France Debates How to Rebuild Notre-Dame, Weighing History and Modernity
by Aurelien Breeden, The New York Times, April 18, 2019
The ashes have barely settled from the devastating fire that tore through the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, but even as France paid tribute on Thursday to the firefighters who saved the structure and its relics, there was a growing debate about how the Gothic landmark should be rebuilt. Workers are still focused largely on shoring up the damaged structure, but how closely the planned reconstruction should adhere to the original design and materials has become a point of contention in a nation long accustomed to arguing over the balance between modernity and cultural heritage.
President Emmanuel Macron gave the debate particular urgency when he said the cathedral would be rebuilt within five years, a time frame that some experts have called too optimistic. Some of Mr. Macron’s political opponents have even accused him of wanting to rush the restoration in order to have the cathedral ready in time for the 2024 Olympic Games, which will be held in Paris.
Franck Riester, the French culture minister, said on Thursday that the government would strive to meet the timeline set out by the president, but he also cautioned that rebuilding the cathedral could take more time. “One mustn’t mix speed and hurriedness,” he told the BFM TV news channel, adding that he did not think that Notre-Dame would remain fully closed for the duration of the construction.
At midday Thursday, hundreds of members of the Paris Fire Brigade filed into the Élysée Palace, the president’s official residence, for a reception honoring the 500 firefighters who worked for hours to extinguish the flames and to save the precious artworks and relics stored in the cathedral. “The country and the whole world were watching us and you were exemplary,” Mr. Macron told the firefighters, according to French news reports.Mr. Macron said later on Twitter that “no one will forget your first minutes” as a “stunned” France watched Notre-Dame’s spire collapse. He also announced that the firefighters would receive a medal commemorating their bravery. A large crowd gathered later on Thursday in front of City Hall, giving the firefighters sustained applause after readings from Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.” Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, said that at the next City Council meeting she would ask that the firefighters be made honorary citizens of Paris, a rare distinction that has been mostly granted to foreign figures like Nelson Mandela.
Mr. Riester, the culture minister, said that while the cathedral’s structure as a whole was sound, there were still several “major weaknesses.” “It’s emergency after emergency,” he told BFM TV, adding that the worst had been avoided “thanks to the exceptional work of the firefighters.” The gable of the northern transept was strengthened overnight, he said. But the western gable, between the two bell towers, is leaning because of the weight of an angel statue, which was to be removed on Thursday. Mr. Riester also said that part of the southern belfry was “so heated that the stone is completely friable,” leaving a risk that some chimeras — the famous snarling or horned creatures that are perched on the cathedral — might fall. Some of them were also set to be removed on Thursday.
The fire at Notre-Dame, which was built in the 12th and 13th centuries, destroyed most of the attic, a latticework of heavy wooden beams, and the lead roof above it. As the burning debris fell, it punched three holes through the vaulted stone ceiling inside the cathedral. Mr. Riester said there was still a risk that other parts of the ceiling could collapse, and workers were expected to remove rubble that was weighing on it.
Private donors have given or pledged nearly $1 billion for reconstruction, and the number continues to climb. Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has said that the government will present legislation to ease the bureaucratic and legal obstacles that usually delay construction projects. One of the richest men in France, François-Henri Pinault, and his family put up 100 million euros, or $113 million, and the family of another, Bernard Arnault, committed €200 million, prompting complaints that they would be eligible for big tax breaks and were more concerned for Notre-Dame than for struggling working people. The Pinaults said on Wednesday that they would not seek a tax deduction for their contribution, and Mr. Arnault said on Thursday that he and his family were not eligible for one.
The deluge of contributions — now centralized on a government platform — suggested that renovation efforts would not be hampered by a lack of funding. Instead, much of the debate has focused on whether the cathedral’s attic and spire should be rebuilt as they were or if newer materials, techniques and designs should be favored. “Something contemporary will be safer and faster to rebuild,” said Christiane Schmuckle-Mollard, an architect who worked on the restoration of Strasbourg’s cathedral in the early 2000s.
Jean-Michel Wilmotte, a French architect who recently designed a Russian orthodox cathedral in Paris, told Franceinfo radio on Thursday that rebuilding a “pastiche” of the destroyed spire, which was added to the cathedral in the 19th century, would be “grotesque.” Mr. Wilmotte said he would take part in the government’s international competition to design a new spire and that he was in favor of using modern materials like steel or titanium rather than older, heavier ones like wood and lead.
Nothing has been decided, and some experts noted that the cathedral has been altered before, including between 1844 and 1864. In that period, a new spire was erected to replace an earlier one, flying buttresses were redone and new features were added, including the chimeras. Mr. Macron said on Wednesday that he was not opposed to replacing the spire with “a contemporary architectural gesture.” But his opponents, especially on the political right, grumbled at the suggestion that Notre-Dame might get a modern makeover. “Notre-Dame de Paris does not belong to us,” he added. “We are the first to see it burn: Our only duty is to restore her, with the patience that an absolute masterpiece requires, to pass it on the way we received it.”
Mr. Riester, the culture minister, said that he welcomed debates about restoring the cathedral, even though the state, which owns it, would ultimately decide. “We mustn’t say to ourselves, by dogmatism, that we must absolutely redo the cathedral as it was,” he said. “We won’t decide to do something modern or something new just for the sake of it.”