Unveiling new plans to breathe new life into the iconic north London landmark, cathedral bosses confess they must be silent during the radical refurbishment because they are meant to reflect how everyone wants to feel at Notre Dame today – something the current renderings do not suggest
Universities have an unfortunate reputation for being all about conferring degrees, with students tendering out assignments, signing up for football matches, involving themselves in social projects and visiting the world.
When it comes to cathedral sites the city’s artistic heritage is often neglected, leading to the occasional grumble that while Notre Dame Cathedral looks great, it actually doesn’t work.
Now architects and conservation groups have expressed concerns about plans to radically redesign the glass-fronted, Victorian landmark in Kensington, west London, and turn it into a provocative “woke church,” in the words of the Evening Standard.
Designs unveiled by Notre Dame Cathedral’s PR director, Ged Matthews, envisage a yellow-and-white painted building designed to reflect one of the more contemporary colours of the day. The glass-fronted building features radically colour-coded stained glass windows and sculptures to symbolise the various levels of thought today’s society has to consider.
Matthews, who is also the dean of Our Lady and St George’s Cathedral in Barnet, admitted that the designs may conjure up some visions of a soulless theme park full of worshippers looking for an easy life; while the cathedral isn’t meant to reflect the religious atmosphere of its predecessors.
“The intention is a new art form that speaks to all the important subjects that face us today, whatever your own position is,” he told the Evening Standard.
“The architecture has to be like you feel when you walk into a church and everything feels right,” he added.
However those who want to see the original cathedral restored are slamming the new designs, highlighting that the cathedral is meant to feel like a cathedral to start with and that suggestions for a reimagined art form and what it means to be a cathedral don’t suit the site.
For Jane Bowles, an architecture blogger, this is all part of a misguided, modernising mindset which is at odds with the cathedral’s historic origins. She said:
I wasn’t surprised at the huge variety of reactions to the illustrations. A couple of my colleagues – both actually Anglican of both old and new – gave me very strong negative reactions, some shaking their heads, mainly with incredulity at the strong colours of the stained glass. But there was a mixed response from the other side of the fence too. There were quite a few architectural blogs, and architectural magazines, with negative reactions about the idea of taking the Victorian style and attempting it in a 21st century ‘woke’ manner, even though this really isn’t anything new. I suspect that at least as many people were intrigued to see what the cathedral might look like in such an ostensibly contemporary way. I think it’s very telling that we really don’t even know how the idea came about in the first place, or who wanted it and who did approve.
Bowles, a member of the Notre Dame board, pointed out that it was due to chapel vandalism in 1924 that the vicar’s reign became so challenged. The subsequent restoration led to a new style of church which became the “iconic association of the early 20th century.” That is not the cathedral we should be looking to as a model for modernity, she said, because it didn’t reflect the wider society it was placed in. The liturgy, the architecture, the role of women, all things that were part of the landmark and had to be upheld for the purposes of building a cathedral, were to be compromised in the scheme.
Ciaran Townend, the director of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Church Design Matters, said that the ideas were an “emerging irony of 21st century society: theology, episcopate, forms, imagery, style, all of which should be protecting and preserving the unique character of a building rather than seeking to obscure it in an attempt to appeal to a modern culture. This is a lamentable failure of contemporary design thinking.”
On the Evening Standard’s blog architecture critic Joy Reddemann said:
I’m sorry to see the wavy beauty of what is now beautiful, even a slightly spooky, 19th century cathedral being reconsidered in the 21st century.
Matthews did not respond to a request for comment.