How to rebuild Notre-Dame

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Fireman aims hose at hotspot after fire burned Notre-Dame de Paris. (Eric Feferberg/AFB/Getty)

Right out of the box, France announced an international competition to determine whether and how to rebuild the roof and spire of Notre-Dame, destroyed by fire on April 15. French President Emmanuel Macron wants the job done by 2024, in time for that year’s Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

And why not? Athletes arriving to compete at the 850-year-old historic venue in the roof-jumping, spire-climbing, bell-ringing, tower-mounting, boulder-throwing and pitch-pouring events must familiarize themselves with the dimensions of the rebuilt cathedral before competition in their respective events actually begins.

Seriously, why must repairs to a cathedral that took centuries to build during the Middle Ages be rushed to completion in just a handful of years?

According to 1,170 international architects, conservationists and historians who signed a petition that ran in Le Figero on April 29, five years drastically underestimates the time required to do the job responsibly. Among other things, experts cited a need to train hundreds of additional stonecutters, carpenters, ironmongers and roofers. Nevertheless, the AP reported that “France’s government last week presented a bill aimed at speeding up the reconstruction of Notre-Dame that would allow workers to skip some ordinary renovation procedures.”

Why, of course! Who would ever call this an ordinary renovation!

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Statue of Voillet-le-Duc on spire appears to react to certain schemes to rebuild Notre-Dame. (Wikipedia)

Indeed, the language of the officials who announced the competition suggests ominous explanations for the rush job that seems to be in the works. The competition could be framed so as to seek, in the words of Macron’s premier, “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.” The president’s promise to rebuild the cathedral “even more beautifully” could suggest a bias at the Élysée Palace for a modernist reconceptualization of the roof and spire, and against a historical replication of the work done in the mid-1800s by master restorer Eugene Voillet-le-Duc.

Leaving aside Macron’s silly Olympic deadline, the chief rationale for such a short period might in fact be to grease the skids for a proposal that could shorten the time-line by substituting a quickie modernist clip-on, paint-by-numbers renovation scheme for a time-consuming adult restoration.

British architect Norman Foster stepped quickly into the breach with a glass-and-steel proposal quite modest compared with other proposals. Foster told The Guardian that “the decision to hold a competition for the rebuilding of Notre Dame is to be applauded because it is an acknowledgment of that tradition of new interventions.”

Hardly. Restoring an icon damaged by fire or natural disaster calls for an approach that leans toward retaining its historical character. A more liberal approach might, on the other hand, arise from the management of its safety systems, climate controls, code requirements, technological upgrades or even design enhancements. Notre-Dame epitomizes the former approach, which naturally invites, though it may not demand, the use of improved techniques in construction and safety, and even innovative approaches to replicating historical character, as Viollet-le-Duc recognized.

As described so far by the French authorities, the international competition is entirely consonant with this historical approach. Yes, their language can be interpreted, as shown above, to suggest a modernist approach. But the bulk of public opinion in France seems to support a traditional rebuild – perhaps because modernist architects have long demonstrated, in the additions they design for traditional buildings, that they are incapable of subverting their egos to the modesty required by respect for historical character.

Duncan Stroik, celebrated for his ecclesiastical designs, including work in the Gothic tradition, offers two reasons, in “Why Rebuild a Gothic ‘Addition’ to Notre-Dame?” for The American Conservative, why modernists today should not be trusted to restore Notre-Dame: “First, because Viollet’s spire is a great work of architecture on a world heritage site, and secondly because most contemporary architects couldn’t design Gothic to save their life.”

That may be the understatement of the week. No need to rush. Do it right.

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Sir Norman Foster’s glass-and-steel proposal for rebuilding Notre-Dame. (Foster+Partners)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to How to rebuild Notre-Dame

  1. Steven Semes says:

    Another facet of the Foster suggestion: the glass roof only lets natural light down into the space below if the vaulting is not repaired–i.e., the gaping holes in the vaults that collapsed remain. That alone is unconscionable. Cancel the competition now!


  2. Foster’s proposal is NOT one for the ages. Hpw often will the silicone joints have to be repaired? When will it start leaking? The lead roof that was there lasted a loooong time, this glass roof would not. Just for that reason alone it should be rejected.

    The article by Francesco Bandarin, a former ICOMOS official, makes it clear that according to the international guidelines France has already agreed to, the only proper course of action here is restoration of what was there previously as it is all well documented and can be reproduced accurately.


  3. Pingback: How to rebuild Notre-Dame | Notre-Dame de Paris

  4. Craig says:

    How can one leave a reply to what France might do to Notre Dame, it left me speechless with anger.


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