German cathedral expert ′spellbound′ by Notre Dame fire | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 17.04.2019

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German cathedral expert 'spellbound' by Notre Dame fire

Following the Notre Dame fire, the former master builder of Cologne's cathedral, Barbara Schock-Werner, told DW why cathedrals aren't insured and how Cologne's fire-fighting system differs to that of Notre Dame.

On the evening of April 15, a fire broke out in the upper levels of Notre Dame Cathedral, eventually causing the spire to collapse and consuming much of the roof. The blaze took 15 hours to extinguish, and the full extent of the damage remained unknown two days later as an investigation into its cause got underway. French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to rebuild the iconic Parisian landmark, and donations and offers of help have poured in. 

The Cologne Cathedral was severely damaged in bombing during WWII. The reconstruction ended in 1956, though today constant maintenance and renovation still take place.

Architect and art historian Barbara Schock-Werner was the master builder of the Cologne Cathedral from 1999 to 2012 and therefore responsible for all of the building's structural conservation work. 

DW asked her about the damage to Notre Dame and the reconstruction process.

Deutsche Welle: What came to mind when you saw the images of Notre Dame Cathedral in flames?

Barbara Schock-Werner: I felt terrible. I thought it simply can't be true, the fire can't be that massive. In fact I'm spellbound by how quickly the fire spread and how quickly it engulfed the entire roof. 

How much of this UNESCO World Heritage Site has been lost? 

We'll have to see. The roof truss, or framework, is totally lost as is the ridge spire that dates back to 1844 — but that most certainly can be reconstructed because the original blueprints still exist. Half of the roof framework  was actually still medieval, the other was built in the 19th century. What we don't know yet is what happened inside, how much of the buttress structure [supporting arches] softened due to overheating and whether the flames weakened the stones.  It will take days to be sure of the extent of the damage.

Read more: Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral devastated by massive fire


Barbara Schock-Werner stands on a platform with cathedral towers in the background

For 13 years Barbara Schock-Werner was responsible for Cologne Cathedral's conservation work, both inside and out

You are a cathedral master builder yourself, and you worked in that capacity in Cologne for many years, overseeing nearly constant repair and maintenance work. Are cathedrals insured against losses and damage by fire? 

No, because no one could afford the premiums. In Cologne, not even the Shrine of the Three Kings [a large gilded and decorated triple sarcophagus that dates back to the late 12th century] is insured. Of course we have liability insurance for the cathedral in Cologne — there is just no building insurance. 

We have to do all we can to prevent such disasters, and we do. The fire protection concept for Cologne Cathedral is quite sophisticated, and it is being continuously improved in close cooperation with the fire department. In the case of Notre Dame, you could see the firemen were spraying water from street level.

In Cologne, we've installed lots of empty pipes around the cathedral so that firemen can attach the hoses about 50 meters (164 ft) up from street level, closer to the source of the fire. 

Read more: Cologne Cathedral fights pooing pigeons with birds of prey

Fire protection plays a large role for all of my master builder colleagues, yet surprisingly little actually happens. This is the first major fire that has taken place since I've been in this profession, and that's been decades. There have been smaller fires, but I know my colleagues are very focused on the problem. We are all keen to learn why things went wrong in Paris.

Donors have already pledged hundreds of millions of euros to rebuild Notre Dame. Is reconstruction even possible? 

Of course. Reconstructing the vaults and putting in a new roof truss and tower over the crossing is not easy, but it can be done. With enough money and manpower, the building can certainly be reconstructed. The artwork is another matter, however.  

Are you prepared to help out? After all, you have a lot of expertise?

Of course we help each other out where we can. In fact, there's a European Association of Cathedral Master Builders from 14 countries. The French have their own system, so I doubt they will seek help on the international stage, though they might ask for advice concerning the lead roof. In that case, they will need to turn to the UK because working with lead is forbidden in France for health reasons. 

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