Wednesday, 17 April 2019

The Inferno at Notre Dame


We came home from work on Monday (a day's touring with American clients in the Loire Valley) and turned on the news to see the shocking announcement that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was ablaze.

Initially the fire brigade struggled to gain control and news commentators assumed the worst. There were lots of predictions that the whole building and contents would be lost. Passers-by, both French and foreign tourists, watched in horror from vantage points outside the cordoned off area.

Photograph Susan Walter.    Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
 One of the rose windows at Notre Dame, photographed years ago.

But very quickly the communications professionals started talking to the heritage professionals and it was clear that not all was lost. A number of statues had been removed the day before as part of an ongoing renovation project, so they were safe. The fire brigade reported that once they had subdued the flames, the great 19th century spire and two thirds of the roof was dramatically gone, but the towers were safe and the building remains structurally sound.

It seems very likely that the fire is a tragic accident, an event not uncommonly associated with renovations on historic sites. These risks have been mitigated for decades by using a code of best practice, but it has proved impossible to completely prevent fires associated with renovations. Sometimes, despite the most professional approach, these things happen.

Of course, it is devastating for those who are the custodians of any historic building that suffers such a fire, but the truth is that for the heritage professionals it offers an exceptional opportunity to study and learn. The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites will guide a gigantic restoration process. Things that have been hidden for centuries will be revealed, Notre Dame will become living history, a chance to train a new generation of conservators and artisans, and engage in experimental archaeology. 

Photograph Susan Walter.    Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
The main altar in Notre Dame, also from years ago.

There are two possible approaches: the new parts of the building can be created deliberately in the best modern techniques and style, to ensure there is no confusion between genuine old building fabric and that built in response to the fire; or the artisans can channel their forebears and recreate everything so that only the educated, curious and well-informed will see the joins.

Many heritage professionals believe that the former approach is the most appropriate, but I have no doubt that there will be strong arguments for recreating what was lost as closely as possible, and I imagine that it is this second school of conservative thought that will prevail. The important thing will be maintaining the 'spirit of place', as heritage professionals like to call it. The building is owned by the State, not the Catholic Church, and is seen as much as a secular symbol as well as a religious place and that will inform the restoration.

Photograph Susan Walter.    Tour the Loire Valley with a classic car and a private guide.
The front of Notre Dame, at night, photographed a couple of years ago.

Often after a fire it is the water damage that causes the most destruction, but the well trained fire brigade have managed to ensure that most of the art works still within the cathedral are merely smoke damaged. Alongside the fire brigade a team of emergency collections salvage vounteers,  including the Paris fire brigade's chaplain tirelessly and bravely retrieved and rescued irreplaceable objects such as the crown of thorns so they were removed from harms way. An event like this allows these behind the scenes experts to shine and to put to use the training they hoped they would never have to use.

The Fondation du Patrimoine and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux have both started fundraising already (I had an email from the Fondation less than 24 hours after the event to let supporters like me know). The oak for the roof is sitting in readiness, coming from trees planted in the managed forests of Versailles and Fontainebleau in Napoleonic times -- looking to the future and preparing for just such a destruction of an important building in the Capital. Members of the public are despondently commenting that the cathedral will not be rebuilt in their lifetime, imagining a project of decades of wrangling and struggling to raise the money, but the reality is that it could be achieved in under ten years if similar projects such as Windsor Castle, Uppark and the Hotel de Ville in La Rochelle are anything to go by.

The world's most visited historic monument has much to offer and plenty of life in her yet.

Further reading in The Conversation -- Notre Dame: how a rebuilt cathedral could be just as wonderful. Also Agnes Poirier's opinion piece in the NYT.

If you would like to donate you can do so via the links to the Fondation du Patrimoine and the Centre des Monuments Nationaux.


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8 comments:

Sheila said...

I heard on the news earlier that donations to the fund are expected to top a billion dollars by the weekend. That's pretty amazing if it turns out to be true.

Susan said...

Given the international outpourings of shock and sorrow, I would guess it's possible. There have been some very substantial donations so far.

Unknown said...

I'm so pleased to learn that the oak has been stockpiled. That was my first thought when I saw the flames. It is sad , though, to lose such ancient wood which has done a yeoman's work all these years. Agnes Poirier's piece is very moving, thanks. And thanks for your info.
Jocelyn

Susan said...

I've just seen pictures of the coq that was atop the spire. It has been found in the rubble, dented but quite reparable. You would never know it had been in a fire. It must have toppled off and landed in a safe place. They don't know yet if the holy relics such as one of the thorns from the crown of thorns is still within the body of the coq.

chm said...

A similar fire in Nantes gutted the roof of the cathedral in 1972. In the restoration there, the wood beams were replaced by concrete. Ainsi, on remplace la charpente en bois d'origine par une structure en béton (seuls les liteaux retenant les ardoises sont en bois). I wonder if, with Notre-Dame, the ancient woodwork could be replaced by a lighter metallic structure, instead of concrete, to anchor the roof?

chm said...

Where's M. Eiffel when we need him?

Ken Broadhurst said...

I think the wooden beams in the roof at the cathedral in Reims were replaced by concrete beams when the building was restored after bombardments during the first world war. It seems to me that a metal structure would make the most sense.

Susan said...

There is certainly a lot of talk of replacing with metal structural beams, but I can't imagine that there will not still be a lot of wood -- even if it is just to hide the iron in the usual facadist way that is acceptable to the majority aesthetic. One of the things that the public does not realise is that it takes a *very* hot fire to make old oak beams burn because they are as hard as iron and not very flammable. Often they just get a bit singed and I know of a case where there has been a fire in a chateau roof and the old beams were reused. One of the reasons restoration is such a risk is because of the highly flammable materials that might be up there on the scaffold -- glues, solvents, paints etc. Hot work with open flame will (or should) have been banned eg welding, braising, but there is still opportunities for fire to take hold.

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