Sunday, 19 July 2020

The Restoration of Notre Dame de Paris

I'll be honest -- Notre Dame de Paris was not somewhere I was ever particularly interested in -- until the fire. Then it immediately became fascinating! There are so many opportunities for conservators, heritage professionals and materials scientists to learn about the building, research the effects of the fire and develop ways of repairing the damage.

In purely technical terms, the fire at Notre Dame was quite typical of any fire in a heritage building. What is different is the emotional bond people from all over the world have to the structure. Whilst this generated a lot of funds for the restoration, it probably does not help the scientists, curators and heritage professionals tasked with the work to do their jobs in the way that they might choose to. Some of the decisions about the repairs are going to be political, and the most obvious case in point is the spire.

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Paris, in 2002.

The benchmark for the repair and conservation of heritage monuments is the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (sometimes referred to as the Venice Charter of 1964). It's a short (4 page) easy to read document. And Articles 9, 12 and 15 have something to say about what should happen in the case of complete loss of an element of a monument. That something is definitely not to simply recreate the lost element as is going to happen with the spire of Notre Dame. In fact, the Charter indicates that where you must replace, whilst the replacement must fit in terms of scale and style, it must clearly be differentiated from the original material. A common interpretation of this is that it should be the best possible quality but clearly contemporary to when the work was done. This allows respect to be given to modern artisans, shows that the building has a timeline, and above all, prevents the visitor from being deceived.

It seems to me that the decision to recreate the spire of Notre Dame as it was before the fire has been taken as a matter of expediency and because of a sort of romantic sentimentality about the building. The spire those alive today knew and loved was itself a somewhat fanciful addition to the Cathedral, created in the 19th century by the indefatigible heritage architect, Eugene Viollet le Duc. His creation was an interpretation of what the battered 13th century spire would have looked like, before it was removed for aesthetic and safety reasons decades earlier.

Frankly I think a great opportunity has been lost to appropriately pay our respects to a grand old building by giving it a spire that will showcase modern materials, techniques and style. A great shame.