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Notre-Dame: French Senate demands cathedral be rebuilt as exact replica

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French senators have approved the Notre-Dame Cathedral restoration bill with a caveat demanding it is rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire

The upper house has potentially torpedoed plans – backed by president Emmanuel Macron and prime minister Édouard Philippe – for an international contest to select an innovative new ‘spire adapted to techniques and challenges of our times’.

The restoration bill had already been approved by the lower house – the National Assembly – but has been amended to ensure any reconstruction is faithful to the last known visual state of the cathedral. The use of different materials from those in place before the fire must also be justified.

Senators also removed special exemptions from planning, environmental and heritage controls, which had been intended to deliver on Macron’s five-year deadline for reconstruction to complete before the Paris 2024 Olympics.

The amendments, agreed on Monday (27 May), must be accepted by the National Assembly before becoming law and could be challenged. The lower house is controlled by Macron’s La République En Marche party while the upper house is politically more conservative.

The 850-year old building’s famous spire and its roof collapsed during the fire in April but the main structure, including its two rectangular bell towers, survived. The entire complex was restored and significantly remodelled in 1864 by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

The fire on 15 April

The fire on 15 April

Source: Image by Lelaisserpassera38

The fire on 15 April

Shortly after the fire, the French prime minister questioned whether it was necessary to replicate the tower, which was created by Viollet-le-Duc, ‘or if, as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, we should endow Notre-Dame with a new spire’.

The announcement prompted a range of architects – including Norman Foster, Studio Fuksas and Belgium’s Vincent Callebaut – to suggest bold visions for how the structure could be restored integrating planting and modern features such as a glazed atrium roof and even a swimming pool.

Irène Djao-Rakitine, director of Djao-Rakitine and a Mayor of London Design Advocate, criticised the senate’s move as a missed opportunity for ‘fresh, forward thinking’ and an attempt to deny ‘the reality of destruction’.

She said: ‘Viollet-le-Duc has been very much criticised for his too innovative and original restoration projects. Strangely enough, when, in 1995, the Toulouse basilica was suggested to be dé-violletisé, most city’s inhabitants opposed the project as they were simply used to the “Violletisation”.

‘And again, probably for the same reason, the French Senate [ruled] that Notre-Dame de Paris’s restoration should be identical to the “last known visual state”. Losing such a symbol of stability is a trauma. And it looks like most people, instinctively, think they can resurrect something that has disappeared and forget that it went through destruction.

‘But why deny the reality of destruction? And why not use the opportunity given by its possible resurrection and rebirth to develop fresh, forward thinking and innovative ideas potentially leading us to a brighter picture instead of nostalgia?’

The cathedral in 1847 prior to the construction of the spire

The cathedral in 1847 prior to the construction of the spire

The cathedral in 1847 prior to the construction of the spire

Josh Sanabria, chief executive of GoArchitect which launched an open ideas contest for the landmark’s reconstruction, slammed the decision as a ‘terrible loss to the democracy of design’.

He said: ‘Notre-Dame was a cathedral for the people, and its future should be influenced by the people. They may choose to restore it exactly as it was or they may choose something else, the important part is that they are given a chance to decide.’

But Alireza Sagharchi, principal of Stanhope Gate Architecture, welcomed the commitment to a faithful restoration, which he said could help revive lost stone masonry and woodworking skills while returning a ‘much-loved friend to its former glory, without interventions that may be the intellectual fetish of a certain era.’

He added: ‘We would not pose the same dilemma in restoration of a half-burnt Caravaggio – or Damien Hurst for that matter. Why should Notre Dame be different if serves the same purpose and is a complete work?

‘Some of Palladio’s villas very almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War. Just think how poorer we would all be if they had post-war 1950s features and reinterpretations imposed on them. The centre of Warsaw as well as St Petersburg were faithfully reconstructed after the war and are today enjoyed by the public as traditional, historic urban environments. I would certainly not call it out as a missed opportunity.’

Notre-Dame Cathedral rebuild proposal by Studio Fuksas

Notre-Dame Cathedral rebuild proposal by Studio Fuksas

Notre-Dame Cathedral rebuild proposal by Studio Fuksas


Cécile Brisac, founder, Brisac Gonzalez

Imposing an exact replica of Notre Dame is a missed opportunity to create a delicate and contemporary version of the spire which collapsed in the fire. That spire was rebuilt in the 19th century, not as an exact match of its original version. So a replica is also a lack of faith in our times. Having seen some of the megalomaniac and insensitive proposals in the press however, I am not surprised the law proposed by the government was turned down, as it would have allowed to disregard all regulatory obligations. There has to be a way to allow for a sensitive, creative and timeless architectural response, without fear of blasphemy. 

Alan Dunlop, visiting professor of architecture, University of Liverpool 

Demanding an exact replica would not be a restoration, it is a question of authenticity. Instead, what the Senate has stipulated would be a replication and an opportunity lost. However, it was predictable. I had previously applauded the prime minister and the French government for opening up an international competition for the replacement of the roof and spire, which would consider a replication or the creation of a new structure and therefore encourage a national debate, something that I have been calling for with the Glasgow School of Art. It seemed a brave and mature thing to do and still does.

Francis Maude, director, Donald Insall Associates

In Paris, the reaction has set in against President Macron’s ambitious programme to have Notre Dame restored in time for the 2024 Olympics. The French Senate has taken note of the architectural profession’s flights of fancy as to how the cathedral roof might be restored, perhaps as a great glasshouse, a swimming pool or a car park. Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor of Paris, has declared herself a ‘conservative’ on this issue. The Figaro newspaper has gathered a petition of over 1,000 experts suggesting that five years is not enough to complete the work of conscientious restoration. The senate has now passed a Reconstruction Bill demanding that the Cathedral be rebuilt in exact replica of what there was before the blaze.

Notre-Dame Cathedral after the construction of the spire in the 1860s

Notre-Dame Cathedral after the construction of the spire in the 1860s

Notre-Dame Cathedral after the construction of the spire in the 1860s

There is room for a lively debate about what constitutes a replica and what constitutes a renewal; the surviving gables for the transepts, as well as the parapets and abutments to the tower all define the shape of the roof, and whatever means of construction is chosen, it would be considered ill-mannered to devise a new roof that didn’t respect that shape.

Within the envelope of the roof, a new timber structure could still be contemplated, which took advantage of developments in engineered timber design over the intervening period (later Gothic builders would have done this), or a fireproof construction system could be used to avoid the risk which led to the recent fire. Mind you, many would say that a roof that lasted 850 years has been a pretty good fire risk, and timber has, therefore demonstrated that it is more than adequate.

I find a resolution to replicate the pre-existing design unjustifiable at this stage. The lost spire was a creation of Eugene Viollet le Duc, who reinvented the Gothic style to suit what he thought it ought to have looked like. What the Senate is saying is that they don’t believe anyone today has the talent to match that. Without a competition we shall never know.

This is a pity, and not what we expect from the French at their best. We think of flair and innovation as the hallmarks of France; the French invented the Gothic style and developed it for 300 years or more; Viollet le Duc re-imagined it for the 19th century. What could they do with it now? 

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