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20 May 2019 23:10
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  •   Home > News > International

    Notre Dame repairs see Paris split over whether to redesign or replicate cathedral spire and ceiling

    The restoration of the "soul of Paris" is shaping up to be one of France's most controversial national projects, with the nation split over whether the ceiling and spire should be rebuilt as exact replicas, or with a bold new design.

    A billion-dollar budget, a once-in-a-generation design competition and an ancient building in need of urgent repairs. The Notre Dame rebuild sounds like a project Kevin McCloud could only dream of.

    The restoration of the "soul of Paris" is shaping up to be one of France's most controversial national projects, and already, everyone has an opinion on how it should proceed.

    After a massive fire gutted the cathedral on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild, boosted by hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from across the world.

    He said the cathedral must be rebuilt "even more beautifully than before".

    Christophe Girard, deputy mayor for culture in Paris agreed, telling ABC News the Gothic masterpiece must be painstakingly restored to its former glory.

    "Notre Dame is like a very strong lady — beautiful lady — belonging to the world.

    "She's asking us, the world and our country, what can you do for me and how fast can you repair me?"

    Mr Macron believes the work can be completed in five years — perhaps in time for the Paris Olympics — but many specialists in restoration think that timeframe is either highly ambitious or just plain insane.

    The 19th-century spire, which dramatically collapsed during the fire, will be redesigned and the French Government said it would accept proposals from architects around the world.

    The 90-metre spire was one of the most recognisable landmarks in Paris, jutting towards the sky in the centre of the city.

    But France is split on whether the ceiling and spire should be rebuilt as an exact replica, or with a bold new design for the modern age.

    Re-design to spark a 'quarrel between the ancients and moderns'

    The spire was an addition made to Notre Dame in the mid 19th century by French architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who spent decades designing a new steeple to replace the cathedral's original, taken down in 1786.

    Parisian architect and art historian Monique Barge said the fire-ravaged structure is unlikely to hold the weight of a similar design.

    "We are not in the same conditions as before, since now we have a building that is tired and damaged," Ms Barge said.

    "We'll have to see what kind of load the pillars can hold, and they certainly can't bear the weight they were supporting before."

    Ms Barge suspects there is "likely to be a quarrel between the ancients and the moderns" over the re-design of Notre Dame.

    Although she is yet to decide whether to enter the international design competition, she favours a total re-imagination of the spire.

    "I don't see why we should be ashamed of the times we live in. This is an opportunity."

    Architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte agreed it should not be a replica, telling French media a "pastiche" of the former spire would be "grotesque".

    But the suggestion of a fresh look for Notre Dame has horrified many in France — in spite of the fact the nation has previously made modern additions to its monuments.

    More than 70 per cent of 35,000 people surveyed by the conservative newspaper Le Figaro said they were opposed to a contemporary renovation.

    Deputy mayor of Versailles Francois-Xavier Bellamy said the building should be restored exactly "with the patience than an absolute masterpiece requires".

    Claude Gauvard, a historian of the Middle Ages and author of a book on Notre Dame, said Viollet-le-Duc was loved in France for designing "a national symbol".

    "I'd like for those who rebuild the cathedral to respect what Viollet-le-Duc did, because it is probably him who understood the best what gothic art was."

    'Is it really going to take five years? We'll see in five years'

    Once architects, engineers and experts in glass and stone have assessed the extensive damage to Notre Dame's structure, there's another decision to be made.

    Should the 19th-century techniques that were employed to build the fallen ceiling and spire also be reproduced?

    Parisian carpenter Daniel Flachat hopes so.

    "Whether you are a carpenter working on traditional sites or on new projects, the techniques are the same. We were able to perpetuate the know-how since the old times," Mr Flachat said.

    Notre Dame's intricate framework of oak beams was referred to as "the forest" by architects, and it went up in smoke, along with two-thirds of the ceiling.

    It's not clear if the framework will be built again with an identical wooden structure or replaced with steel.

    Mr Flachat is chief executive of Paris Charpentes, which has rebuilt and restored wooden cathedrals and French monuments for more than 100 years.

    It is still teaching its apprentices the same techniques they would have used hundreds of years ago.

    "A lot of French companies are capable of working on that kind of monument. We still use the same technique every day, even on modern projects."

    But when asked whether Notre Dame could be restored by 2024, he is diplomatic.

    "It's true that five years is a very short deadline to conduct such a project. We have to be ambitious. This being said, is it really going to take five years? We'll see in five years."

    Deputy mayor for culture Mr Girard said the Government was optimistic that it could be done, especially because the project has been bolstered by massive donations.

    "You have a beautiful building in Australia which is the Sydney Opera House by a Danish architect, I don't know how many years it took, but it didn't take a century or two centuries like Notre Dame in the past … it doesn't seem to me crazy, but we have to listen to architects."

    But Caroline Shenton, an expert on Westminster and former director of the Parliamentary Archives, said the rebuild "shouldn't be rushed".

    "This is one of the great buildings of Western Europe, one of the great buildings of the world really, and it needs to have all the time and energy and effort and money poured into it that it needs to get it back to where it should be."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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