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Sacred Stones

When Notre Dame was engulfed in flames earlier this year, graphic news footage showing the partial destruction of this historic monument shocked people all over the world. And, as the smoke rose from the embers, talk turned to how the cathedral might be restored.

We’ve discussed the topic of restoring precious heritage buildings in MGA’s Soapbox before – most recently in relation to the restoration of the Glasgow School of Art. In the case of Notre Dame, its age and cultural importance weigh even more heavily on those who will decide its fate. The cathedral took more than 100 years to build – it was largely complete by 1260 – during which time, styles and techniques would have been constantly evolving. The gabled portals with accompanying rose windows weren’t added until the mid-thirteenth century, for instance, while the famous spire, was designed by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century.

There has been a flurry of design proposals in the last few months, each proposing a different vision for the new Notre Dame. Suggestions include replacing the roof with a structure of Baccarat crystal (Studio Fuksas) and Vizumatelier’s plan to incorporate a lightweight tower topped with a beam of light. Some of the more adventurous schemes include one that would see the historic cathedral transformed with a roof that generates its own energy and includes an aquaponic farm (Vincent Callebaut) and another that would top the building with a cruciform swimming pool surrounded by the statues of the Apostles that were saved from the fire (Ulf Mejergren Architects).

Many of the proposals have sought to find a balance between the cathedral’s history and its future. On our side of la Manche, the current ethos of English Heritage is not to replicate historical features and risk turning them into pastiche, but rather to effect honest and legible repairs that become part of the building’s history.

It’s an approach that has been adopted elsewhere in Europe with positive results. The Castelvecchio Museum in Verona showcases the restoration of a medieval castle by the twentieth-century architect Carlo Scarpa in the 1960s. His unique architectural style enhances the history of the building because he resisted the temptation to recreate original features, instead using modern materials and craft traditions to establish a new vernacular within the established historic setting. Scarpa was famous for his attention to detail and his ability to integrate modern materials, such as steel concrete and glass, as well as using traditional materials like timber in a more contemporary way.

The subject may be moot if a bill recently passed in the French Senate that dictates the cathedral must be restored in a way that is faithful to ‘the last known visual state’ of the building is ratified in the National assembly. This would also mean that Viollet-le-Duc’s spire would have to be recreated and that any use of new materials would need to be justified, ending speculation over its design. However, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron has called for an ‘inventive’ reconstruction, while prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has announced an international competition to design a new spire for Notre Dame.

There is some concern over the ethical considerations of cutting down acres of European oak to replicate the cathedral’s original roof. Some say that during a period of restoration in the mid-nineteenth century, the team predicted that Notre Dame’s beams would eventually need to be replaced – a project thought to require more than a thousand trees. The response? A forest of oak trees planted at nearby Versailles ready to harvest in a century-and-a-half. It’s a compelling story of long-term thinking but one which has been debunked by a spokesperson for the palace who asserts there is no truth in the claim.

We think that Notre Dame presents an opportunity for architects to establish a new chapter in the cathedral’s history while using resources as sensibly and sustainably as possible. The skill of twenty-first-century structural engineers means that we are limited by only our imagination. Contemporary design, whether in timber, steel, stone or concrete, could provide a solution that would use the materials in ways that the original cathedral builders would marvel at, and – had they existed 800 years ago – would have been only too glad to employ.

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