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Notre-Dame de Paris: A ruin can be considered a monument

Notre-Dame de Paris : « Une ruine peut être considérée comme un monument
Published on
23 September 2019

Last April, the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral went up in flames. We look back on this event with Sylvain Colombero, a researcher at Grenoble Ecole de Management who is looking into the opacity of the fire investigation as well as the decision-making process set up to decide the monument’s restoration.

Sylvain’s thesis studied the modernisation of historical monuments through the lens of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who started the restoration of Notre-Dame de Paris in the 19th century.

What analysis can you offer concerning the investigation of the fire at Notre-Dame de Paris?

Currently, we are unable to list for sure the causes of this fire. Did the fire start because of a short-circuit or a badly extinguished cigarette? The institution is complete opaque in terms of the investigation. The architects of Bâtiments de France are not authorized to speak about the topic. The Historical Monuments Institution is self-managed and not communicating anything. The confidentiality of clergy and French institutions is placed above all else.

However, a positive aspect of this event is that citizens are voicing their opinion concerning this historical and symbolic monument. Notre-Dame de Paris is an institution in and of itself, a universal symbol that is of popular, historical and religious value. It’s part of our French cultural heritage. This dramatic event has placed the symbol of Notre-Dame de Paris in the center of a national debate.

What are the primary challenges at the moment?

The underlying question is to decide what we want to do with the Cathedral. What will guide the restoration of this cultural heritage? As long as this question is not answered, issues of funding and participation are almost secondary.

We should also take note of the time lapse between engagements for support and actual support. Of the 1 billion euros pledged, only 38 million have actually been collected and most of them come from smaller individual gifts. For the moment, promises by major fortunes and companies have yet to be carried out! The risk is that your everyday citizen will pay for the restoration several times over through personal gifts, various fundraising initiatives, and taxes...

Now that emotions have settled, do we know what direction the restoration process will follow?

This decision was made behind closed doors by the head architects of the Historical Monuments Institution, several Bâtiment de France architects, the clergy and the French government. There’s the symbol of the restoration being carried out to meet the agenda of the 2024 Olympic games. Yet currently, anything is possible, even a modernized restoration of the Cathedral! Clearly choosing a guiding vision is the key to an authentic and legitimate process to ensure the building’s future.

We should also note that the Historical Monuments Institution is technically obliged to reproduce the monument in an identical fashion. Therefore, if certain modernizations are approved, such as adding an elevator, the installation must be reversible. Of course, an identical reproduction is impossible. It would require techniques and materials used during the 13th and 19th centuries. So compromises will have to be made. A law was proposed last June to allow a certain margin of manoeuvrability in terms of finding an authentic yet feasible restoration solution.

Your thesis focused on three French historical monuments, including Notre-Dame de Paris, as well as three Danish monuments. You highlighted six key factors that can help guide restoration. What are they?

Individual preference, collective agreement, money, time, space (for scaffolding for example), and finally, technical characteristics. Trying to restore the monument within five years is a real challenge that will require the conjoining of several variables! Local officials and associations also highlighted for example the issue of lead poisoning. It would appear that the restoration process will have to include time to remove lead from the site.

The guiding vision for the restoration process is also part of the collective awareness. Those in charge of deciding will have to choose between a variety of options: a ruin can be considered an authentic monument because it’s simply the life of the building; we can also decide to implement conservation measures; or we can move towards restoration… From the cultural heritage perspective, everything is possible. The only certainty is that this decision must include input from citizens.

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