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Future of Notre Dame Cathedral wide open

Sven Töniges db
June 24, 2019

More than two months after the devastating fire that ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, reconstruction details remain unclear. The French National Assembly has the issue on its agenda again.

Notre Dame   - hat it could look like
Image: Studio NAB

At the first mass after the fire, held in Notre Dame Cathedral on June 16, 2019, the Archbishop of Paris, the altar boys and the congregation all wore white safety helmets. Construction spotlights bathed the altar in bright light. If they raised their eyes, people could see the sky above the altar space.

That was the setting when Michel Aupetit, the chief clergyman of Paris, conducted his first mass exactly two months to the day after a major fire had raged in the cathedral that destroyed the roof and the spire.

Danger of collapse

"Notre Dame is alive and kicking," is how the AFP news agency quoted Cathedral Dean Patrick Chauvet. Barbara Schock-Werner, a former Cologne cathedral building engineer and now the coordinator of German aid for the reconstruction of Notre Dame, was slightly more hesitant after inspecting the cathedral just a few days earlier.

Experts, including Schock-Werner, believe the church, which has been closed to the public, is in danger of collapsing. Things looked better than during her first visit, she told the German Cathedral Radio broadcaster, adding that piles of charred beams and broken vault stones still lie in the central nave, mildew threatens the water-logged choir stalls and the organ is completely full of soot, as is the entire interior.

Priests in white robes surrounded by pillars and stained-glass windows
Leading his congregation in prayer two months after the fire, the Archbishop of Paris wore a protective helmetImage: Reuters/K. Perret

Warning of high lead levels

A key obstacle to the clean-up work are the tons of molten lead from the roof that contaminate the interior. Due to the danger of lead poisoning, experts are trying to remove the debris from the cathedral using small, remote-controlled excavators, explained Schock-Werner. Actual reconstruction can only begin once the church has been completely cleaned and secured.

It should be completed in five years, President Emmanuel Macron promised the French public in April. It was then that Jean-Louis Georgelin was named the special representative for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame. Since then, the five-star general and former chief of staff at the Elysee Palace has been called "Monsieur Reconstruction."

Georgelin has an eye on this ambitious timetable. Macron called for "inventive reconstruction," an alliance of tradition and modernity and "respectful daring." Those slogans now fuel the national architectural competition launched by the government in April.

cleanup-effort Notre Dame
Excavators are being used in the clean-up effort Image: Reuters/P. Lopez

Government has the last word

In May, Culture Minister Franck Riester invited his countrymen to join a major "debate and consultation" on reconstruction. At the same time Riester made it clear that the state, in particular the government of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, will have the final word on the cathedral's future appearance. 

According to an online survey published in April by YouGov, 54% of French respondents were in favor of a reconstruction. Chief architect Philippe Villeneuve said he is tired of all the "enormous nonsense" about reconstruction.

In an interview with Le Figaro, he referred to the requirements of the 1964 Venice Charter for the Preservation of Historical Monuments that France would have to comply with. "The spire must be an identical reproduction," said Villeneuve.

Cologne Cathedral a poor example?

The spire was designed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century and destroyed by the fire. He pointed out the crossing tower of Cologne Cathedral as a good example of how not to do it: "This is a 1950s wart on a historic building."

Jean-Louis Georgelin
Monsierur Reconstruction, Jean-Louis GeorgelinImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Mattia

With his team of 150 employees, Villeneuve is now busy preventing any such thing from happening. The conflict in approaches to reconstruction between daring and monumental humility is increasingly clear, with no foreseeable end in sight.

Watered-down five-year plan

Germany's Barbara Schock-Werner has warned against exaggerated expectations, especially with regard to the time frame.

Even if the roof has been restored within five years, work on and in the church will continue for a long time, she said. The French Senate criticized the "great hurry" in May when discussing the law on the "conservation and restoration" of Notre-Dame previously passed by the National Assembly. The government is not allowed to circumvent monument protection in order to speed things up.

The Senate also said the cathedral must look just like it used to, including Viollet-le-Duc's crossing tower.

The National Assembly will decide on the amended draft text again on June 26 when France faces the next round in the Old versus New dispute over the reconstruction of Notre Dame.

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