Notre Dame spire must be rebuilt exactly as it was, says chief architect

After fierce debate about 19th-century spire, consensus builds over restoration of fire-torn cathedral

The spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris should be rebuilt exactly as it was before fire engulfed it last year, France’s chief architect for historic monuments has told the commission that must decide how the building is to be restored.

Philippe Villeneuve was to tell the National Heritage and Architecture Commission (CNPA) on Thursday his favoured option was a faithful reconstruction of the roof and spire, local media said.

A picture taken just days before the fire shows the spire of Notre-Dame.
A picture taken days before the fire shows the spire of Notre Dame Cathedral. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

The question has been the subject of fierce debate in France since the president, Emmanuel Macron, suggested soon after the fire that “a contemporary architectural gesture” might replace the 96-metre spire, which crashed into the nave, bringing with it much of the roof.

Macron argued that because the spire was added during a major mid-19th-century renovation by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, it “wasn’t part of the original” and the cathedral could perhaps be rebuilt “more beautiful than before”.

A swimming pool design by Stockholm-based Ulf Mejergren Architects.
A swimming pool design by Stockholm-based Ulf Mejergren Architects. Photograph: Ulf Mejergren Architects

The president’s remarks prompted a rash of proposals from architects around the world, including plans for a rooftop pool, a giant greenhouse and a park, accompanied by a stained-glass or metal spire – or even a virtual one made of beams of light.

Paris-based architect Vincent Callebaut's Notre-Dame roof that generates energy and contains an aquaponic farm.
The Paris-based architect Vincent Callebaut wants to give Notre Dame a new roof that generates energy and contains an aquaponic farm. Photograph: Vincent Callebaut

But France’s new culture minister, Roseline Bachelot, told French radio on Thursday that while Macron would have the final decision, there was a “large consensus” among the public and historic buildings experts for the spire to look the way it did.

The 12th-century cathedral was under renovation when the fire tore through its wooden rafters and lead roof on 15 April last year, coming perilously close to destroying one of the western world’s great architectural treasures.

Proposals for a stained glass roof and spire from Alexandre Fantozzi
Proposals for a stained glass roof and spire from Alexandre Fantozzi. Photograph: Alexandre Fantozzi

Reconstruction work must begin with the delicate removal of 50,000 tubes of twisted scaffolding at back of the edifice, a task that Jean-Louis Georgelin, the retired army general in charge of the project, said last month should be completed by September, allowing rebuilding work to begin early next year.

Macron has said he wants the cathedral restored to its former glory by 2024, in time for the Paris Olympics, a timetable Georgelin said was possible “if everyone rolls up their sleeves”, but the process has been plagued by delays due to bad weather, health concerns over lead pollution and, most recently, the coronavirus crisis.

Proposals include a greenhouse be built in place of the old, wooden roof.
Proposals include a greenhouse be built in place of the old, wooden roof. Photograph: Studio Nab

Basing his opinion on a 3,000-page report, Villeneuve reportedly told the CNPA that a large majority of experts had recommended the spire, rafters and roof should be restored to “their last known condition” – that of the Viollet-le-Duc renovation.

French media said there was still debate over whether the rafters should be wooden or made of a more resilient contemporary material, while a lead roof may be rejected on health grounds. But on the question of the spire there was consensus, they reported.

A Greenpeace activist holds a sign reading ‘Climate: Macron, our drama’ while dangling from a crane near Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
A Greenpeace activist holds a sign reading ‘Climate: Macron, our drama’ while dangling from a crane near Notre Dame Cathedral. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Alexandre Gady, a professor of art history at the Sorbonne, said it was important the decisions were not rushed. “A year on, we’re forgetting the real lesson of this fire is that we were unable to protect Notre Dame: it burned before us,” he told French radio. “That’s what we have to avoid tomorrow. This must be done calmly.”

Meanwhile, Greenpeace activists hung banners bearing messages including “Climate: Time to Act!” from a crane towering over the site on Thursday. “France isn’t doing enough to control climate change,” said Jean-François Julliard, the head of Greenpeace France. “It’s time for action now, we’ve had enough of promises and speeches.”


Jon Henley in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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