Restoring Notre-Dame: Tough decisions ahead

Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS | The reconstruction of Paris's Notre-Dame cathedral will take years.

French President Emmanuel Macron set an ambitious five-year timeline for the reconstruction of Paris’s famed Notre-Dame Cathedral. But architects and experts disagree about the feasibility of this plan.


“We will rebuild the cathedral even more beautifully and I want it to be finished within five years,” he said in a national address the day after flames gutted the Parisian landmark, destroying the roof and causing the steeple to collapse.

The announcement met with immediate scepticism from architecture experts and historians alike.

“Rebuilding within five years? That’s political speak – just PR,” medieval historian Mickaël Wilmart told FRANCE 24. “The Olympics are in five years. The goal is to restore Paris’s image before then.”

Smaller buildings from the same era have taken longer to restore.

“There are precedents. The Nantes Cathedral suffered a similar roof fire in January of 1972. It was closed for three years while the roof was rebuilt. But it took another ten years of further work before it was completely restored,” said Wilmart. “And the parliament in [the French region of] Brittany [which burned in 1994] took five years, and it wasn’t as big as Notre-Dame.”

'Too early to have a timeline'

“It’s much too early to have a timeline,” architect with the Ile de France Order of Architects, Marine de la Guerrande, told FRANCE 24.

Before construction begins, the stones of the vaulted ceiling and rose windows will need to be evaluated. Thermal shock from the intense heat of the fire followed by cold water could cause the stone to crack or decay. If so, the whole vault may need to be torn down and rebuilt.

Guerrande worked on a 17th-century building that had been devastated by fire. “It took five years to rebuild, and it wasn’t Notre-Dame. We needed two years just for initial conservation measures, to monitor and dry the structure.”

Famed medieval historian Claude Gauvard on the other hand is optimistic. “I’m ready to believe it,” she told FRANCE 24. “Five years is a challenge, it’s ambitious. But if everyone applies themselves, it’s possible.”

Pierre-Alain Mariaux, professor of art history at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, agrees that five years is feasible, given the French political context. “A project of this scale could unite France around the monument,” he said. “One can imagine there will be pressure from all over to finish it within the promised timeline. France’s biggest fortunes have promised to pull out all the stops so that the restoration can be completed quickly,” he added. “But I would prefer that it be well done, that the time be taken to do an exemplary job.”

Tough decisions ahead

Funding issues are unlikely to hold up the project. More than half a billion euros were raised within just the first 48 hours, and the number continues to rise.

The biggest challenge will be deciding what kind of restoration to undertake.

“The real question is whether we will react quickly with a rapid restoration to build something that looks on the surface like the cathedral before the fire? Will we use recent technology or will we rebuild the wooden roof?” asked Wilmart. “In Reims, Nantes or the Brittany parliament, 20th-century materials were used. But if we rebuild in wood, we will need specialists and ten to fifteen years. It will have to be oak, and we don’t have that quantity of oak in reserve. We could cut down trees, but they would need to dry for several years before the construction could begin.”

Bertrand de Feydeau, vice-president of the Fondation du Patrimoine which protects France’s cultural heritage, told France Info radio the restoration work will have to use new technology to rebuild the roof. He said that France no longer has trees of the size that were harvested from primeval forests in the 12th and 13th centuries.

For architect and historian Jean-Louis Cohen, the central questions are even deeper. “Do we want to restore the 19th-century interpretation of Notre-Dame, or are we going further back into time in order to understand what the original medieval structure was?”

Notre-Dame’s spire, destroyed in Monday’s blaze, was added to the cathedral by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc during his 19th-century renovation of the cathedral. His controversial spire remains a divisive topic in academic circles. Some, like Cohen, want to rebuild an earlier medieval version of the spire. Others think a 21st-century design would be more appropriate.

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“That’s always the question in cases like this,” said Guerrande. “But what we have to remember is that at the time they were built, these cathedrals were innovative worksites […] They saw the first prefabrication efforts and new mechanical techniques. So we should ask ourselves, what is the essence of this architecture?”

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe gave a first hint as to the direction the government is leaning. He announced Wednesday that France would invite architects from around the world to submit designs for the new spire.

The goal is "to give Notre-Dame a new spire that is adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era", Philippe said at a press conference in Paris.

(With AP)

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