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Challenges await Notre Dame Cathedral restorers

By Wang Mingjie In London | China Daily | Updated: 2019-04-19 07:02
A drone image released on Wednesday shows damage from Monday's fire to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. [Photo/Agencies]

The challenges for Notre Dame Cathedral restoration include finding ways to integrate new material into the old existing structure, according to a leading historian at Cambridge University.

"In terms of the interior fittings and the roof and spire, it will be new-while the shape and stone body is the same-so it will be both the same Notre Dame, but also with new materials and building," said Alan Macfarlane, professor emeritus at King's College, Cambridge.

While most of the cathedral's roof and its spire were destroyed by the fire Monday evening, the main structure of the historic building, including two bell towers, was saved by a team of firefighters within a crucial time window of 15 to 30 minutes, according to French authorities.

Macfarlane said that the rebuilding is unlikely to be "unconvincing" like some other older structures destroyed and restored around the world. It also is unlikely to be similar to neo-Gothic replicas that are "quite acceptable", like the British House of Commons or King's College Cambridge.

"It will be authentic, for the shape is still there. Yet it will also take time to mellow and for people to accept that a building can both be old and new at the same time. Yet Notre Dame, like all great buildings, is largely seen through the imagination," he added.

In a televised address on Tuesday evening, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral before Paris hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics.

"We are a people of builders. ...We will rebuild the Notre Dame Cathedral even more beautifully, and I want this to be done within five years," Macron said. "I truly believe that it is up to us to transform this disaster into an opportunity to come together. It is up to us to find the thread of our national project-the one that made us, that unites us."

But many experts disagree, and suggest the restoration work could take more than 10 years.

Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg Cathedral, which recently underwent a three-year face-lift, told AFP that Notre Dame may take "decades" to rebuild.

"The damage will be significant. But we are lucky in France to still have a network of excellent heritage restoration companies, whether small-time artisans or bigger groups," he said.

Fischer added that the ability to rebuild the colossal cathedral in a manner that respects its original form and character would depend on the plans, diagrams and other materials available to the architects.

They would need "a maximum of historical data or more recent data gathered with modern technology such as 3D scans", of the kind used in the restoration of the Strasbourg Cathedral, he said.

Notre Dame is considered the finest example of French Gothic architecture, with an innovative use of rib vaults and buttresses, stained glass rosettes and sculpted ornaments. Construction of the church began in 1160 and continued over a century.

The cathedral is part of the "Paris, Banks of the Seine" site added to the World Heritage List in 1991. The site includes bridges, quays and the banks of the Seine River, along with its historical course between the Sully and Iena bridges and two islands, the Ile de la Cite and the Ile St. Louis.

Audrey Azoulay, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said that a rapid damage assessment would be carried out as soon as possible.

"Notre Dame represents a historically, architecturally and spiritually outstanding universal heritage. It is also a monument of literary heritage, a place that is unique in our collective imagination.

"UNESCO stands by France in safeguarding and rehabilitating this invaluable heritage," she said. "We are already in contact with experts and ready to send an emergency mission to assess the damage, preserve what can be preserved and plan short- and medium-term measures."

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