“The dimensions are gigantic,” said Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect of the reconstruction of Notre-Dame, at the Briey site last week.
On Thursday, workers were climbing ladders and carefully assembling the future base of the spire, an X-shaped structure made of thick oak beams, measuring 50 feet on its longest side.
“I often think of it as the nuclear heart of the construction site,” Villeneuve said. “There is absolutely no room for error.”
The spire itself, cone-shaped and covered in lead, will reach a height of over 300 feet when all the elements are assembled at Paris Cathedral.
It would be fair to say that France, if not much of the world, is watching.
The day of the fire, April 15, 2019, will remain deeply etched in French memory. As the spire crumbled, passers-by watching from the banks of the Seine wept silently. Millions of people watched the scenes in disbelief on television. Many French people still know exactly where they were and what they did when they heard the news.
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“People couldn’t believe it was possible – but unfortunately it was,” recalls art historian Dany Sandron, who was among the crowds near the Seine and worked on the building site in the years that followed.
Notre-Dame was the most visited tourist attraction in Paris, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that attracted more than 12 million visitors each year. But many people in France have also embraced it as a cultural symbol, a visual anchor of Paris and a reminder of the Catholic traditions that underpin a proudly secular republic.
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The cathedral’s iconic spiers and elaborate stained glass windows withstood the flames. The crown of thorns, which Jesus would have worn during his crucifixion, has been saved. But the roof collapsed, the medieval wooden interior was obliterated and many artifacts were lost. The cause of the fire remains unknown.
Standing in front of Notre-Dame that night, as smoke still billowed, President Emmanuel Macron vowed: “We will rebuild this cathedral”. His hope was that it would be ready for visitors by July 2024, when France hosts the Summer Olympics. But French officials say they are now aiming for the end of 2024.
“We will have two extraordinary events in France in 2024: the Olympics and the reopening of Notre-Dame,” Jean-Louis Georgelin, the French army general in charge of overseeing the project, told reporters visiting the workshop on Thursday. wood. “The image of France is at stake in these two events.”
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Villeneuve had been involved at Notre-Dame before the fire, overseeing repair work since 2013. He was not in Paris when the first firefighters rushed to the cathedral. But as soon as he heard, he jumped on the last train to the Atlantic coast.
“Fortunately, I didn’t see the arrow fall,” he said. “I don’t think I would have really recovered from that.”
In the following days, he and his team identified the most destabilized parts of the cathedral. As workers secured the building over the next two years, French architects, church officials and politicians argued over how to rebuild.
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Some architects have proposed rebuilding the collapsed roof as a greenhouse, or with stained glass instead of wood, or even replacing it entirely with a swimming pool. All of these proposals did not seem serious, but proponents of a modernized design argued that the fire offered a chance to start over, as previous generations of architects had done.
Notre-Dame has undergone many transformations during its more than 850 years of history. Over the centuries, the windows of the cathedral have been widened and the flying buttresses rebuilt. After an old spire was removed for security reasons in the 18th century, the cathedral went decades without its now most iconic feature. Under the architectural direction of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Notre-Dame underwent such dramatic changes in the 19th century that many scholars now argue that the building is more representative of that period than of its medieval origins.
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Successive French presidents have been keen to leave their mark on central Paris, personally championing projects such as the Louvre pyramid and Center Pompidou. Macron, who had been elected on a renewal platform two years before the fire, suggested a “contemporary architectural gesture” in the new design of the spire. But after a backlash – including a threat from the architect Villeneuve to resign – he adopted a reconstruction faithfully reproducing the original.
However, it will be different in some ways.
“Before the fire, we had a very dirty cathedral – walls that looked almost black or dark gray, from pollution from candles and smoke,” said Sandron, the art historian. “Now the color of the stones is very clear.”
Aurélien Lefevre, who leads a group of carpenters working on the reconstruction, said the project remains a challenge, but not insurmountable. Problems can appear at any stage, so last week’s wooden beam assembly test was a crucial step.
“We are not immune to forgetting something,” Lefevre said.
Especially for young carpenters, being part of the project can be a unique opportunity, he said.
Nearby, dozens of carpenters were sawing, hammering and polishing wooden beams made from centuries-old oak trees. More than 1,000 carefully selected trees across France were felled for reconstruction.
Around the workshop, the skeletons of the walls of the local construction sites had been removed to make way for the construction site, which will remain a priority in the months to come.
Outside, Villeneuve rattles off a list of stages in the project: “The galleries are finished, the north and south transepts finished.
Other parts – including the spire, decoration, vault and furniture – remain work in progress. But after the shock and devastation of 2019, every sign of progress matters to those who care deeply about the building.
“It’s balm on my scars,” Villeneuve said. “By rebuilding the cathedral, I am also rebuilding myself.”