By Tito Gastaldi
:: Argentina ::
On the afternoon of April 15 last year, the world was amazed at the images that came from France. There, in the heart of Paris, on the Ile de France, the most iconic temple of Gothic architecture burned. The most visited monument in Europe, with more than 13 million tourists annually, suffered a devastating fire. It was being restored, there were scaffolding on its roofs, especially in the area of the transept where the spire crowned by a rooster stood that had been installed by Viollet Le Duc in the 19th century.
The spring afternoon was already falling in the city on the banks of the Seine; the Cathedral workers had retired and the last tourists of the day were preparing to retire. And then the tragedy happens; Up there near the spire a dense column of smoke begins to form and shortly after great tongues of fire that devastated everything in their path: the ancestral ceilings on an almost 700-year-old oak wood frame, the metal scaffolding melted armed for the restoration work as well as the lead cover. In a few minutes the slender spire begins to tilt and collapses into the building. The symbol of the Cathedral disappeared. Hundreds of firefighters attend to try to extinguish the fire, a task that took more than 15 hours while the Parisians and the rest of the world could not get out of their amazement and could not believe what they saw.
What happened? An attack, an accident, why? The experts quickly discarded the theory of the attack and were reduced to a few possible causes: 1) a poorly extinguished cigarette butt of a worker, 2) Malfunction of the elevators installed for the work; 3) electrical short circuit, which would seem to be the most accepted theory.
Despite the great damage suffered, the stone structure of Notre Dame has resisted. Immediately after the tragedy and with the ashes still smoking, they began to talk about its reconstruction. Important representatives of the French government, including its president Emanuel Macrón and other relevant figures in the cultural sphere expressed their decision to rebuild it. Likewise, renowned French companies and personalities have offered contributions of considerable sums of money to be able to pay the costs that it will demand. However, discussions began to be generated about how the works should be faced between those who advocate rebuilding it as it was and those who propose renovating ideas, even holding a competition, sponsored by private parties, on “innovative” projects for its reconstruction. The President of France himself would have declared that he would like a “Notre Dame aggiornada”.
The official resolution was released 15 months later, on July 9, 2021 when the French Executive Power stated that “The Cathedral will be rebuilt as before the fire” showing a different position than the one he had expressed in the first moments after the accident. The chief architect of the restoration work, Philippe Villenueve, has been one of the most fervent proponents of the idea of rebuilding it as planned and executed by Viollet Le Duc in the mid-19th century, the original plans of which are still preserved. The French National Heritage Committee has issued in favor of a “historical restoration” as Villenueve requested it.
The completion date of the works is scheduled for 2024 when Paris will host the Olympic Games, although many experts consider this date as too optimistic and assume that the tasks will last much longer due to the delicate actions to be carried out. The Covid 19 pandemic has already caused some delays.
The main drawbacks to face are:
- Disassembly of the metal scaffolds that were assembled at the time of the fire: the great heat caused the metal to melt, turning 40,000 tubes of that material into a great shapeless mass. Now new scaffolds must be erected for the workers to dismantle the old ones, a task that must be carried out with great care.
- Lead from roofs: It is estimated that more than 500 tons of this material were melted. A significant amount of it fell into the interior of the temple and must be removed, but the main obstacle in this case is to obtain a similar material that does not have the danger of lead.
- Timber roof structure: the roof consumed by the flames consisted of 13,000 oak beams, which is equivalent to some 24 hectares of forest. Currently, there would not be a sufficient number of these trees existing in European forests to remake the entire timber framework.
- Rose windows and stained glass windows: They have withstood the fire quite well but this does not mean that they have not suffered damage. Some glass was very blackened by the smoke, which will require deep cleaning and eventual clearing of some sectors.
- Gargoyles: Many of them were located on the roof, so several of them were affected by the fire and some were destroyed. As their function is to expel the rainwater to the outside, they have a metal pipe inside that, probably, have been totally or partially melted during the fire. It will be necessary to review them and replace the damaged material.
- Organ: It had about 8,000 tubes that were damaged, which will involve a delicate restoration work.
- Workforce: Since the Cathedral was originally built between the 12th and 14th centuries and many original parts were preserved, the restoration work will require specialized labor who knows the construction techniques of those times.
Surely, as the jobs are executed, new challenges and complications will arise that will make the work teams develop a non-stop work solving the problems that arise in the most appropriate, fast and efficient way possible.
Fortunately, several of the most important relics of the temple have been saved, such as the Crown of Christ or the tunic of San Luis IX thanks to the strenuous effort of firefighters, highlighting the work of Jean Marc Fournier, priest and firefighter who saved the Crown of Thorns. Meanwhile, the copper images of the apostles that surrounded the spire had been disassembled days before the accident and lowered for restoration. The rooster that crowned the spire of Viollet Le Duc was found, somewhat battered, among the rubble inside the temple.
Reconstruction will not be easy and will be very expensive. Estimates range from € 900 to € 1 billion. In addition to large donations and promises of aid, the French government has opened fundraising accounts. There are various donations that will be made in stages during the course of the works.
Notre Dame is not only one of the great emblems of Paris and France but of humanity as a whole, since “art in stone” reaches a magnificent expression in the Gothic and as such must be preserved for the use and enjoyment of future generations. .
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