Cathedral Restoration Plans Reignite Controversy


After proposed changes were announced regarding restorations at the Notre Dame Cathedral, critics were reportedly outraged, relating the designs to world-renowned Walt Disney Parks.

“What they are proposing to do to Notre-Dame would never be done to Westminster Abbey or Saint Peter's in Rome,” said Paris-based architect and critic, Maurice Culot. “It's a kind of theme park and very childish and trivial given the grandeur of the place.”

Proposed Designs

Suggested for most of the interior spaces within the Notre Dame Cathedral—even those claimed to be relatively untouched by the 2019 fire—the new designs are slated offer the space a more tourist-friendly makeover.

However, more damaged elements are still set to be restored to their former state.

According to church officials, the proposed revamp and new designs would serve to better explain Christianity to the landmark’s millions of annual visitors in a more accessible format. The renovation is slated to replace confessional boxes, altars and classical sculptures with modern art murals, new lighting and sound effects.

The combination of art, light and sound are designed to create what the church calls “emotional spaces.” In addition, the restoration plans also call for the creation of “discovery trails” through themed chapels. Throughout these “trails,” various Bible scriptures would be projected onto the walls in various languages.

After the design proposals were released to the public, many critics were reportedly outraged, much like when new designs were discussed about the landmark’s spire.

“One should simply conduct restoration and not choose solutions that could alter the architectural layout or arbitrarily 'modernize' the edifice,” said Maria Luisa Ceccarelli Lemut, a professor in medieval history at Pisa University.

The French National Heritage and Architecture Commission is slated to hear detailed proposals over the renovation designs sometime this week.

Fire Background

On the evening of April 15, 2019, flames engulfed the more than 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral, destroying the spire and nearly two-thirds of the roof.

With the help of about 500 firefighters battling the blaze, the fire was brought under control by the early hours of the following morning, five hours after the outbreak. Officials stated that no fatalities took place during the incident, and only one firefighter was reported to have experienced serious injuries.

There were no initial reports about what had caused the blaze, though police said at the time that it appeared to be accidental and that the cause could be linked to the ongoing 6-million-euro ($6.8 million) renovations. Since then, though, investigators have said that they believe an electrical short-circuit was the culprit.

City and national officials have since been criticized for failing to fully disclose the risk of contamination as a result of 440 tons of lead roofing that had burned in the fire, which consequently sent clouds of lead particles into the air. Work was suspended for weeks over the summer, while the surrounding area underwent lead testing.

On Aug. 13, maintenance and cleanup practices commenced in Notre Dame’s 100,000-square-foot enclosed plaza and on surrounding streets.

The process involved vacuuming, scrubbing and rinsing the pavement and various surfaces using a highly pressurized water mixer combined with a special particle compound used to remove lead. The wastewater was then recovered.

On more dense surfaces like granite, workers used a special gel to coat the contaminated surface, which was left to dry for several days and was then removed, pulling out any lead particles that became embedded in the stone.

Although environmental associations, labor unions and other groups agreed that cleanup procedures should have begun months ago, new decontamination measures were established for workers at the cathedral. Through the use of foot baths, showers and wearing of disposable uniforms, workers were both more protected and less likely to spread toxic particles outside of the plaza. Strict check-ins and check-outs were also employed.


President Emmanuel Macron has specified that he wants the monument to be rebuilt in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics, slated to be held in Paris. To aid in achieving this goal, digital 3D scans taken by the late Andrew Tallon of New York’s Vassar College in 2015 are believed to provide the necessary information for fast-track construction.

In mid-March, the process was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic; however, French general Jean-Louis Georgelin, who is heading up the 40-person committee that is overseeing the restoration, told The Guardian at the time that the unexpected pauses in work should not impact the deadline.

Delays included specialist artisan builders being sent home as France went on lockdown, as well as work being stopped before it began on the removal of the damaged scaffolding.

Georgelin had also noted that monitoring equipment attached to different parts of the structure indicated that there has been no movement in the last year.

At the end of April, the site was retrofitted for the virus, which included rearranging showers and cloakrooms as well as installing a place to eat. In addition, most workers were staying at vacant hotels in order to not use public transportation.

Work officially resumed at the site in May.

In June, the scaffolding dismantling process restarted. Two teams of five workers each took turns descending on ropes into the scaffolding, which was made up of 40,000 pieces, and cut with saws through the metal tubes that fused together. The pieces were then lifted out via crane.

At the beginning of this year, new scaffolding was being erected as decontamination and cleaning continued ahead of restoration and rebuilding work.

The cleaning is especially important as the lead roof was a casualty of the fire, billowing yellow smoke into the air and coating the entire area with lead dust, causing the surrounding neighborhood to be decontaminated afterward and an immense amount of precaution chained to the work that takes place inside now.

In September, the French government agency overseeing the reconstruction of France’s Notre Dame Cathedral reported that efforts to secure the structure had reached competition.

Spire Designs

Possible design changes for the cathedral’s spire were already being discussed just days after the fire, and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe even launched a spire design competition, saying that instead of recreating the original spire, the city hoped to create a new design that is “adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era.”

Since the spire was not a part of the original structure, or even the first spire built for the cathedral—the first spire was believed to be built between 13th and 18th centuries, and was removed due to wind damage; the second spire was added during the 19th century restoration by French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc—questions about replicating the tower arose.

Farshid Moussavi, the founder of Farshid Moussavi Architecture (London), said that a new opportunity has been presented in bringing together talent and donations to rebuild Notre Dame, much like when the structure was originally built.

“The rebuilding of Notre-Dame is an opportunity to expand that history,” Moussavi said at the time.

“Whereas the political landscape in the Gothic era was based on each country competing with each other to show their piety, today, we can come together as an international community to rebuild Notre-Dame because it is a world heritage landmark.”

Since then, several ideas have been revealed, including: Italian architects Massimiliano and Doriana Fuksas proposed a contemporary roof and spire made from Baccarat crystals that would be lit up every evening; French designer Mathieu Lehanneur proposed a golden, fire-like structure; Bratislava-based Vizumatelier proposed a lightweight tower that would shine a beam of light directly upward; Cyprus collaborative architectural studio Kiss The Architect suggested various arches and balls wrapped around a central staircase-type spire; and Paris-based architects Studio NAB have submitted a design proposing a greenhouse and educational apiary to sit upon the damaged landmark.

However, about a month after the fire, the French Senate passed a bill that would require the cathedral to be rebuilt to its “last known visual state,” a move that pushed back against the proposed innovation for the structure.

The legislation was introduced in order to allow for the fast-tracking of reconstruction that Macron proposed. However, some other facets were changed as well, including a clause that would give the government the power to override regulations on planning, environmental and heritage protection and public tenders, according to The Local.

The law also dictates that the government create a “public project” to oversee the construction project, overseen by the Ministry of Culture.

In July of last year, Macron dropped the idea of a modernized spire.

However, along with the cleaning update at the beginning of the year, aesthetic debate was still raging when a draft of plans was published in the French media. Some proposals included replacing the historic stained-glass windows in the chapel’s nave with more contemporary ones.

Other significant changes include furniture and different lighting, which prompted immediate dissent from members of the French public—so much so that the Archdiocese of Paris published a press release, restating that the ideas were only a draft with the intention on allowing visitors to better experience the cathedral.

In May, building software firm Autodesk confirmed in a press release that it will be helping Notre Dame Cathedral officials by contributing design and construction solutions to the rebuilding efforts, including BIM support and technical expertise.

According to the company, this partnership allows the conservation and restoration of the cathedral to enable cloud collaboration among stakeholders, making a common data environment that will be the central point for project information.

Some months later, in August, Boston-based Handshouse Studio, on the campus of the Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning, announced that it was using 800-year-old techniques to reconstruct one of the roof trusses for the structure.

The project is slated for be a “gift” to France.

“We study architectural history through drawings, photographs and onsite observations, but to study an important work of architecture by reconstructing it dramatically expands one's appreciation for the building and the people who created it,” said Mark Ferguson, the dean of Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning, whose students will be involved in the project. “[It] will bring people together from all walks of life to experience the joy and hard work of crafting a beautiful building.”

For the truss, the team harvested 20 oak trees from Lexington, Virginia, with comparable characteristics to what would’ve been used to construct the roof of the cathedral in the 12th century. The logs are being shaped using handheld tools similar to what was used by medieval artisans, following French protocols for the rebuilding effort.

At the time of the announcement, all of the burned timber was reported to have been removed from the cathedral and scaffolding installation was completed.


Tagged categories: Architecture; Churches; Color + Design; Color + Design; EU; Europe; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Maintenance + Renovation; Projects - Commercial; Rehabilitation/Repair; Renovation; Restoration

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.