16 Apr 2019

Rebuilding Notre Dame

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:13 pm on 16 April 2019

Paris is weeping, after the 850 year-old centrepiece of the Île de la Cité went up in flames earlier this morning.

However the French president Emmanuel Macron announced while firefighters were still battling the blaze that Notre Dame will be rebuilt.

Ian Lochhead is an architectural historian specialising in gothic architecture, and explains why Notre Dame is such an important building, and how the French might go about rebuilding it.

Notre Dame is the great gothic cathedral in the heart of Paris, the point in France to which all distance is measured, it’s quite literally the centre of France, says Lochhead.

“In terms of the history of the evolution of gothic cathedrals, it’s a building that’s sort of transitional between early gothic and the high gothic.”

And it’s extremely recognisable, he says.

“It is one of the first of the gothic west facades that have that classic composition of the twin towers, the triple portals through which you enter the cathedral that align with the nave and the isles, and the great rose window in between the two towers.

"It’s just an absolutely, I hesitate to use the word iconic, but it is one of those buildings that you can say is absolutely iconic.”

The rose windows have exploded in the heat – a great tragedy Lochhead says because the 13th Century stained glass is irreplaceable.

“The stone work can be repaired and made new, but the glass, once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”

The maintenance of cathedrals like Notre Dame is essential for them to survive through the centuries, and there are skilled masons who do this work. People with these skills are even working in Christchurch to restore buildings after the earthquakes, he says.

Much of the roof, which has been lost in the fire, was made of ancient French oak, and Lochhead says this is a resource the country has plenty of. France has extensive oak forests which seem to go on for kilometre after kilometre, he says.

France also has state of the art digital scanning techniques for ancient monuments, providing almost stone by stone information.

“The spire, which I think most people assume is medieval, is actually an addition from the 19th Century, it was the work of the great French gothic revival architect Viollet-le-Duc who did extensive and, in some cases, quite controversial restoration work on Notre Dame.”

It certainly can be rebuilt, despite the loss of the original material, he says.

An equally important cathedral in Reims was shelled during the First World War and caught fire because the Germans thought the towers were being used as observation posts for artillery targeting. The restoration work at Reims is something most people are probably unaware of, he says, and Notre Dame will be the same over time.

Lochhead says he had no doubt that Notre Dame will be restored.

“The French place incredible importance on their patrimony and I have absolutely no doubt that we will be able to revisit Notre Dame, perhaps not in 5 years, but in 10 years. I think that will almost certainly be the case.

“While it’s a tragedy and it’s something that one never wants to see happen, it’s something that is…a stage in the life of a great building.”