Sustinability and authenticity in post disaster reconstruction


Disasters are generally natural or manmade. Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and fire and manmade disasters such as terrorist attack, or accidental damage can have a profound impact on people, their culture and the built heritage.  Sustainability and authenticity in the post disaster reconstruction phase is an important aspect of the project.  Using the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire as a case study, we will look at sustainability and authenticity in terms of world heritage, materials and craft skills.

On 15 April 2019 the world witnessed the devastating destruction of Notre Dame as fire ravaged the structure believed to be caused by an electrical fault causing a spark.  The investigation continues.  Our thoughts and prayers were with all those affected.  The shock of seeing the spire collapse will stay with me forever.  

Two days after the fire, a competition for rebuilding the cathedral was announced.  The design ideas that followed the disaster provided much excitement and debate. They were diverse and unique, inviting architects from around the world to display their architectural genius and ingenuity.  The proposals included ‘An urban greenhouse with a beehive spire’, ‘Beams of light’, ‘A glass prism’ (Insider, 2019).  The designs provided an opportunity to discuss the future of this structure within a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Although the designs were innovative and exciting, most were not very practical or easy to maintain; they missed the fundamental use of the building which is that of a church, a place of worship, sanctuary, celebration and peace.  Our world heritage sites have become tourist attractions, but we should not forget their original and current use as this is what keeps them unique and authentic.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame forms part of the UNESCO World Heritage inscribed River Seine which is described as displaying the evolution of Paris and its history.  The cathedral sits on the Ile de la Cité; the ‘city island’ and is described within three of the five UNESCO inscription criteria (i) representing a masterpiece of human creative genius; (ii) exhibits an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; and (iv) as an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant states in human history. (UNESCO, 2021)

Notre-Dame cathedral was built between 1163 and 1345 on the ruins of two earlier churches.  The foundation stone was laid by Pope Alexander III in 1163 and the high altar consecrated in 1189.  The choir and nave were completed by 1250 with the chapels, porches and embellishments added over the next 100 years. (Britannica, 2021)

In order to sustain this world heritage status and be authentic in its repair and reconstruction, the French president, Emmanuel Macron announced that the 19th century spire, designed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc would be replaced in a like for like design.   From a British perspective, this fits with the English Heritage Conservation Principles Policies and Guidance for the sustainable management of the historic environment and with the SPAB; Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings manifesto, it is built into our training and understanding as heritage professionals.  A like for like reconstruction requires original drawings or accurate records.  With the original designs of the Gothic Revival architect, Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc lost, Paris is fortunate to have the legacy of the late Andrew Tallon who, having fallen in love with the cathedral as a child, later became a professor of art and architectural history at Vassar College and undertook a study of Notre-Dame Cathedral with laser scanning to produce an accurate 3D model.  This will be used to aid the repair and reconstruction and understand the craftsmanship within the building.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame hit the headlines in March 2021 with; “Timber! France fells centuries-old oaks to rebuild the Notre-Dame Cathedral spire” (France 24), “French oaks from once-royal forest felled to rebuild Notre Dame spire” (The Guardian) and “Notre-Dame fire: Cathedral’s spire to be rebuilt with 200-year-old oaks from royal forest” (sky news).

I felt the need to challenge the concept of felling one thousand oak trees that are over 200 hundred years old.  The chosen trees each had a trunk of 1m in width and a minimum height of 18m.  If we are looking at sustainability, this should not only be about the building, but about the processes and materials used.  In felling 1,000 trees, natural heritage is destroyed, and sustainability should be considered for all aspects of the reconstruction.

Research suggested that the French government had considered alternative, lighter and modern materials for the reconstruction and assessed the impacts before deciding to reconstruct trusses using traditional craftsmanship.  They understand the importance of operating with a philosophical and ethical understanding of the conservation issues and focus on informing the practical and pragmatic substance of conservation work by integrating a detailed consideration across 7 of the 14 ICOMOS Education and Training Guides.  The philosophy can also be seen with the archaeologists salvaging and reclaiming stones to analyse their strength and possibility for re-use.  The laboratory is analysing each stone to understand the condition of the stones in-situ and those dislodged by the collapse of the spire.  The team have found evidence of polychromy on stones from the inner part of the vault, some are unable to be reused but will be studied for the pigment and application of paints to learn more about the history of the construction.

Out of the ashes, the team are discovering more knowledge about this historic masterpiece and by doing so will enhance its significance.  The approach is sustainable and authentic for the reconstruction of the building, and although the trees have been sacrificed, the skills used in the reconstruction will enhance training and education in this craft.  It is a huge operation that is progressing despite the pandemic and the world will watch with interest as Notre-Dame’s spire rises once again as a beacon of hope in the Paris skyline.

Rebecca Thompson BSc(hons) PPCIOB IHBC MQSi(Hon) is the Director of Thompson Heritage Consultancy Ltd

Sources and Further Reading
France 24 (9 March 2021)

INSIDER (12 May 2019)
The Guardian
Sky News (8 March 2021)


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