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France to launch competition for redesign of Notre Dame spire


Tobias | CC BY 2.0

John Burger - published on 04/18/19 - updated on 04/20/19

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said the competition would give the 850-year-old building “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.”

The response to Monday’s fire in the Cathedral of Notre Dame has been swift and encouraging. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed rebuilding in time for the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024. Pledges for financial help are approaching a billion dollars. And now, a call has gone out to architects and designers to submit proposals for a new roof design.

“France will launch an international architectural competition to redesign the roofline of Notre Dame Cathedral after a huge fire gutted the oak-beamed structure and sent its [300-foot] spire crashing into the nave, the prime minister has said,” the Guardian reported Wednesday:

Édouard Philippe said the competition would give the 850-year-old building “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” He said an estimation of the cost of rebuilding the cathedral had yet to be made. French billionaires, multinationals and private citizens have so far raised €880m (£762m) for the restoration.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York on Thursday announced a campaign to raise funds for the restoration, which will be sent directly to the Archbishop of Paris. His announcement came just hours after news that a man had been arrested Wednesday night after trying to enter New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral carrying two full containers of gasoline, lighter fluid, and a butane lighter.

In Paris, meanwhile, the realities of the damage done and the risks involved are coming into plainer view. The prosecutor’s office said the cathedral is not yet considered secure enough for investigators to enter and start examining the source of the fire.

One architectural expert said it could take between two and five years just to check the stability of the cathedral after Monday’s traumatic event.

“It’s a fundamental step, and very complex, because it’s difficult to send workers into a monument whose vaulted ceilings are swollen with water,” Pierluigi Pericolo, a leading French conservation architect, told French radio. “The end of the fire doesn’t mean the edifice is totally saved,” he said. “The stone can deteriorate when it is exposed to high temperatures and change its mineral composition and fracture inside.”

Notre Dame’s rector, Bishop Patrick Chauvet, said he expected the building to remain closed to the public for five to six years. “A segment has been very weakened,” he said.

A Paris fire service spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Gabriel Plus, said on Wednesday the cathedral’s rose windows were in good condition but that there is a risk for the gables in which they are set.

“Today, there is no risk of collapse,” Plus told Reuters. “Our priority is to stabilize the pinnacles which are weakened, since they are no longer held up by the roof and its frame.”

Part of the international architectural competition will involve the possibility of recreating the 300-foot lead-covered spire that was toppled during the fire. That spire was built in the mid-19th century, during a major restoration project completed by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. The competition will “allow us to ask the question of whether we should even recreate the spire as it was conceived by Viollet-le-Duc,” Prime Minister Philippe told reporters after a cabinet meeting dedicated to the fire. “Or, as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, whether we should endow Notre Dame with a new spire. This is obviously a huge challenge, a historic responsibility.”

Macron said on Wednesday that he was not opposed to replacing the spire with “a contemporary architectural gesture,” the New York Times reported. The Times added:

[Franck] Riester, the culture minister, said that he welcomed debates about restoring the cathedral, even though the state, which owns it, would ultimately decide. “We mustn’t say to ourselves, by dogmatism, that we must absolutely redo the cathedral as it was,” he said, adding: “We won’t decide to do something modern or something new just for the sake of it.”

Philippe said the government would present a bill next week to ensure “transparency and good management” during the reconstruction project, including measures to make sure all donations actually end up going to Notre Dame, the Guardian reported.

Stéphane Bern, the government’s culture representative, said on Wednesday that major pledges have come from Apple, the Total energy group and the owners of luxury French brands such as L’Oréal, Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton. Many private individuals in France and around the world have also donated.

Some experts questions Macron’s optimistic prediction that the rebuilding will be done in five years. Pericolo, who worked on the restoration of the 19th-century Nantes basilica, which was badly damaged by fire in 2015, called it “a colossal task” that would take “no less than 15 years.”

In addition, companies specializing in the restoration of historic buildings and monuments said they would have trouble finding enough skilled workers and apprentices.

“We’ll have to recruit 100 masons, 150 woodworkers and 200 roofers,” Jean-Claude Bellanger of the artisans’ organization the Compagnons du Devoir, told the Guardian. “The problem is that these manual crafts are undervalued and don’t attract many people. We have the firms and the expertise, but there’s a serious lack of young people for this work.”

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