13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

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Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
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The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
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At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
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Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

7 Innovative Architectural Ideas With World-Changing Potential

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iStock.com/traumschoen

Our ancient relatives, Homo heidelbergensis, were constructing shelters at least 400,000 years ago, and architectural innovation has been a defining feature of societies since then, changing to suit the needs and desires of the builders and occupants as they evolved. From energy-efficient designs to community-based spaces, these seven designs could help shape the future.

1. Silver Architecture

Senior man smiling and speaking with caregiver
iStock.com/Dean Mitchell

As the population ages, society is faced with a challenge: How to help people who require special care. The current way that many buildings are designed—and even the way hospitals are set up—makes it difficult for older people to get around and be independent. This is a big problem, because older people are a huge part of the population. As of 2015, there were nearly 50 million people in the United States over the age of 65. By 2030, the Census projects that 20 percent of Americans will be older than 65. “By 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older compared to 76.7 million ... under the age of 18," Jonathan Vespa, a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, stated in a 2018 press release.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a quarter of people aged 65 or older fall every year. In fact, falling is the leading cause of injuries classified as critical or fatal, which is one of the reasons people who would otherwise live independently are forced into care-based facilities.

Silver architecture aims to change this with building designs that are sustainable, modern, and most importantly—accommodating. Specialized design keeps age-related impairments from becoming debilitating disabilities. The best silver architecture integrates space planning, clear directional layouts, stress-reducing lighting, acoustical innovations to reduce ambient noise, comfortable and accessible furniture, safe flooring, colors that aid psychological well-being, and interactive, health focused interior design (such as plants and artwork) that stimulate and engage residents.

In a 2014 opinion piece for The New York Times, geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson wrote that "These and other strategies are already in use in many long-term care facilities and in specialized areas of hospitals, such as geriatric emergency departments or acute care of the elderly units. But they aren’t nearly as prevalent as they should be." She proposed "prizes for excellence in silver design, just as there are awards for green buildings," adding, "silver architecture and design aren’t about indulging a special interest group. They’re about maximizing quality of life and independence for a life stage most of us will reach. Green architecture is good for the environment; silver architecture is good for humans. The best new buildings will be both."

2. Wounded Warrior Homes

According to the United States Army, 92 percent of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive, compared to a rate of 75 percent in Vietnam.

Navigating even a typical accessible home can be a challenge for soldiers who return from war zones after suffering debilitating injuries. The architects behind The Wounded Warrior Home Project took on some of those challenges in two homes built at Virginia's Fort Belvoir, and unveiled in 2011. The residences, designed by and with input from veterans (as well as their loved ones), have a universal focus on accommodation to cater to the diverse needs of injured soldiers. Wide doors and adjustable stovetops are just some of the ways the homes are adapted for physical disabilities. To help with trauma recovery, the houses are designed with large windows and dedicated therapy rooms to help alleviate symptoms.

The homes are geared toward helping soldiers return to duty. "The thing I see now, as I talk to the wounded warriors on this project, they want to know, 'When can I get back to my unit?'" David Haygood, a Vietnam War vet and a partner in one of the design firms behind the homes, told NPR in 2012. Fort Belvoir's then-battalion operations officer, Major John Votovich, told NPR, "We have more of a wounded population today that probably wouldn't have survived in earlier generations. They're still productive members of the military. And they will continue to be so."

3. Dementia Village

According to the World Health Organization, around 50 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, and that number is projected to increase: WHO projects that by 2030, 82 million people will have dementia (and 152 million by 2050). There are 10 million new cases each year, making it "one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people worldwide." But dementia doesn't just affect the people who suffer from it; as WHO notes, it's also overwhelming for the families and loved ones of people with dementia: "There is often a lack of awareness and understanding of dementia, resulting in stigmatization and barriers to diagnosis and care. The impact of dementia on careers, family, and societies can be physical, psychological, social, and economic."

The small community of Hogewey, 10 miles outside of Amsterdam, aims to raise the quality of life for those suffering from dementia and ease the burden for their families. All the residents at Hogeway—also known as Dementia Village—have severe dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and they go about their lives within the confines of this thoughtfully designed town. Nurses and other caretakers act as fellow townsfolk, there to keep the patients healthy and safe. As of 2014, monthly rent was never more than $3600 and often lower because of its sliding scale.

Traditional clinical settings foster isolation and reinforce medicalization of these memory-related illnesses. Hogewey’s approach to dementia de-stigmatizes the condition and creates an environment that people can live in where they require less medication and less medical intervention. According to Yvonne van Amerongen—who had the idea for Hogewey after her father suddenly passed away—"We have Dutch design, Dutch cultures, Dutch lifestyles, but the concept is to value the person, the individual ... to support them to live their life as usual, and you can do that anywhere."

4. Zootopia

Zoos serve important research and conservation purposes, but unfortunately, sometimes their design leaves a lot to be desired: The cages and concrete enclosures don't even come close to mimicking the resident animals' natural habitats, which raises several ethical concerns.

Enter Zootopia. (It's not just a Disney film; the name was first trademarked by Denmark's Givskud Zoo in 2010.) Slated to open in 2020, this zoo’s design is a reimagining of the caged zoo and a departure from safari parks. Instead of caging in the animals, it's the visitors who will be in enclosed areas. These viewing locations will be disguised to minimize human interaction with the animals. Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the architectural firm behind the plans, says one of their main goals is to hide humans from the animals to provide as natural of an environment as possible for the zoo’s residents. For the animals, everything from their feeding stations to their shelters have been designed to look and feel as natural as possible.

"It is our dream—with Givskud—to create the best possible and freest possible environment for the animals’ lives and relationships with each other and visitors," BIG said in a press release. "We are pleased to embark on an exciting journey of discovery with the Givskud staff and population of animals—and hope that we could both enhance the quality of life for the animals as well as the keepers and guests."

5. Eco-Friendly Concrete

Worker levels a floor cement mortar
iStock.com/Anatoliy Sizov

Concrete is the most common material used by humankind, and from 1992 to 2012, the demand for cement (the key ingredient in concrete) more than tripled worldwide. As the demand and use of concrete rises, so does its environmental impact: In 2018, the International Energy Agency said that "The cement sector is the third-largest industrial energy consumer in the world, responsible for 7 percent of industrial energy use, and the second industrial emitter of carbon dioxide, with about 7 percent of global emissions."

Which is perhaps why many are turning their attention to developing better concrete. Rutgers University materials science and engineering professor Richard E. Riman developed a technology to make concrete that stores CO2. Riman then founded Solidia Technologies Inc. in 2008; according to Phys.org, "Solidia Concrete products ... combined with Solidia Cement, can reduce the carbon footprint of cement and concrete by up to 70 percent and can save as much as 528.3 billion gallons a year."

In 2014, Peter Trimble, then a student at the University of Edinburgh, developed what he calls "biostone," which combines sand, bacteria, and urine; he built a machine to create a seat with the material. In 2013, the Structural Technology Group of Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya – BarcelonaTech developed "biological concrete" that grows vertical gardens. According to ArchDaily, "The system’s advantages are numerous. The plants capture CO2 from the air and release oxygen. The layer also acts as insulation as a thermal mass. It helps regulate temperatures within the building by absorbing heat and preventing it from entering the building in hot weather or escaping the building in cold weather."

6. Reclaiming Vacant Lots for Gardens

By 2050, two-thirds of the world's population is expected to live in urban areas. Urbanization has its positives—according to National Geographic, people are concentrated in a small space in cities, which makes schools and stores more easily accessed than in rural areas, and also "allows the government and others to provide services such as water, electricity, and transportation to a larger number of people." But it also has its negatives, including crime and pollution, and some studies have indicated that living in a city can affect a person's mental health.

Turning vacant lots into gardens in urban areas brings much needed greenery to cities. Studies have shown that greenery is good for cardiovascular health, boosting concentration, and lower stress levels. A 2018 study found that the greening of vacant land significantly decreased self-reported feelings of depression. Urban gardens can also be a source of locally-sourced, fresh foods.

To see the potential of the urban garden, look no further than Cuba. When Havana's residents found themselves isolated and facing food scarcity following the collapse of the Soviet Union and embargoes against them, they began growing gardens of all sizes on balconies, in windowsills, and on roofs. To assist, the government launched new agriculture initiatives that included organic farming and urban gardening development. Instead of vacant lots going to waste, they became the sites of community agriculture.

7. Turning Shipping Containers Into Urban Farms

Blue shipping container
iStock.com/Jorn-Pilon-Photography

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, as much as "70 percent of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses." Critics say many irrigation techniques are incredibly wasteful. But there might be a way to farm that uses much less water: Creating gardens in shipping containers.

Founded in 2013, Local Roots Farms creates what it calls "the world’s most productive indoor modular farming solutions," and their model has been hailed as "the farm of the future." Co-founder Daniel Kuenzi told Smithsonian in 2014 that each farm is capable of growing "the equivalent yield of five acres of conventional outdoor farming each year." Each uses hydroponics to cut water use by 80 percent or more, and the controlled environment also means the vegetables produced are pest- and pesticide-free. In addition, because the farms are inside, weather and climate aren't an issue; food can be grown year-round. "Whether it’s snowing, raining or 100 degrees outside, the 'weather' inside is just right for growing healthy plants," Kuenzi said. The contained farms can bring fresh, local food to "urban food deserts."

In addition, the farms are built in readily-available shipping containers (there are 700,000 unused containers languishing in the United States at any given time). "Shipping containers are durable, easy to modify, stackable and can be shipped anywhere," Kuenzi told Smithsonian. "Additionally, there is an abundant surplus of unused shipping containers in the United States that can be recycled and refurbished at low cost. This allows us the flexibility to have a farm on the ground and growing for our customers within weeks, rather than the months or even years required for traditional greenhouse construction."

Shanghai Is Now Home to the World’s Longest 3D-Printed Bridge

World's largest 3D-printed bridge in Shanghai, China.
World's largest 3D-printed bridge in Shanghai, China.
Tsinghua University

Small items like toys and shoes aren't the only things 3D printers can make. As a team of architects from China's Tsinghua University School of Architecture recently demonstrated, the machines can be used to print sturdy bridges large enough to span waterways.

As dezeen reports, at 86 feet in length, the new pedestrian bridge on a canal in Shanghai's Baoshan District is the longest 3D-printed bridge on Earth. Designed by the university's Zoina Land Joint Research Center for Digital Architecture (JCDA) and constructed by Shanghai Wisdom Bay Investment Management Company, it consists of 176 concrete units. The parts were printed from two robotic-arm 3D-printing systems over 19 days.

The 3D-printing technology cut down on costs as well as construction time. According to Tsinghua University, the project cost just two-thirds of what it would have using conventional materials and engineering methods.

Even though their approach was futuristic, the architecture team paid homage to a much older bridge in a different part of the country. The new bridge's arched structure is inspired by that of the 1400-year-old Anji Bridge in Zhaoxian, the oldest standing bridge in China (and the world's oldest open-spandrel arch bridge).

The bridge in Shanghai may be the longest 3D-printed bridge in the world, but it isn't the first. Last year, a 3D-printed steel bridge was unveiled in Amsterdam.

[h/t dezeen]

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