Pools, Carparks and Ball-pits: Or why the Notre Dame restoration competition is a meme
The first restoration proposals to emerge after fire destroyed Notre Dame Cathedral’s roof and spire were jokes. The more serious schemes that followed Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s announcement of a competition – many markedly similar, recreating what was lost in glass– were collected on mainstream design media websites like Dezeen where they attracted an unusually high volume of angry comments, accusing the architects of insensitivity. Soon after, Ulf Mejergren Architects’ proposal to replace Notre Dame’s roof with a meditative pool was edited into a carpark. It sparked a series of increasingly outlandish edits – first a multi-story carpark, then a ball pit – before the French Senate declared that there would be no competition after all. This at times absurd online interest might be new for architectural competitions, but it is easily explained through meme theory, as conceived of by scholars like Limor Shifman and Ryan Milner: systems of interconnected units of cultural exchange operating on both wider cultural and specific sub-cultural levels. In this essay I contend that meme theory can be used, in reverse, to analyse reactions to, and similarities between, even the most serious Notre Dame proposals. In applying this framework, we can begin to understand how competitions operate more broadly as part of a complex network online and how they relate to traditional competition conditions.
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