A few years ago, while visiting, or rather exploring, Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure corner of one of the towers, this word carved upon the wall:
These Greek characters, black with age, and cut deep into the stone with the peculiarities of form and arrangement common to Gothic calligraphy that marked them the work of some hand in the Middle Ages, and above all the sad and mournful meaning which they expressed, forcibly impressed the author.
The word carved upon the wall means fate. Thus begins Victor Hugo’s tragic romance, Notre-Dame de Paris, published in 1831. Many regard the story as a warning against judging people by their appearance or status. The protagonist, Quasimodo, born monstrously deformed, was given to the church to raise. The novel’s antagonist, Notre-Dame’s Archbishop Claude Frollo, assigns the growing boy the role of bell-ringer. Later, adoptive father and adopted son fall in love with the same girl, a mesmerizing sixteen-year-old street dancer named Esmerelda. Frollo ultimately betrays Esmerelda, while Quasimodo tries to save her. The monster turns out to be the hero, but he’s too late. Esmerelda is hanged for a crime she did not commit. In anger, Quasimodo throws his father off the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral and spends the rest of his days hiding in the cemetery where Esmerelda is buried, mourning.
Renamed The Hunchback of Notre Dame when published in English, the novel reverses today’s standard hero-overcoming-the-monster trope. But the book isn’t really about a deformed boy trying the save the life of a beautiful girl. The Hunchback is a Gothic novel about a Gothic building. The story’s moral focus is Notre-Dame cathedral. Architecture sets the stage, backdrops the major characters, and forever binds their fates. The story’s central character isn’t a person; it’s a building, which Hugo considered sentient.
The restless light of the flames made them seem to move. There were serpents, which seemed to be laughing, gargoyles yelping, salamanders blowing the fire, dragons sneezing amid the smoke.
In the 1800s, when Hugo wrote his book, Gothic had given way to the Renaissance. By then Parisians considered medieval buildings vulgar, deformed monstrosities.
Gothic architecture evolved from the Romanesque around 1100 AD and reached its height in the mid-1400s. In the 1800s, when Hugo wrote his book, Gothic had given way to the Renaissance. By then Parisians considered medieval buildings vulgar, deformed monstrosities. Calling a building Gothic was an insult, a reference to Goth and Vandal Germanic tribes considered barbarians. Paris’ Gothic history was being torn down in the name of more respectable, if not more profitable, projects.
Hugo was alarmed. He believed architecture had reached its pinnacle during the Gothic era, writing, “Indeed, from the beginning of things down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era inclusive, architecture was the great book of humanity, the chief expression of man in his various stages of development, whether as force or as intellect.” He loved Gothic Paris and wanted its structures preserved. Notre-Dame’s towers, he argued, were symbols of a glorious past. For Hugo, Renaissance architects and their buildings had nothing to offer.
But Notre-Dame in 1829 was crumbling. The cathedral was used a gunpowder factory during the 1789 – 1799 French Revolution and heavily damaged. Its largest stones were earmarked for bridge foundations. Hugo feared that, like so many of the city’s other Gothic structures, Notre-Dame would soon be demolished. He wrote:
All manner of profanation, degradation, and ruin are all at once threatening what little remains of these admirable monuments of the Middle Ages that bear the imprint of past national glory, to which both the memory of kings and the tradition of the people are attached. While who knows what bastard edifices are being constructed at great cost (buildings that, with the ridiculous pretension of being Greek or Roman in France, are neither Roman nor Greek), other admirable and original structures are falling without anyone caring to be informed, whereas their only crime is that of being French by origin, by history, and by purpose.
Hugo decided to do something about it, becoming one of the world’s first historic preservationists outside of private collectors. “A universal cry must finally go up to call the new France to the aid of the old,” he said in an editorial declaring war on the “demolishers.” (Guerre aux demolisseurs!) His pen was mightier than any sword. The novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, was published in January 1831 to critical acclaim.
The book’s success brought thousands of French from the countryside and other cities to Paris to visit the building Hugo so lovingly described. They wanted to see firsthand where Quasimodo leaped to save Esmerelda from the gallows, where Frollo conspired with the King of France, where a sad soul carved fate in a tower wall. What the public found was a cathedral in danger of collapse. As Hugo anticipated, readers concluded Parisians didn’t appreciate the building’s heroic inner beauty, its strength, its character. Quasimodo was a metaphor for the building, which wasn’t lost on the novel’s fans. The public outcry to save Notre-Dame cathedral was deafening and defining. Restoration began in 1844.
Hugo’s historical story is still in print, 186 years later. No reliable sales figures exist, but tens of millions likely have read the book. The novel has been translated worldwide, including multiple English versions, and adapted to more than 50 films, television, ballet, stage, musical theater, radio theater, music scores, and video game productions.
Like nested Russian dolls, Notre-Dame de Paris is a story within a story within a story. Outwardly, it’s save the girl. Inwardly, the hidden payload is save the building.
Today, it’s hard to separate book from building. Novel and cathedral are so intertwined, so reinforcing of each other, they’ve become inseparable. It’s a magical relationship that architects would do well to study. Hugo wrapped a stealth behavioral intervention inside a love story embedded in architecture. Like nested Russian dolls, Notre-Dame de Paris is a story within a story within a story. Outwardly, it’s save the girl. Inwardly, the hidden payload is save the building. Hugo wedded narrative to architecture and fermented intrinsically motivated behavior change on a societal scale, turning local apathy into public action. Imagine what might have become of New York City’s Penn Station had Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger written a 1960 best-seller persuasively set in the great terminal.
Notre-Dame, one of the world’s first Gothic cathedrals and among the first to use flying buttresses, was completed in 1345. Almost 500 years later, the fact that the building was an artistic masterpiece and engineering marvel no longer mattered. By 1830, Notre-Dame was doomed—until a fictional story transformed the relic into a national treasure. The lesson for the design community is clear: a building without an engaging oral, prose or graphic narrative is meaningless and eventually forgotten. Architecture is more than an empty shell to be filled—it’s a story to be told.
And an ironic ending never hurts. There is speculation that Hugo based Quasimodo’s character on a real person, a French sculptor born deformed and nicknamed, Le Bossu (French for the hunchback). Le Bossu lived in the 6th arrondissement, not far from the cathedral. Hugo was a frequent visitor to Notre-Dame, so it’s possible he’d seen Le Bossu in the area, perhaps knew him, maybe even helped him win a commission. Le Bossu was hired for the cathedral’s restoration project, poetically completing the story’s heroic arc.