Notre Dame on Good Friday

When the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames this week I thought immediately of the book I’ve been reading in the evenings for the past few weeks, J.W. Mackail’s Life of William Morris. Morris was obsessed with Medieval architecture and visited Notre Dame and many other French churches on a trip in 1855. Later in his life Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (which still exists) as a response to the poorly considered renovations of Medieval buildings that grew out, ironically, of a Gothic revival movement during the Victorian era.

Morris’ believed that historical buildings should be kept in good repair and stabilized. As the University of Maryland describes his philosophy,

While the Gothic Revival drew renewed interest to the medieval aesthetic, some architects sought to restore old buildings to an ideal state by removing original detail and adding new construction- trends Ruskin and Morris both found troubling. Morris championed an alternative building preservation model based on retaining all surviving building fabric, no matter how flawed by the passage of time, while employing minimal, non-intrusive reinforcement of the existing infrastructure to prevent future damage. He coined the name, “Anti-Scrape Society” for the SPAB, a humorous shorthand that embodied his philosophy of honoring the artisans who constructed old buildings by preserving their work without alteration.

He would not have liked the 19th century spire that collapsed in the fire this week nor many of the other alterations that took place to Notre Dame in that period. I’m sure he’d also be worried about Macron and his fashion billionaire friends who have some alarming restoration notions. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. Thankfully, Morris’ forward thinking ideas have become mainstream in the restoration world.

Ship of Theseus


The tragedy of this fire is also a reminder, as Nassim Taleb pointed out, that all building restoration efforts bring up an old philosophical paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. This thought experiment asks the question “If, during a journey, I replace all the planks of a ship do I arrive at my destination on the same ship or a different ship?” Anyone who has worked on an old building faces this weird ontological conundrum all the time. And the law can make this abstract thought experiment a confusing reality. Keep one wall of a building and a municipality will deem what is in reality an entirely new house a cheaper to permit remodeling. This can get absurd as in the flipper palace under construction in my neighborhood, seen in the photo above. It would have made for a much more interesting building had they kept that old wall rather than removing it as soon as the inspectors left.

Part of Morris’ philosophy is keeping earlier modifications intact so as to show the passage of time. Paradoxically that would mean leaving the surviving 19th century modifications to Notre Dame that he, no doubt, hated. Notre Dame has been altered and wrecked so many times that Ship of Theseus questions about how to fix the current damage will provide years of difficult architectural conundrums.

Making Mistakes and an Update

A big thanks to Erik Volkman who let me know that I had accidentally re-released episode 127 of the podcast (an interview with Fr. Mark Kowalewski on apocalyptic thinking) instead of episode 128 (an interview with James Heard and Ashton Hamm of UXO Architects). I’ve fixed the problem but due to the kludgy way that podcasts propagate your podcast app may still play the audio from episode 127 instead of the interview with the architects. You can hear episode 128 on the blog here. We’re also experiencing problems with editing blog posts and posting images, a situation our web czar and book designer Roman is working on.

And an update: the Silver Lake Progressive slate that ran for the local neighborhood council won in a landslide. They now have a slim majority of the council and will have their hands full fixing the damage done by their predecessors (who are busy holding last minute meetings in order to spend the last few dimes the council has left after blowing most of their budget on a dubious study). A more important task will be to lay the groundwork for taking the city council of Los Angeles which, according to a recent study, is the second most corrupt city government behind (of course) Chicago. Shake a palm tree here and a lot of rats fall out.

128 Flipping the Future of Architecture

Image: UXO Architects

A few weeks ago I retweeted an article about a nightmarish Victorian house flip that touched off a minor architectural tweet storm. That prompted an email from James Heard and Ashton Hamm of UXO Architects who had some opinions about this flip and about architecture and city design in general. So I asked them to join us on the podcast. During the conversation Ashton and James mention:

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected] You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. Closing theme music by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

GM and the Red Cars

A brief post this morning as I’m obsessed with completing the Stickley #336 reproduction I’m working on in the garage, a project that has narrowly avoided firewood status at a few points.

My post on Lyft, prompted an email from a friend from grad school, Nic Sammond to note that I should have mentioned General Motor’s alleged destruction of the street cars in Los Angeles and other American cities in the mid 20th century. Not being a historian, I’m not going to delve into the complex story of GM’s disruption of the streetcar business. But Nic makes a good point about noting the connections between Silicon Valley’s technological forays into transportation and GM’s role in wrecking those streetcars.

It reminds me of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, a book that haunts me every day. In it Fisher describes describes how we all seem to be unable to imagine a future that’s not some dystopian, privatized nightmare of the sort imagined in the 2006 film Children of Men. When I see charts like the one above, taken from a Los Angeles Department of Transportation report, I can’t help but think of Fisher’s book and what Nic suggested, that we might be repeating the mistakes of the past and selling our future to short term corporate interests. We would do well to work on changing this trajectory.