As the word about the Notre-Dame fire quickly spread around the world together with shocking images of the cathedral’s spire aflame. The first questions to spring to everyone’s mind (beyond first wondering how the fire was initiated, which is said to possibly remain uncertain for weeks) were of similar nature: “Will reconstruction be possible? How much will reconstruction works cost? How long will reconstruction works take? Will it ever be as it
was before? Before the fire was even extinguished, many professionals and experts in the fields of renovation and restoration were surely approached by, friends and acquaintances, journalists, governmental organizations, and strangers casually overhearing the conversation. Even as a recent architecture graduate or architecture student one was likely to hear: “What will be done know? You are (or going to be) an architect, you should know!

Notre-Dame during the fire on April 15th. Photo by Hubert Hitier HUBERT (Credit: HITIER/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the questions I personally heard less often than expected was, however, (perhaps due to a personal interest in the topic): “What will they do now? How will reconstruction works be approached?” For professionals and experts in these fields, there are hence many questions to be made before even asking the first ones to arise everyone’s minds, due to the fact of being aware of the wide scope of approaches of reconstruction, which however might be of interest to anyone curious, given the opportunity to get an overview of all the existing possibilities in this field. For starters, however, it is first necessary to have some background facts on the structure to be restored, before one can give a certain answer to any of the uncertainties surrounding these recent developments.
Notre-Dame cathedral, for instance, is part of the “Paris, Banks of the Seine” UNESCO World Heritage Site. Given the importance of the building in the collective imaginary of many people, (specially in France of course) many people would like to see the building exactly as it was before the fire and questioning the approach to take towards restoration does not even come into play, being restoring the cathedral as it was before the outbreak of the fire the only option to be considered. Although this might be wrong as an initial assumption, before taking into consideration all other possible alternatives, some preservationists, although being aware of other approaches existing towards reconstruction also favour historical restoration and minimizing the changes to be made in the monument, due to the fact that physical characteristics of such buildings appeal to our historical association.

Notre-Dame before the fire, view from across the river. Photo by bennett tobias on Unsplash

Historic Preservation, hence does suggest maintaining the original character of the building and replicating the existing wood structural elements of the cathedral damaged by the fire, instead of substituting those for another structural solution with new material such as steel, having this kind of solution already been implemented in other religious buildings been restored, such as the Cathedral of Reims or Chartres. In the first mentioned, reinforced
concrete trusses were used to support the existing structure, which is however not visible from the outside, while the second one was rebuilt with iron trusses and copper sheeting instead of the pre-existing materials. Beyond the possibility of reconstructing the cathedral as it was before, this brings new options to show, such as using modern materials and techniques, but restricting the visibility of those within the building or even consciously altering the appearance of the building, as some people favour the need for a visual difference between the original structure and the newly built part.
It is perhaps necessary at this point to acknowledge the wide scope of existing possibilities, regardless of one’s preference for one or another, that facing how construction techniques have evolved since Notre-Dame construction start in the 12th century, making reimagining the pre-existing structures possible in ways people could not even think of back then. In fact, already during the cathedral’s construction process changed, as it took a long time for the cathedral to be built. Restoration hence does not necessarily pursue replicating the past: Figures such as Camillo Boito (1836-1914) and Gustavo Giovanonni (1873-1947) both Italian architects and engineers favour approaching restoration from a scientific point of view. Therefore, according to their approach to restoration interventions in historical buildings should be visible within the pre-existing building, as a part of the building’s history, instead of trying to reproduce the previous state of the building.
These  theorists  base  their  ideas  on  John  Ruskin’s    (1819-1900)  idea  of restoration, which is by far more fatalistic, than implementing visible changes in the pre-existing building: Buildings according to him shall remain exposed to time, meaning restoration works should not be carried out at all in order for historic authenticity to be preserved. In this case, it should also be kept in mind that Notre-Dame has surely already changed since its construction, As of course renovation works had already taken place in the building since its construction start in the 12th century several times.

Notre-Dame on April 21st. Scaffolds erected to consolidate damaged parts of the Cathedral. Photo by Sukkoria on Wikimedia commons.

The  spire,  for  example,  had  already  been  rebuilt  several  times  since construction. The actual spire, which so many eyes saw dramatically collapse in the fire was a design by Violet-le-Duc in the 19th century. Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc (1814-1879) himself defended that restoration a building had a component of improving it, instead of going back to its former state. According to him restoring a building should be seen as the possibility to add to it as much as necessary to complete it, not to be as it was before, but to become, as it should have been by the time of construction if such had been technically possible. His approach to restoration is called Stylistic restoration and pursues the give the restored building its ideal shape the building might have never reached before. Therefore removing any historical additions that had been previously made would be a necessary stage, before the building can reach this construction state. This conception might hence add to the controversy of what to do now, what to preserve or if it is time for a new version of Notre-Dame.

Alba Calabozo is an architect, design and arts enthusiast having recently graduated from the University of Navarra in Spain. She is specialized in the field of architectonic restoration and rehabilitation. Writing about architecture is her way to share some food for thought while looking for her next career step beyond a traditional career path of an architect.

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