The damaged roof of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is pictured April 16, 2019, in the aftermath of a devastating fire. CNS photo/Christophe Petit Tesson, pool Reuters

Notre-Dame Cathedral faces a long restoration road

  • April 22, 2019

Blending the medieval with the contemporary in the rebuild of Notre-Dame Cathedral will be daunting, said the lead architect on the restoration of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Among the biggest hurdles, said Terrance White, a partner with Toronto-based +VG Architects, will be coming up with a plan that respects what Notre-Dame has been since the first stones were laid in 1163 and what the refurbished cathedral will be in the 21st century. The key, he said, is understanding your starting point.

“How do you add to (the cathedral) in a way that is valid and has integrity and respects the heritage value without trying to represent what was there literally by recreating it kind of like a Disneyland approach,” said White, whose firm has been breathing new life into the fabric of heritage buildings in Ontario since 1972.

It’s a huge and sensitive issue in the architectural community, said White, one that gets minds racing as builders try to stay true to the original while accommodating the sensibilities of the day.

“Every decision is a philosophical discussion about authenticity and integrity and how to respect and retain the meaning of true heritage value of a site like Notre-Dame,” said White, whose firm has worked on numerous Ontario heritage buildings, including Old City Hall and Union Station, in addition to St. Michael’s Cathedral.

It will be a particular challenge in trying to refurbish Notre-Dame, which was badly damaged by an April 15 fire that sent shockwaves beyond French and Catholic circles. The blaze was broadcast and live-streamed around the world as firefighters fought the inferno that destroyed the medieval roof timbers, the spire and parts of the stone vaunting below it on the 856-year-old Parisian cathedral.

Immediately, French officials vowed to rebuild Notre-Dame within five years, in time for the Summer Olympics the city will host, and within 24 hours, more than $1 billion had been pledged for the rebuild. French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe also announced an international architecture competition to replace the spire, which was destroyed in the fire at the state-owned cathedral.

It will be a long process beginning with the initial damage assessment, said White. Officials in Paris have said some damaged areas will be dismantled and the overall structure is in a fragile state.

“Somebody’s got to go in and see what remains in place, how healthy it really is and can they build off that again,” said White.

Balancing the old with the new is something White has encountered in the ongoing restoration of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica since planning began in 2002. It’s been a delicate challenge to stay true to St. Michael’s origins while making it a cathedral for the modern world — adding public washrooms to replace the single washroom that had been in place before, or adding the IT technology and closed-circuit television capacity necessary in a 21st-century cathedral. It will be no different at Notre-Dame, said White.

Beyond blending old and new, the rebuild will face some more practical challenges, said Sam Trigilia, president of Toronto’s Clifford Restoration Ltd. Materials, particularly the giant timbers from the cathedral’s roof, will be hard to replace. Timber of that size is just not available today.

“One of the greatest challenges is the lack of old-growth lumber,” said Trigilia, whose company was one of the contractors for the St. Michael’s restoration. “That is going to be a huge, huge impact on this.”

There has really been no need for such huge pieces in modern architecture, and besides, most of the old-growth has already been harvested. Trigilia is certain a stand of forest exists somewhere, but finding a kiln to dry the wood will be the next problem. There aren’t any that can take on this type of job.

Recruiting craftsmen is another issue.

“They’re out there, but are they in downtown Paris right now? Probably not,” said Triglilia. But Trigilia doesn’t see a shortage of artisans lining up for this project. Workers will be drawn to Paris not for the money but the prestige of working on “such a magnificent structure,” he said. He’s witnessed that drawing power during the St. Michael’s restoration.

As for French President Emmanuel Macron’s vow to restore Notre-Dame to its former glory within five years, that seems to be at odds with reality, according to many experts. The rebuild will be a delicate process, needing the skills of specialized artisans and skilled workmen. Many say it will be decades before the work is complete. White points to the 17 years, and counting, +VG has been at St. Michael’s, which is a fraction the size of Notre-Dame.

Trigilia believes a five-year rebuild is possible, but it will need all the stars to align and for the bureaucracy to stay out of the way.

“I think it can be done but it’s going to take a lot of skill, a lot of dedication and they’ve got to have leadership. … If everyone stays out of the way, it will get done,” he said, noting Toronto’s Casa Loma was built in three years in the early 1900s under these circumstances.

Despite the daunting challenges the Notre-Dame rebuild faces, neither White nor Trigilia said they would shy away from participating. +VG plans to put offer its services, and at Clifford Restoration discussions have already begun about who it would send should it be involved. White said any company that considers itself a cathedral-builder will do likewise.

“I’ve learned in my career you can’t be afraid to take that step,” he said. “I’m not afraid of it and would actually relish the chance to participate and learn what is required to get that site” up and running and again.

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