After the tragic fire at Notre Dame cathedral, a debate arose over what should be done with the grievously damaged cathedral. The debate has raged between the traditionalists, who have already started stockpiling wood to reproduce the roof structure faithfully, and the modernists who, claiming to follow in the footsteps of architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, have made numerous radical proposals, from a crystal spire to a rooftop garden.
Of course, a few have wondered whether it would not be better to leave the cathedral as it is, and devote the 1 billion euros of donations to other causes. But nobody has gone as far as suggesting another use for the building. This is what I propose.
Faith, location, sustainability
Of course, for any future use to be acceptable, it must respect a number of conditions. We cannot do what we like with Notre Dame and with its ancient stones. For example, it would be unthinkable to transform it into, say, a nightclub or a Jeff Koons sculpture.
A new use would have no chance of being accepted unless it satisfied three conditions:
Conform to the tradition of deep faith that Notre Dame represents;
Be appropriate for the central location of the former cathedral;
Promote sustainable development.
One solution that satisfies all these conditions would be to transform the cathedral into a gigantic warehouse to serve the whole of Paris. It could be called “Notre d'Amazon”, in homage to Jeff Bezos’ firm, with the largest market valuation in the world and the largest, most cutting-edge warehouses in existence.
I can already hear the cries of outrage by the faithful, denouncing any such idea as a sacrilege. What, transform a place of worship into a vulgar warehouse and rename it after an American firm?
I would remind them that there are many supporting examples in history – for example, after the French Revolution, many churches were transformed into warehouses. One was Saint Elisabeth of Hungary in Paris’s 3rd Arrondissement, which served as a flour warehouse in the 19th century.
Above all, I would ask those who object to my proposition and to consider objectively whether such a use satisfies the three conditions above. The answer “yes” appears to be undeniable.
First, religion. At a time when the majority of French citizens are agnostics or atheists, people are more likely to believe in consumerism than in Catholicism. As numerous sociologists and marketers since Baudrillard have written, what unites us today, what makes our society, is consumption: the products we buy, the brands we love, the tribes of consumers to which we belong. And where do today’s consumers go to worship? They no longer go to the market, or the department store, or the mall, which are all outdated. They go to the warehouse.
When we order an endless array of products with a single click on Internet, it is from a warehouse that they flow ever faster into our homes. Given the rising demand, the warehouse is the subject of a new race toward gigantism, just as cathedrals were in their time. Firms want ever bigger, taller, more automated warehouses. One of the temples of modern consumerism, the Ikea store, is in fact nothing but a warehouse from which the customers collect their products directly.
Next, geography. Notre Dame cathedral is located in the heart of Paris. Over the centuries the city developed in concentric circles around the cathedral, regularly breaking through fortifications that only briefly marked the city’s limits. Such a location is ideal for establishing a warehouse, because it stands at the epicentre of the delivery locations of Paris. This minimises the distance to customers, reducing delivery time and cost. Our ancestors made no mistakes on this point, since the area in which Notre Dame was built was originally a port, supplying Paris with goods arriving via the Seine river.
Finally, sustainable development. To put it mildly, Notre Dame’s carbon footprint is a problem. I do not mean the candles, which in environmental terms are a drop in the bucket, but the impact of the millions of tourists coming to Paris to visit the cathedral every year. Pouring into Paris via low-cost flights, such visitors are exacerbating global warming with all the jet fuel required to bring them here.
Beyond significantly cutting down on flights into the Paris region, the transformation of Notre Dame into a warehouse would help to pool deliveries, reducing the number of trucks in the city by nearly 40% and also the city’s carbon footprint. In practical terms, the new warehouse would be supplied by river barges, a bulk-transportation mode with low environmental impact. At the warehouse, the goods received in bulk would be sorted and customer orders prepared. Finally, it would be easy to deliver the orders to Parisians using light vehicles rather than trucks.
Disappearance of logistics infrastructure in Paris
The ironic tone of this article will have escaped no one’s attention, and to be honest, I have no thought of transforming Notre Dame into a warehouse. Yet far from being a joke, this article aims to raise a serious, strategic question: that of the place of logistics infrastructure in Paris and cities. It is self-evident that Paris no longer has any location from where bulk goods transport could be organised.
The quays of the River Seine, which in the 18th century were ports receiving bulk merchandise? Pedestrianised. The Halles, the former Paris wholesale market? Moved to Rungis, from where thousands of trucks leave every day to supply Paris. The city’s railway stations, which used to have freight areas? Handed over to passenger use. The inner-city warehouses such as Bercy? Transformed into parks, offices or commercial areas. The production areas where bulk merchandise arrived? Refurbished as cultural areas, like La Villette, formerly a livestock market and slaughterhouse. The list goes on.
With all the infrastructure gone that once enabled merchandise to be brought into Paris, the situation is catastrophic. Goods are now delivered to Paris in trucks (generally half empty) from warehouses located ever further out in the suburbs. This situation has a range of negative impacts, including noise and air pollution, environmental damage and respiratory diseases. With the upcoming local elections in Paris, it would be useful for the candidates to think carefully about how, given exorbitant Parisian property prices, areas in the city can be dedicated to logistics.
To stimulate the imagination of the politicians, my proposal would be to launch another competition alongside the one concerning the restoration of Notre Dame, this one titled “The Logistics of Paris”. Let us ask architects, urban planners, distributors, service providers and infrastructure experts to reflect about innovative ways to organise logistics in Greater Paris. Recent projects have come to fruition, such as the Hôtel logistique de la Chapelle. But we need to go further, and imagine a logistical revolution for Paris, like when Baron Haussmann revolutionised the city’s street plan in the 1800s. It’s time to think big.