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Experts warn Macron against rushing to rebuild Notre-Dame

Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP | Protective tarps cover the roof of Paris's Notre-Dame cathedral on April 29, 2019.

More than a thousand architects, conservationists and academics from around the world urged French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday to exercise caution as he moves forward with plans to rapidly rebuild Paris's Notre-Dame cathedral.

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Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral within five years, after a devastating fire destroyed its spire and reduced much of the roof to cinders on April 15.

In the weeks that followed, a special bill was drafted, that – if approved – would allow the government to speed the project along by bypassing public procurement legislation and laws on cultural heritage.

Yet Macron’s apparent determination to rebuild Notre-Dame as quickly as possible has left many experts worried. In an open letter published on Monday by French daily Le Figaro, 1,170 architects, conservationists and academics from around the world called on the French president not to rush into reconstruction.

“Paris's Notre-Dame is not just a cathedral, nor just one of Europe’s major architectural monuments. It is a landmark that has, for nearly the past 200 years, been at the centre of French and international protections and ethics on historic monuments,” the letter said.

The cathedral has been safeguarded by cultural heritage laws in France since 1862. In 1991, UNESCO added the banks of the River Seine – and along with them Notre-Dame – to its World Heritage List.

The letter’s authors warned that barreling ahead with reconstruction plans by removing some of the red tape that protects the 850-year-old building could have untold consequences.

“You have said, Mr. President, that you want to restore Notre-Dame. It’s our desire too, but in doing so, let’s not do away with the complex thought that must go into this (project) for the appearance of efficiency,” it said. “Let’s take time to evaluate. The executive branch has to listen to the experts. France is home to some of the world’s best experts in this area.”

‘We must take time to assess, but not act’

One of the letter’s signatories, Étienne Hamon, a professor of Medieval Art History at the University of Lille, in the north of France, questioned the necessity of drafting a special bill to speed up work on the cathedral.

“We’ve been through similar catastrophes several times in history and we have never before needed a special law. There are already well-established procedures that can be applied to situations like this one,” he told FRANCE 24.

Hamon said that rushing to rebuild Notre-Dame posed a number of major risks. The first is that experts will not have enough time to fully gauge the long-term damage caused by the inferno in the months and years to come. The second is that overseers will struggle to coordinate all the various experts needed to restore and reconstruct the cathedral.

“Surveying a medieval monument is the work of a dozen different specialists. You have to get these people together to understand what they can bring, because an edifice like this one is so complex that no single person has all the expertise necessary,” he said.

Another concern is quality. “From an archaeological point of view... one of the risks of rushing in is that you can’t guarantee the sustainability of the work,” Hamon said. “Building a monument is something that can be done rapidly. Restoring a monument is infinitely more complex.”

Yet not all experts agree that Macron’s five-year deadline is a bad idea.

“This kind of open letter threatens to slow down the system and make things go in circles. I agree in principle: the time needed to evaluate will be long and shouldn’t be neglected. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that political decisions can’t be made at the same time,” Hervé Cazelles, a French cultural heritage architect, told FRANCE 24.

Cazelles, who has restored more than 20 historical sites, said that the underlying concern is that the government will alter Notre-Dame’s appearance by making it more modern.

“The fear is that they build something contemporary. That is what is being said between the lines in this letter,” he said.

“We must take time to assess, but not necessarily to act,” he added.

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