In April, Paris watched as one of its most iconic landmarks, the Notre Dame Cathedral, was engulfed in flames. While the two bell towers and many of the most valuable relics in the building were saved, the spire and much of the cathedral roof were destroyed in the fire.
While there is no question on whether or not to rebuild the famous spire and roof of Notre Dame, there is debate over how it should be done, begging the question: how do you repair such a historic and important piece of architecture?
Many believe that the cathedral repairs should match the original structure as closely as possible, and with modern technologies such a feat is easily achievable. Computerized routing machines are capable of recreating the intricate designs of the cathedral and laser scans taken in 2010 can be used to create a digital blueprint of the building that is accurate down to the most minute details. However, there is a significant amount of people who argue that the spire and roof should be completely redesigned. They believe that rebuilding the spire in a more modern manner is simply part of the “evolution of heritage” and recognize the fire as a significant part of the cathedral’s history that should be highlighted, not erased.
The situation becomes more complex when the technological advances since the building’s original construction are considered. New stronger and more reliable materials are now available for construction and it seems like a no-brainer to use them in the Notre Dame repairs. This seems especially obvious considering that one of the reasons the fire burned so fiercely was because it was fuelled by the roof’s extensive network of wooden beams. In addition to this, modern materials are much more resistant to degradation over time, meaning the cathedral would need fewer repairs and have a smaller chance of getting damaged in the future. However, much of the detail work of the original structure consisted of stone and wood carvings, which could be difficult to replicate using modern materials and techniques. Internal reinforcement invisible from the outside could be used, but doing so would not provide the maximum amount of security that using all modern materials would. Thus, these factors need to be taken into consideration in the decision of how Notre Dame will be rebuilt.
In order to help settle the debate over how to rebuild the cathedral, the Prime Minister of France, Eduoard Philippe, announced an international competition to design the spire. Many architects have jumped at this opportunity to have a hand in contributing to such a historic building. Some designs, such as those proposed by Studio NAB and Miysis Studios, envision the cathedral as a sort of greenhouse, with all glass walls and ceilings and full size trees growing inside. Studio NAB has even proposed converting the spire into an apiary housing hundreds of thousands of bees. Other designs, like that of Alexandre Fantozzi, take a more religious and traditional route and propose a roof and spire comprised entirely of stained glass. This design would cast colored hues down on visitors and fit with the existing stained glass masterpieces that survived the fire. A glass, crystal, and stainless steel structure has been proposed by Foster + Partners and leans more toward a modern and reinvented design. Clearly, the ideas submitted for the rebuilding of Notre Dame range all over the board and present exciting suggestions for what might become of the famous cathedral.
While the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral is certainly a tragedy and marks the loss of treasured antiquity, it also presents the exciting opportunity to add to history. The famous spire itself was constructed hundreds of years after the original building was constructed, so adding to history is already part of the cathedral’s past. What seems to be most important is that the final blueprint honors the history of the cathedral, while at the same time making it symbolic of current times and imbuing it with modern character. Whether it ends up being a glass encasement for a thriving greenhouse or a brilliant installment of stained glass, the next design will certainly make its mark on history.