Notre Dame was Paris’s most visited tourist attraction, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that attracted more than 12 million visitors each year. But many people in France also hailed it as a cultural symbol, a visual anchor of Paris, and a reminder of the Catholic traditions that underpin a proud secular republic.
The cathedral’s iconic bell towers and ornate stained glass withstood the flames. The crown of thorns that Jesus allegedly wore at his crucifixion was saved. But the roof collapsed, the medieval wooden interior was obliterated and many artifacts were lost. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
As President Emmanuel Macron stood in front of Notre Dame that night, with smoke still rising, he vowed, “We will rebuild this cathedral.” He hoped to have it ready for visitors by July 2024 when France hosts the Summer Olympics. But French officials say they are now targeting the end of 2024.
“We will have two extraordinary events in France in 2024: the Olympic Games and the reopening of Notre Dame,” Jean-Louis Georgelin, the French army general overseeing the project, told journalists who toured the wood workshop on Thursday. “In these two events, the image of France is at stake.”
Villeneuve was involved with Notre Dame before the fire and has overseen repair work since 2013. He wasn’t in Paris when the first fire engines rushed to the cathedral. But as soon as he heard it, he jumped on the last train from the Atlantic coast.
“Fortunately I didn’t see the tower collapse,” he said. “I don’t think I would have really recovered from that.”
In the days that followed, he and his team identified the most destabilized parts of the cathedral. Over the next two years, while workers secured the building, French architects, church officials and politicians discussed the reconstruction.
Some architects suggested reconstructing the collapsed roof as a greenhouse or using stained glass instead of wood, or even replacing it entirely with a swimming pool. Not all of these proposals seemed serious, but advocates of a modernized design argued that the fire represented an opportunity for a fresh start, as previous generations of architects had done.
Notre Dame has undergone numerous changes in its more than 850-year history. Over the centuries, the cathedral’s windows have been widened and the flying buttresses reconstructed. After an old tower was removed for safety reasons in the 18th century, the cathedral went decades without what is now its most iconic feature. Under the architectural direction of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Notre Dame underwent such dramatic changes in the 19th century that many scholars now say the building is more representative of the period than of its medieval origins.
Successive French presidents have strived to make their mark on central Paris by personally championing projects such as the Louvre Pyramid and the Center Pompidou. Macron, elected on a platform of renewal two years before the fire, suggested a “contemporary architectural gesture” in the new tower design. But after a backlash – including a threat of resignation from architect Villeneuve – he advocated a reconstruction that faithfully replicated the original.
However, it will look different in some ways.
“Before the fire, we had a very dirty cathedral – walls that looked almost black or dark gray because of candle and smoke pollution,” said Sandron, the art historian. “Now the color of the stones is very light.”
Aurélien Lefevre, who leads a group of carpenters working on the rebuild, said the project remains a challenge – but not one that is insurmountable. Problems can arise at any time, which is why last week’s trial run of installing the wooden beams was a crucial step.
“We are not immune to forgetting something,” said Lefevre.
Participating in the project can be a unique opportunity, especially for younger carpenters, he said.
Nearby, dozens of carpenters sawed, hammered, and polished wooden beams from centuries-old oak trees. More than 1000 carefully selected trees from all over France were felled for the reconstruction.
At the edges of the workshop, the wall skeletons for local building projects have been pushed aside to make room for the project, which will be a priority over the coming months.
Outside, Villeneuve rattled off a list of project milestones: “The galleries are complete, the north and south transepts are complete.”
Other parts – including the tower, decoration, vault and furniture – are still a work in progress. But after the shock and devastation of 2019, any sign of progress matters to those who care about the building.
“It’s balm on my scars,” said Villeneuve. “By rebuilding the cathedral, I am also rebuilding myself.”
The Washington Post
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