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Tradition vs modernity: Debate over future Notre-Dame spire sparks controversy

BERTRAND GUAY / AFP | People work as part of the construction work to secure Notre Dame de Paris cathedral that was badly damaged by a huge fire last April 15, on May 10, 2019.

French MPs approved Friday a law to rebuild Notre-Dame within five years. But many fear the reconstruction will be rushed and experts are still divided on whether to rebuild the monument in its original form or to give it a more contemporary look.

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French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral in less than five years after a major fire on April 15 largely destroyed the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral’s roof and spire.

French lawmakers approved on Friday a controversial government draft bill, aimed at managing donors’ funds, which allows it to bypass current legislation in order to speed up the construction process.

Only 47 out of 577 MPs were physically present in the National Assembly when the bill was adopted, after 13 hours of debate. It still needs to pass through the Senate, dominated by right-wing opposition party Les Républicains, where it will be presented from May 27.

Experts ‘worried’ by a rushed restoration

Under the new legislation, a public body under the direct supervision of the president will be created to oversee and carry out the work within a rapid time frame.

Although France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester “guaranteed’ existing rules "for the restoration” of national monuments “will be applied”, experts claim that the new bill would allow the government to move in "haste", overriding regulations on urban planning, heritage conservation and environmental protection.

“We are really concerned by this bill, especially when it comes to preventive archaeology, because we need to be familiar with each part of the cathedral and its surroundings before taking any decision," Olivier de Châlus, a medieval researcher at Sorbonne University in Paris and spokesperson for the Association of Experts in Service of the Notre-Dame Restoration, told FRANCE 24.

“Although, we do understand the process needs to be done quickly," he added.

In late April, more than a thousand architects, conservationists and academics from around the world also urged Macron to be cautious with his plans to restore the cathedral.

Riester tried to reassure MPs, saying that five years was "an ambitious timeframe" for renovating Notre-Dame, which took 200 years to build, but stressed that the project would "not be done in haste".

Many French prefer an identical reconstruction

Many opposition MPs also regretted the new bill did not specify any architectural norms, as many lawmakers were keen to push through legislation stating Notre-Dame should be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire.

In the days after the fire, many questioned whether the Gothic cathedral should be rebuilt in its original form or whether modern architecture should be added.

Some even said Notre-Dame should not be rebuilt at all and its ruins kept per se and secured, as a “21st century Memento Mori” monument, wrote Bérangère Viennot in a tribune in Slate.

But according to a YouGov opinion poll, 54 percent of French people would like the Gothic cathedral to be rebuilt as it was before the April fire, with only 25 percent opting for an “architectural initiative”.

International architectural contest to be held

Two days after the fire Prime Minister Édouard Philippe sparked controversy by announcing that the government would hold an international architectural contest to redesign the cathedral’s spire, originally designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. Philippe expressed interest in “a new spire adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era”.

Contemporary additions to the monument could lead to accidents, such as during renovations at the Chartres Cathedral, when the "iconic Black Madonna" was “whitewashed”, architecture writer Juan Sebastian Pinto argues in a Forbes tribune.

A dozen architects have already unveiled their projects. British architects Foster + Partners envision a glass roof and a crystal spire while Slovakian Vizum atelier saw Notre-Dame restored with a light beam towards the sky. Russian architect Alexander Nerovnya has also submitted his idea, respecting the original Viollet-le-Duc spire.

But restoration and conservation experts like De Châlus think that “research needs to be done before” having the discussion on identical versus modern, he said.

“Before asking questions on whether it should be a modern or an identical building, we need to know if we have all the material needed to rebuild it as it was," De Châlus said. “And we should also ask ourselves if the building would hold that wooden structure nowadays: the walls were deformed over time and the whole cathedral could crumble.”

Even though his association refuses to take part in the debate, De Châlus also warns that the existing building should not be seen as a blank page. “There are many things that will need to be restored and conserved, including things nobody knew of," he says, citing newly discovered medieval paintings on the cathedral’s canopy.

Government could bypass experts

So far, nearly one billion euros has been donated or pledged for the cathedral – a sum that will go “entirely and exclusively” to Notre-Dame’s restoration, Riester said.

The total cost of rebuilding could come to between 600-700 million euros, according to estimations quoted by AFP.

As Philippe announced in the wake of Notre-Dame’s fire, the legislation approved on Friday also allows an extra fiscal incentive for individual donors, with the usual tax break being bumped to 75 percent, instead of usual 66 percent, for donations up to a thousand euros.

Restoration experts are keen to be included in the reconstruction process. “Nobody has tried to contact us yet, and the best Notre-Dame experts are in our association,” De Châlus said.

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