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In April 2019, after Notre-Dame Cathedral had been saved from the flames, French politicians and architects seemed determined to modernise the structure. So how is it that, 16 months on, the authorities have decided to rebuild Notre-Dame as it was before? Agnès Poirier explains what happened behind the scenes – and why the French media are calling it “the building site of the century”.
Notre-Dame’s rebuilding: The battle over the future of the cathedral
August 6, 2020
After fifteen months of suspense during which designers from around the world have come up with the most audacious if not totally bizarre designs for Notre-Dame’s new spire and roof, we finally have a verdict. President Macron and the panel of experts presiding over the fate of the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral, which narrowly survived last year’s terrible fire, have unanimously approved almost every single recommendation made by the architect-in-chief Philippe Villeneuve. His 3,000-page report, launched with a four-hour presentation in Paris on July 9, could be summarised in a sentence: Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt identically.
For a large majority of people in France and beyond, it is a huge relief, and for the 57-year-old Villeneuve, the guardian of the cathedral, it is a sweet and emotional victory. Villeneuve belongs to Notre-Dame. As a small boy with a passion for organ music, he found his vocation in architecture while seated on the wooden benches of the cathedral, listening for hours to Pierre Cochereau, Notre-Dame’s legendary organist, improvising on one of the world’s largest organs (5 manuals, 111 stops and 7,374 pipes). Today, Villeneuve is a chief architect at Historic Monuments, one of 39 responsible for France’s architectural heritage, each of whom looks after a portfolio of important buildings.
In 1893, the Department of Historic Monuments started recruiting the most gifted art historians and architects of their generation through a series of thorough and demanding tests. “Erudition, talent, respect, discretion and moral qualities” were among the job’s requirements. They have now been France’s elite architectural corps for more than 120 years.
When I met him last summer, it was clear Villeneuve did not favour any contemporary addition to the cathedral – especially not what he called a flèche signature, in other words a trophy spire by a star architect. “In the 850 years of the cathedral’s existence,” he told me, “every architect who built or restored Notre-Dame has served the monument rather than himself. The first four architects, in other words the cathedral’s ‘authors’, remain anonymous. We don’t know who they were, and they most probably wouldn’t have considered themselves as anything other than builders.”
He added: “All I can say is that Notre-Dame is unique and doesn’t resemble any other Gothic cathedral.”
It looks as if his passion for Notre-Dame and his knowledge won over both the French President and the commission which includes representatives of the Church, the City of Paris and the Ministry of Culture. (It is important to remember that the French state, which has owned Notre-Dame since the Law on the Separation of Church and State of 1905, is officially responsible for the monument; the Church is only its beneficiary.)
The new roof frame will thus be made of oak just like in the 13th century. It may simply differ slightly in how it is assembled: the 13th-century old oak timber of Notre-Dame, also known as “the forest”, was arranged in a very elaborate and distinctive medieval fashion, one that didn’t require any fixtures, and Villeneuve has been asked to suggest alternative assemblage techniques.
Lobbyists for the concrete and iron industries had been hoping to be consulted for a new roof. After all, there are some glorious precedents. When the Germans bombed Reims cathedral in 1914, its roof was rebuilt in reinforced concrete. And when Chartres cathedral burnt in 1837, its roof made of medieval chestnut was rebuilt with an iron structure.
However, Notre-Dame de Paris is widely felt to be an even greater national symbol than Reims and Chartres, and a historic continuum seemed de rigueur in all things. This means that lead will most probably be the material chosen to cover the roof. Such a decision would fulfil three promises: to honour the choice of medieval builders, to respect the delicate weight ratio of the monument (a very heavy lead cover was an intrinsic part of the equilibrium of the whole infrastructure) and to live in harmony with the Parisian skyline, where lead has always played an important aesthetic part.
Finally, and perhaps more importantly still, the French President and the Commission of experts have approved the reconstruction of the 96-metre-high spire designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. What an extraordinary victory for this most unloved art figure of the 20th century! Viollet-le-Duc, a lover and scholar of Gothic architecture, a self-taught architect, became after his death a vilified figure in France. Between the First World War and the 1980s, he was considered as nothing more than a neo-Gothic counterfeiter. It was only in the 1980s that he regained his stature and prestige in the eyes of art historians and architects, thanks both to new research on 19th-century art and architecture and also to an important exhibition at the Grand Palais which displayed the many facets of Viollet-le-Duc’s genius, passion, knowledge and talent.
However, in wider French society his name has largely remained synonymous with neo-medieval silliness. At least five generations, including President Macron’s, were brought up to believe that the faux-Gothic style à la Viollet-le-Duc was inauthentic. It probably explains why in the hours that followed the tragedy of the fire, on April 15, 2019, the French president had promised to rebuild Our Lady in an “even more beautiful” manner, while Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had evoked “a modern architectural flourish” and launched the idea of an international competition to design a new spire.
Today, Viollet-le-Duc has prevailed and his brilliance is finally being recognised. For Philippe Villeneuve, “Viollet-Le-Duc’s great talent lies in the fact that his work was almost indiscernible from that of the medieval builders. His spire was not identifiable; it could well have dated back to the 13th century.” In fact, many art historians consider that Notre-Dame is as much a work of the 13th century as it is of the 19th-century reinvention. So adieu to those mad designs cooked up in the hours that followed the fire: from the giant greenhouse to the planted forest for endangered animal species, from the cross-shaped swimming pool filled with rainwater to the spire in the shape of a carbon-fibre flame covered with gold leaves.
Restoring Viollet-le-Duc’s spire has other merits: it is the cheapest and quickest option. Viollet-le-Duc always worked within the budget constraints of his time and his exquisite drawings and detailed plans which have been carefully kept can be used again. The billion euros pledged by France’s richest families in less than 24 hours that followed the fire, alongside many thousands more modest benefactors throughout the world, should cover the costs with the help of the French state.
The five-year deadline given, perhaps unwisely, by President Macron looms large. Can Notre-Dame be fully restored by 2024? Possibly – but not if there is another lockdown due to coronavirus and the building site has to close again for three months.
Last summer, the lead pollution meant a first unexpected closure of the site for six weeks for an extensive cleaning of all surfaces at the tip of the Île de la Cité. This spring, the site had to let its 150 artisans go back home to shelter from Covid, thus delaying the most perilous phase of the works, the cutting and removing of the 500 tonnes of molten scaffolding which surrounded the spire at the time of the fire. The operation started in June and should be finished by the end of September.
If all goes to plan, without bits of scaffolding crashing on the vaults below, the structure of Notre-Dame will be considered fully saved at last. And the restoration will be able to begin.
Another building site, one which is seldom talked about and is almost as exciting as the restoration of the cathedral itself, will be taking place all around the cathedral in an effort to completely redesign Notre-Dame’s access. The cathedral is both blessed and cursed by the visit of 14 million tourists a year, and the city of Paris is in great need of rethinking how better to manage the ebb and flow in and around the cathedral.
Fr Gilles Drouin, a scholar of 18th-century architecture and liturgy, has been tasked by the archbishop of Paris with reinventing the cathedral interior when it reopens for worship. Fr Drouin will need to resolve problems which have blighted the reputation of Notre-Dame for decades: to name but a few, the endless queues of tourists on the parvis (the court in front of the cathedral) blocking Parisians’ passage; the inept and time-consuming security checks at the gates; and the off-putting cheap souvenir shops inside the cathedral.
For decades art historians have been calling for a museum dedicated to the history of Notre-Dame where its works of art from across the centuries, scattered around France in different museums for lack of a dedicated space, could be reunited at last. The now-empty Hôtel-Dieu, the former hospital at the heart of Paris standing right across the parvis, could happily shelter such a museum.
And why not, for instance, use the vacant car park underneath the parvis to organise an access point to the cathedral for tourists, with shops and facilities?
The next few years will be full of challenges and opportunities for the urban planners and architects looking after Notre-Dame de Paris. The French media have come up with a name for it: “the building site of the century”.
Agnès Poirier is the author of Notre-Dame: The Soul of France