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Notre-Dame: we should resist the temptation to replicate what has been lost

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The knee-jerk reaction to faithfully replicate destroyed elements should not guide the overall restoration process, writes Donald Insall’s Francis Maude

Francis maude, director photo (c) damian griffiths

The fire has been extinguished, and Notre-Dame has been saved from total destruction. Easter will still be a time of celebration. Our hearts are uplifted. Those who cried have dried their tears. Triumph is the reverse of Disaster and everyone will wish to see the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris restored to life.

For now, we need an open mind about how this might be achieved.

Lessons from Windsor Castle and elsewhere show how important protecting and understanding what survives from the fire will be. A temporary roof will protect the cathedral and its precious interiors from the weather during the long process of drying out and restoration. The fragile vaults, walls, tracery and structure will need to be stabilised while repairs continue. The fallen debris will contain much of value – items that can be restored to their rightful place; there will be a programme of careful sorting to find those valuable carved stones, sections of timber, embellishments and decorations.

Understanding the surviving fabric is a precondition of any successful restoration project. When the loss is recent and overwhelming, an immediate reaction is often to insist that the restoration must make good everything that has been lost in exact facsimile. This reaction should not guide the restoration process.

As well as the current condition, and the capability of the damaged parts of the building to be repaired, there is a need to understand which parts of the cathedral are of significance and why. Notre-Dame, like Windsor Castle and other historic sites, is the product of many centuries of repair, evolution and development. Some changes will have been made to serve contemporary expectations – for lighting, heating, interpretation, step-free access and much more – and these can be updated without prejudice.

Rheims Cathedral’s roof structure was renewed in steel, to assume the same form of what was lost

Others, such as some of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s speculative Gothic details, are of more nuanced significance. Some episodes of destruction, such as the mutilation of the statues on the West Front during the French Revolution, have acquired a historical significance of their own. Architectural historians will have a lively debate discussing their relative importance. There will be a period of many months while the fire-damaged cathedral is stabilised and protected, and the debris sifted, during which the alternative approaches for restoration can be considered.

Key among them will be the renewal of the roof structure, which is computed to contain timber equivalent to 1,300 oak trees, enough to cover 52 hectares of forest. Such trees will need to be found – or perhaps lessons from the rebuilding of Rheims Cathedral after the First World War will be considered as a precedent. There, the roof structure was renewed in steel, to assume the same form of what was lost. Considerations of future maintenance and resistance to fire will, as at Windsor, play a part in determining a final resolution; either way, the best fire detection, suppression and containment measures will certainly be incorporated.

As for the spire, or flèche, which was consumed by flames and so spectacularly pierced the vaulted ceiling in the middle of the cathedral when it collapsed, that was le Duc’s imaginative recreation of the original, taken down in 1786. The French prime minister has announced an international competition for a new design. President Macron has also announced that the whole of Notre-Dame will be restored within five years, by 2024, when Paris hosts the Olympic Games. If this is achieved, we should perhaps name the new spire the Flèche de Triomphe.

Francis Maude is director at Donald Insall Associates

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Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    I agree fully that replicating the spire would be a grave error of judgement. It is an opportunity for France to demonstrate what the C21 can do.

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  • Industry Professional

    Reims has a metal roof construction - Chartres has a metal roof construction (1837-1841 would you believe!) - Notre Dame should have a metal roof construction. It's nonsensical to rebuild it in timber!

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