.

Notre Dame cathedral, Paris Interior nave. - [Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons]
Notre Dame cathedral, Paris Interior nave. - [Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons]

I'm thinking of the imitation St. Mark's Campanile in Epcot's Italy pavilion that rises high in the park. The bell tower in Venice was constructed in the ninth century as a watchtower. At Epcot, it watches over a theme park. So why do old buildings matter?

Architecture as entertainment, Disney-style

Then there's Independence Hall in the “American Adventure” pavilion, complete with its iconic steeple and clock tower. It is detailed down to a copy of its 110 red bricks made of Georgia red clay that Disney World aged to make the building look old.

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The replica of the Eiffel Tower in France's pavilion at Disney World also comes to mind. Smaller than Gustave Eiffel's original design at one-tenth of the Parisian tower, Disney World notes that some seven million people visit this imitation each year. As if it wasn't artificial architecture. As if it wasn't bogus.

A rebuilt Notre Dame is the stuff of theme parks

Is that what's in store for Notre Dame? Some shadow of its former self made to look unrestored?

If so, Disney World could help with that. They're good at imitating celebrated buildings. Granted, the structure has gone through many renovations, and according to a Yahoo! report on April 18, the high number of renovations are believed to have caused the fire. And the words of Hugo haunt: “It is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant, before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffering.”

Get set for more sighing and indignation.

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I'm all for repairing the damages. Just don't call it a restoration. At least not within Ruskin's earshot.

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