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President Macron’s “mad” promise will be kept. Notre Dame will reopen by Christmas.

by Richard Pooley

In an article published on 18 April 2019 I wrote the following:

“There wasn’t the usual levity when I walked into my French village’s southern boulangerie early on Tuesday morning. The queue was quiet, the mood sombre. We live 500 km south of Paris but the sudden destruction of the roof and spire of Notre Dame has shocked every villager I have met. “It is sad to see this part of us burn.” Well said, M Macron. Later that day, on the radio, I heard a French woman declare tearfully that “It is the burning of our history.”

I wasn’t surprised by the reaction. The cathedral of Notre Dame means more to the French than any other building. It is where France as a territory was born. The island on which it stands was for centuries at the heart of the relatively small area over which the kings of France held real power. Since 1768 all distances from Paris have been measured from a point in the square in front of the two western towers. The reports that firefighters acted swiftly and bravely to save many of the cathedral’s most precious objects, including its three superb rose windows and that the towers, stone vaults, walls and buttresses have all survived intact has fuelled optimism that the damage has not been as extensive as first feared. The French can be confident that it will be rebuilt, perhaps without too much cost to French taxpayers if promises of hundreds of millions of euros continue to be made by France’s richest people and companies.”

A month later I wrote that only €71 million of the €850 million so far promised had actually been donated. Many mayors had been forced to withdraw their offers by residents of their towns, furious that money had suddenly been found at a time when they had been told there was none for local projects.  

I wondered if the cathedral would be restored to exactly what it was moments before the fire, or whether the new roof area should be “an innovative and inspiring example of the best in 21st century architecture?” An architect friend thought the former opinion a “folly”. For a start “the French oak trees that would be required to be felled, sawn and seasoned simply don’t exist any more.” He, like most architects who expressed a view, wanted something modern, taking advantage of “the most amazing advances in structural material and building fabric design” since the cathedral’s spire was previously restored in the 1850s. The proposal that my friend and I liked the most imagined the roof as a solar-powered urban farm. The roof and the spire would be made of glass, with the iron cockerel which crowned the 1859 spire and which had somehow survived the fire restored to its old position.

I predicted the modernist architects and intellectuals would win the argument. Not because they made a good case. Many didn’t; their language was pretentious and their proposals impractical. But I thought we had lost the skills needed to restore Notre Dame to its medieval state. How wrong I was.

The majority of French people appeared to want the cathedral to be restored to how it was (54% according to one YouGov poll). And perhaps more importantly, so did most French Roman Catholics. The traditionalists won. The rich kept their promises. But whilst many French local councils didn’t donate, about 340,000 people from France and abroad did so. €846 million (£723m, $921m) was raised.

The French state has hardly paid anything. What the French government did was make it happen. Macron promised that the cathedral would be restored in five years and so it will be. Many, including those directly involved in managing the rebuilding, thought it a crazy deadline. How have they managed to meet it?

Much credit must go to the speedy decision-making of president, ministers and officials at the start: we’ll restore it to how it was, we’ll have one person in charge, the management team will be small, suppliers and the workforce will be chosen swiftly from the best craftspeople around France, consultation with experts will take place as far as possible in parallel with the work rather than before it, planning restrictions will be eased.

Two days after the fire General George Jean-Louis Georgelin, ex Chief of the Defence Staff, was pulled out of retirement and told to restore Notre Dame by 2024. Yes, sir! He ran it like a military operation until he died in a mountaineering accident in August last year.

What makes the speed of restoration so extraordinary is that in bringing the building back to what it was before the fire, all the wood and stone has been cut and carved just as it was when first built. Over 140 contracts were signed with specialist craftspeople from across France.

Two companies were chosen to rebuild the oak “forest” (“charpente”) under its lead roof – 91 metres long, 13 metres wide and 9 metres tall. My architect friend was wrong: there were enough oak trees of sufficient size in France to replace the burned timber. In early March 2020 1,400 oak trees were felled across France before their sap rose. They were dried over the next 12 to 18 months. Alarm calls from Greens were silenced when it was shown that these trees represented only a small proportion of trees cut down each year and would have been felled anyway as part of normal forestry maintenance.

Photo: Cristina Baussan


The carpenters then went to work cutting, honing and joining the wood to form the trusses needed to make the roof support. They used different types of axes, all forged to be exactly like the ones used by their medieval predecessors 800 years ago. Not a single electric saw or drill has been heard. There are practical reasons for this insistence on old methods. As one carpenter said: "We could easily cut the logs into boards [with a saw] but keeping the wood fibres the whole length of the beam [using an axe] gives it more strength." The removable metal pins joining the trusses have been, yes, removed and replaced by wooden mortise and tenon joints. There is not one piece of metal in the new charpente.

Nor is the new spire made of glass. It has a wooden skeleton and looks exactly like the one finished by Viollet-le-Duc in 1859. On top is a new, gilt-covered copper cockerel. The old one is on display in the Cité de l’Architecture et du Partrimoine museum in Paris. What I don’t know is whether the relics in the old bird – a small piece of Christ’s Crown of Thorns, a piece of St Denis, and one of St Geneviève – have gone into the new one.**

Of course, modern practices have been used too. In 2012 an architectural student, Rémi Fromont, together with a colleague,  spent the year taking precise measurements of the charpente, the first people to do so. No surprise then that Fromont was appointed head architect in charge of rebuilding it, using his computerised plans. Materials have been transported to the site and lifted to where they are needed using the most modern technology.  As Georgelin said early on: “You have people everywhere in France working to restore the stained glass windows, to find the stones, to restore the organ and the paintings, to build the wooden framework, the spire…” He went on to point out that the deadline could only be met if the old skills were combined with the most advanced computer design technology: “We’re restoring a medieval cathedral but Notre Dame will also be a cathedral for the 21st century.”

I suspect by this stage, any British reader still with me will be expecting me to ask why the British can’t successfully bring big projects like this to fruition . No doubt the vastly wasteful HS2 fast train project comes to mind. But we Brits can manage such a project. We did it forty years ago after York Minster’s fire on 9 July 1984 destroyed the roof of the South Transept and much else. The Archbishop of Canterbury, echoed by Macron in 2019, said; “It will rise again.” And it did; in four years, not five. Oak trees across Yorkshire and beyond were cut down to renew the roof, done, just as at Notre Dame, by using the same techniques applied by the medieval carpenters.

Admittedly, the damage to the minster was much less extensive and so the cost -  £2.25 million - was tiny compared to what it has taken to restore Notre Dame. That’s only about £9.2 million in today’s money. Another difference was that the minster had full insurance cover; the Ecclesiastical Insurance Fund paid for the rebuilding. However, donations from individuals and companies of around £500,000 paid for a new lightning conductor system. The expert view was that it was lightning that had started the fire in York. Some of the Church of England faithful (and the insurance company?) believed it was an Act of God, angry at the installation as Bishop of Durham of a man, David Jenkins, who appeared to doubt His/Her existence.

It's still not known what sparked the fire in Notre Dame, though it was not lightning. The stereotypical view of the arm-waving, insouciant, Gauloise-smoking French artisan has led to the accusation that it was a worker who started it in his long lunch break. Highly unlikely. The fire alarm first went off at 18.20, after the people working on the then renovation effort in the roof had gone home. Perhaps it was a spark from a welding tool which landed in all the debris of the “forest”.

What can we learn from this French success story? When there is the will, there is usually a way. Cut out the bureaucracy and keep the planners under control. Listen more to the doers and makers – the artisans and engineers - than the intellectuals, journalists and politicians. And have a clear chain of command, with a small management team, and a workforce dedicated to the project for its full term. Above all, have an ambitious target, achievable just this side of impossibility.


*If you are wondering why there is a cockerel on Notre Dame and on nearly every war memorial in France, it’s because it’s a symbol of the French people. Gallus is the  Latin for Gaul, the Roman province, and also for cockerel.


**I have been following this story closely over the past five years but not read anywhere what has happened to the relics. Did they survive the fire?


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