Notre-Dame remains dicey – melted scaffolding weighing it down

By David Brussat

It was recently reported that the annual Christmas mass at Notre-Dame de Paris will not take place for the first time since the French Revolution, and, by the way, the survival of the entire cathedral, most of which was thought to be saved, remains in doubt. The New York Times reports that:

[T]he most urgent threat to Notre-Dame is thousands of scaffolding tubes — remnants of renovation work from before the fire — that were welded together by the blaze, creating a mass of twisted metal of roughly 250 tons that is weighing down on the structure.

Workers are erecting new scaffolding so that the melted scaffolding, parts of which look like a pile of pickup sticks, can be gingerly removed. Officials do not know whether their removal will increase or decrease the stability of the stone structures that did survive the fire of last April 15.

Time magazine has a brief video tour of work to save the cathedral. There is a before-and-after video with the UK Guardian’s story on a spat over design.

That story regards continued uncertainty after months of back and forth over whether the toppled spire will be rebuilt to look as it once did (probably using advanced materials and techniques) or in a more modernist style, as many architects apparently desire. One proposal calls for a swimming pool on the roof. Months ago, the French senate passed legislation to mandate a traditional approach, but that’s clearly not the last word.

The project architect chosen by French president Emmanuel Macron insists that the new spire will be identical in appearance to the old spire. But, at a recent meeting, the general assigned to lead the project by Macron (both are open to a modernist spire) told the architect that he should “keep his mouth shut.” The general was reprimanded while the architect, Philippe Villeneuve, stood his ground, declaring: “Either I restore it identically [and] it will be me, or they make a contemporary spire and it will be someone else.”

This is an inversion of the typical form, in which politicians (and generals) support tradition, perhaps because that’s what most voters prefer, while the architects want some sort of modernist style. I suspect that the public will win this debate – but it will be moot if the scaffolding is not successfully removed. To pray for that should be part of all our new-year’s resolutions.

Photo: Scaffolding at Notre Dame; note triangular space where roof once stood. (Paris Muse)

David Brussat’s freelance writing and editing on architecture and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato.