Don’t ‘Modernize’ Notre Dame — Rebuild It As It Was, Say Advocates

The members of a grassroots group hope they can convince state officials to rebuild the Parisian cathedral closer to the builders’ original vision.

Statues are stored on the grounds of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral during preliminary work July 24, 2019, three months after it was badly damaged by an April 15 fire.
Statues are stored on the grounds of Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral during preliminary work July 24, 2019, three months after it was badly damaged by an April 15 fire. (photo: RAFAEL YAGHOBZADEH/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — The advocates of an identical restoration of Notre Dame are building support, as the French Parliament has just passed the controversial bill establishing the rebuilding process of the cathedral, whose wooden roof and spire were destroyed in the April 15 fire. The July 16 bill, which came in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s goal of rebuilding the cathedral within five years, is still raising tensions in the country because it didn’t follow any of the Senate’s recommendations meant to protect the cathedral’s integrity.

In particular, the senators recommended the deletion of Article 9 of the bill, which would allow the government to bend the rules on urban planning and environmental protection in order to speed up the restoration, and demanded that the cathedral be restored as it was. In a press release published on the Senate’s official website during the Joint Committee’s debates in June, the president of the Senate’s Culture Committee, Catherine Morin-Desailly, criticized the fact that “all of the provisions adopted by the Senate, in order to enrich and legally secure articles of a hastily drafted bill, were brushed aside.”

It is in this sensitive political climate that the French association Restaurons Notre-Dame (“Let’s Restore Notre Dame”) was born. Gathering a large community of experts, scientists and academics in the fields of construction and historic preservation, the association supports the rebuilding of the monument’s frame — also known as “the Forest” — in solid oak from French forests. Its members also advocate, as far as possible, the restoration of the frame and spire to their previous condition.

Open to any person willing to support its action, the association will soon be drafting a plan that will be presented to the French president and other officials in charge of the restoration, with the aim of influencing the final decision.

The scope of the restoration will depend on various engineering studies and architects’ proposals in the next few months. “There is nothing final for now. This is only the initial phase of consolidation of the structure,” Pascal Jacob, president of Restaurons Notre-Dame, told the Register.


The Five-Year Deadline’s Pitfall

The first step of the project, the “consolidation” phase, is meant to enable safe access to the structure, especially the vaults, in order to make a diagnosis and determine whether it is possible to rebuild the cathedral as it was.

“This second step of diagnosis will last until summer 2020, and as long as these elements are not established, the authorities won’t be in a position to start anything,” Jacob said. “It should be noted that the structure consolidation, for the flying buttresses notably, is being made in glued laminated timber, which is a nod to common sense and confirms that wood is a suitable material for the rebuilding.”

According to Jacob, the consolidation phase should take about one year, and the design phase might take a bit longer.

“These two initial phases should take around three years in total, and we haven’t been able to take care of the vaults yet,” he said. “We cannot rebuild the frame without vaults, so they must be restored first. And the restoration of the wooden frame alone will take between 18 and 24 months, so it will be very difficult to meet the five-year deadline.”

The haste with which Macron’s administration is planning the restoration process is still raising widespread concern. At the end of April, the federation of restoration professionals published a communiqué in which they warned that “only long periods of time and consultation guarantee a global, thoughtful, harmonious and long-lasting consideration of what is at stake.”

“The cathedral’s structure doesn’t necessarily understand the government’s language when it decides that everything should be done within five years. So we must listen to the cathedral and see if it can process such an ambition,” Pascal Jabob said.

Besides the implementation deadline, the main stumbling block remains the way the cathedral should be rebuilt. This topic is still arousing heated debates, throughout France and beyond, between advocates of a faithful restoration and supporters of a contemporary reinterpretation of the monument.


A Crime Against the Spirit

In a column published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde a few days after the Notre Dame restoration bill was definitively adopted by French Parliament, Christophe Girard, deputy mayor of Paris for culture, and journalist Emmanuel Schwartzenberg contended that it would be a “crime” if Notre Dame’s “Forest” were not faithfully restored.

Recalling that the cathedral’s medieval builders gave the world an “immaculate stone vessel” — a monument that has stood for nine centuries as the first milestone of the modern era — they asserted that “the least we could do would be to return them the courtesy by guaranteeing the greatest possible longevity to the building.”


A Matter of Common Sense

Beyond the philosophical and historical considerations, proponents cite wood’s growing reputation as an environmentally friendly construction material and note a worldwide revival of interest in the use of timber in large-scale construction projects.

“People realize that we can do anything with it, including big buildings, like in the U.S. or in Canada, and that it is a reliable, long-lasting (as Notre Dame has shown) and scientifically mastered material,” Jacob said. While advocating for a faithful restoration of Notre Dame’s roof, members of the association recognize the possibility that some changes to the structure may be necessary.

Jacob said, “We know that regarding the modeling [of the latticework], it will be difficult to make it strictly identical, as it was built with different methods throughout the centuries. So we can think that there may be some changes on the modeling.”

But the association can rely on the painstaking work of companies and researchers in three-dimensional data to develop its reconstruction project.

French company Art Graphique et Patrimoine (AGP), for instance, made 150 3-D scans of the frame and the spire, accurate down to the millimeter. AGP reportedly undertook this project on its own initiative in 2014, a coincidence called a “small miracle” by architects. These scans will be added to those made by late U.S. professor Andrew Tallon a few years ago.

As for the spire, Jacob points out that it will have a decisive impact on the frame below. The spire, which weighs several hundred tons, will be supported by the new frame.

“The simplest and more reliable option would be to rebuild what existed before the blaze,” he said.

But if the authorities were to impose another material or model for the spire, the association will propose technical solutions to support the spire while ensuring that the rest of the frame will be made of oak and that it will be as similar as possible to the original builders’ vision.

Jacob said, “We must be prepared for any and all scenarios.”