August 18, 2019, 12:23

An art historian explains the tough decisions in rebuilding Notre Dame

An art historian explains the tough decisions in rebuilding Notre Dame

French President Emmanuel Macron declared on Tuesday that Notre Dame Cathedral, which suffered extensive damage in a massive fire Monday, will be rebuilt in five years and will be “even more beautiful than it was.”

Officials and specialists are still assessing the damage inflicted on the Paris landmark by the fire — and by the soot and smoke it produced and the water used to douse the blaze.

The church’s iconic spire collapsed and much of its roof caved in and crumbled, but the central nave appears to have survived. The cathedral’s intricate stained-glass windows, though still under inspection, may have outlasted the flames as well. And copper statues that lined the base of the spire had been removed for restoration just days before the fire, sparing them from destruction.

Since construction of the Notre Dame Cathedral first began in the 12th century, the cathedral has suffered repeated devastation and trauma — most notably during the French Revolution — and in response, undergone extensive restoration and repair.

To get a better sense of the structure’s history and what such a colossal restoration project entails, I reached out to Kevin D. Murphy, humanities chair and professor of art history at Vanderbilt University who has studied Eugène Viollet-le-Duc — the architect who oversaw Notre Dame’s 19th century restoration and whose spire tumbled into the flames on Monday.

Murphy described what experts will be looking for as they evaluate the damage to Notre Dame, and what hard questions France will face during this “national project” of restoring a religious and architectural symbol.

Our lightly edited conversation is below.

Jen Kirby

What jumped out at you about the condition of Notre Dame, now that the fire is out and officials are assessing the damage?

Kevin Murphy

What jumps out at me is that the visible damage to the stone structure is relatively minimal. It was basically the collapse of the stone vaulting under the crossing where the spire was, and in two other locations.

Now, that said, that’s what’s visible. We don’t know yet what they’ll find when they go in and really assess the stability of the rest of the building. But in terms of how much has visibly collapsed, that’s not substantial — it’s serious, but it could have been far worse.

Jen Kirby

The spire collapsed and the fire ate up much of the roof, the wooden portions. So it sounds like — at least from what’s visible — the stone elements of the structure survived.

Kevin Murphy

I think that many of the commentators didn’t understand yesterday that we wouldn’t expect the rest of the building to go up in flames because it’s largely stone. It’s really designed so that the roof burns off and leaves what’s underneath relatively stable, as long as the fire doesn’t start down in the nave and the main sanctuary, where the heat from stuff burning down there would obviously have a negative effect.

But that doesn’t seem to have happened. The fire was really limited to the roof, and because it’s conceived structurally as a separate system, it can burn without affecting what’s underneath it to a large extent.

Jen Kirby

Is that intentional, to design it that way?

Kevin Murphy


Jen Kirby

So officials have said they’ll be assessing the damage in the next 48 hours. Can you explain a bit about what crews and experts might be looking for?

Kevin Murphy

I would expect they’d have architects, engineers, and restoration specialists looking to see what visible damage there is to the stone structure. Then, where they find visible damage they’d be probing more deeply to see what the extent of it was, and testing the stability of the exciting stone walls and vault. They’ll have all kinds of equipment in there to get to these inaccessible parts of the building to assess how stable it is.

So they’re going to be really concerned with the damage to the vault over the nave given that it has collapsed in certain locations. They’ll want to see whether that is a very limited collapse that was due to something falling on it, or if there is some larger structural issue that’s been caused by the fire.

Jen Kirby

What are some structural concerns that might exist in the aftermath of the fire?

Kevin Murphy

Most of the structure is not flammable, though there’s flammable stuff in the sanctuary. So they’ll look at the sanctuary and what’s smoldering, which is what they’re doing today.

Then they’ll be looking to see what damage may have been caused the structure around the parts that collapsed. And then they’ll be looking to see any damage that happened from the fall of the spire.

Now remember, a lot of that was wood, but there was a metal in that, too, so there’s some weight there. So when it came down, how much of it was burnt cinders that would do no damage? Or to what extent were there actually pieces of wood or metal that crashed down and what did they do? What happened when that impact took place?

Jen Kirby

What about other elements of the church, such as architectural details like stone carvings and other artwork?

Kevin Murphy

The only damage to the stone carving would be from things falling on it, and the collapse of parts of the building. Or, you know, smoldering timbers from the spire could have damaged something.

Now, the other issue with fire, of course, is water. They pumped a gigantic amount of water onto the building, so where did it go? Is that sitting on top of the vault? Has it gone into the building?

So, they’re going to be wanting to see whether it infiltrated the lower parts of the building, They removed some works of art from the building and some religiously significant objects, but I don’t think they were able to remove everything. So the question will be what things have been saturated with water. They’ll have conservation specialists looking at those objects, removing them, and thinking about treatment of those things.

I would also back up and have people remember that, to my mind, the most important objects are the building and its stained glass. Those are things you cannot move. There are other important objects in the church, but in my mind they are less significant than the building itself and the stained glass.

So what’s the damage that can happen to those? Well, luckily, the fire was in the roof so it wasn’t at the level of the stained glass. If it had been burning in the nave, the danger to the stained glass, which is held together with lead, is susceptible to heat, as is the glass itself.

There could be smoke damage, there could be water damage to the windows. Those are all things that they’ll be thinking about.

Jen Kirby

Before the fire, Notre Dame was literally crumbling and in dire need of repairs. It’s now suffered extreme damage. How do you reframe the thinking about renovations and restoration now that parts of the entire structure must be rebuilt?

Kevin Murphy

You’ve raised at least two issues. One is financial. We saw this immediate outpouring yesterday of gigantic sums of money for the restoration, compared to what was being spent there previously. The figure quoted again and again was something like $6 million that was being spent on the restoration before the fire. Well, $6 million on a building like Notre Dame is peanuts.

Now, people have jumped in to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars, which is probably more like what’s required at this point. Sadly, it takes a disaster to galvanize that level of commitment to the monument.

Then you also raise a philosophical issue. The building that we have is a consequence of building and rebuilding over the course of centuries. The perfect example was the spire, which was a 19th century replacement for one that was taken down in the 1780s because it was so deteriorated.

When that 19th century replacement was designed, it was without the benefit of all of the archeological and physical evidence, archival evidence, we now have for the appearance of its predecessor. So, the question is, do we restore the 19th century restoration — which, by the way, was by an architect, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who was probably one of the most famous architects of 19th century France? Do we restore his work? Do we go back to what we imagine the original to have been like? Or do build a new spire that’s in keeping with our architectural ideas today?

Jen Kirby

That’s a really important point you’re making here about Notre Dame’s history — that it has gone through all of these iterations and is basically a patchwork of different time periods.

Kevin Murphy

If you look at the Gallery of Kings, which is on the west or the main facade of both entrances — those were severely, deliberately damaged during the French Revolution, and they were restored in the 19th century.

And there were various people who said we should not restore those, we should keep them the way they are because they’re physical evidence of a part of our history that’s important, the French Revolution.

So even in the 19th century, there was a debate about this: Should we be attempting to get back to some imagined perfection — which was Viollet-le-Duc’s idea — or should we instead try to just maintain the building? The latter was a very British idea in the 19th century: maintain the building, keep it from falling down, and acknowledge that it has this complex history.

That’s the wonderful thing about buildings. They’re not static. They’re living things, and they register in their fabric this very long history. That’s what’s fascinating about a cathedral that’s hundreds or more years old; it’s seen this incredible unfolding of history and it registers that history in its actual fabric.

Jen Kirby

So in a way, this fire is the latest chapter in the building’s history.

Kevin Murphy

And this is not the first fire that has hit a cathedral. The Cathedral of Chartes had a huge fire in the Middle Ages. The Cathedral of Reims, which was bombed by the Germans in World War I, lost its roof, and it was rebuilt. The spire of Rouen Cathedral, which was made famous by Claude Monet, burned in 1822 and was rebuilt, and that process took about 50 years. And it raised all of these same questions — what should it look like given that we know that the one there was not exactly what was conceived of originally?

Jen Kirby

When Viollet-le-Duc rebuilt Notre Dame’s spire and restored the church in the 19th century, was his design celebrated, or did he face his share of critics?

Kevin Murphy

There surely were critics of Viollet-le-Duc’s work, particularly after his lifetime, because he had a very specific position which was not just to repair what was there, but to create a new work that embodied the ideal that may not have been achieved in the original period. So it’s very much a kind of an improvement upon the original, self-consciously so.

Jen Kirby

Is there a modern analog for the scale of restoration about to be undertaken at Notre Dame?

Kevin Murphy

There have recently been terrible fires at the Glasgow School of Art in Scotland, which is also an icon of late-19th century architecture.

They’re much smaller buildings, but they’re similarly iconic, important buildings, and restorers are having to deal with the issue of how to approach something that’s very well-known: Do we try to bring back the original conception of the architecture, or do we interpret it more freely?

Jen Kirby

How do you see it, personally? If you were consulting on Notre Dame, how might you grapple with those questions?

Kevin Murphy

In the US, we have standards that are established for restoration by the secretary of the interior. And those standards would say you should make it visible where you’ve restored a building. It shouldn’t be completely intended to look like the building of the past.

I’m a scholar of Viollet-le-Duc, so I would love to see his conception for the spire restored. But, on the other hand, I can see that it would be an interesting opportunity to think about how we could add a visibly contemporary but compatible spire to a medieval building.

Jen Kirby

How long will a restoration project of this magnitude take?

Kevin Murphy

In the renovation project that was ongoing before the fire, I know they were very concerned about not disturbing the religious use of the building. I’m sure that will be a consideration, and that any restoration plan will at least make part of the building available.

I’m sure what they will immediately do is cover the cathedral, to keep any more water from going inside it. That I think will happen very fast. I think the analysis of such a large building, the structural analysis will take a long time. The decision-making about what should be done I think will also take a long time. I think it’s years — but obviously I don’t know how many years.

We saw in the case of 9/11, at the World Trade Center site, how long the debate over that lasted. And remember, as they rebuild Notre Dame, they’re going to have to safeguard the building — all its decorative elements, its stained glass, its sculpture. So it’s not like building a new World Trade Center tower, where you just start building from the ground up. Here, you’re having to safeguard everything that’s below as you rebuild the roof.

Jen Kirby

Is there anything else you think readers should understand about the Notre Dame Cathedral?

Kevin Murphy

It’s really an iconic monument that transcends any one meaning. It’s clearly religiously important, but it’s also architecturally important. That argument was made even in the 19th century, when they were arguing for funding for the restoration in the 1840s — that this isn’t just a cathedral of Paris, it’s really the cathedral of France, and it’s really an internationally known monument both for religious reasons and for architectural reasons.

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