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The Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris engulfed in flames on April 15 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Restoration of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris will proceed as a project of historical preservation. The French Senate has ended months of frantic speculation about how architects might radically alter the church’s exterior by voting to ensure that the cathedral must be restored “in the same way visually as before” a fire eviscerated much of the landmark’s roof and spire this on April 15.

The decision effectively quashes the ambitious proposals offered by renowned architecture firms, including the United Kingdom’s Foster + Partners and France’s own Studio NAB. (The latter would have restored Notre-Dame’s roof as an educational greenhouse with a glass apiary as its spire.) More eccentric redesigns have included a spire of blinding white light and an entire rooftop covered in stained glass.

Shortly after the conflagration, French prime minister Edouard Philippe launched an international competition to rebuild the cathedral’s 305-foot spire, saying he wanted submissions “adapted to the techniques and challenges of our times.” The announcement drew criticism almost immediately from historic preservationists and tourists alike who dreaded what contemporary changes could be in store for the 856-year-old church.

Through the vote, the Senate has exerted its own authority over the government’s restoration plans as a measure of oversight. In addition to safeguarded the integrity of the Notre-Dame’s historic designs, the legislative body also stipulates that “if the [conservation team] uses materials different from those in place prior to the disaster, it [should] publish a study giving the reasons for these changes.” The Senate also wants the restoration project to occur under the auspices of the ministry of culture through a new public administrative body (établissement public à caractère administratif). And despite numerous experts in the field of historical preservation saying that the restoration of Notre-Dame would take a decade if not longer, the Senate has also issued support for President Emmanuel Macron’s contentious five-year conservation schedule, which would see the church completed in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The senate and national assembly must now agree on a final resolution before ratifying the legislation. But not everybody in French parliament is happy with the plan.  “[The government] must take the time necessary to rebuild this dazzling building”, said Sylvie Robert, Senate representative for Ille-et-Vilaine. “The [restoration project] must become a showcase, a showcase of our expertise in this field, a showcase that lives up to our reputation!” said Alain Schmitz, the representative for Yvelines, according to the Art Newspaper.

Experts who have surveyed the rubble of Notre-Dame worry that damage to the stone structure caused by the extreme heating and cooling during the fire may have destabilized the building. Some have argued that the church is so unstable that a strong wind could knock down a wall. Regardless, efforts to push forward with reconstruction are motivated by a mix of political, economic, and cultural reasons. More than a billion dollars has been pledged by adorers of the Gothic cathedral, including some of France’s wealthiest art-collecting families like the Arnaults and the Pinaults.

Based on what the French Senate is demanding, the Dutch design company Concr3De may already have a leg up on the competition. Weeks ago, the firm proposed to reprint Notre-Dame’s gargoyles and chimeras with material made from the fire rubble. The company wants to combine limestone from the fallen gargoyles with the church’s ashes and other materials to create a powder base for the printing substrate. Using complex digital models of Notre-Dame, the reprinted gargoyles would bear an almost-identical resemblance to the originals and contain almost the same materials. With this technology, it’s feasible that they could create a facsimile of the cathedral’s roof and spire in accordance with the Senate’s desires for a new structure as visually faithful as possible.

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Zachary Small

Zachary Small was the senior writer at Hyperallergic and has written for The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Nation, The Times Literary Supplement, Artforum, and other publications. They have...

2 replies on “The French Senate Won’t Let Ambitious Architects Near Notre Dame’s Spire”

  1. I’m not sure about “blinding” white light for the spire but something along the lines of the shafts of light that followed 9/11 and loss of the World Trade Center’s twin towers seems right. The 19th century Violet-le-duc spire was an anomaly that never seemed to quite fit the original cathedral. A spire of light would describe both loss and spiritual presence, a ghost spire to serve as reminder of impermanence in our own fraught times and of the persistence of human aspiration beyond built monuments. It would also be a lot less expensive than an ersatz replica of something that was only an approximation of what the original looked like. This is, after all, the “City of Light.”

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