By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | Dec 16, 2022
If you haven’t already seen the NOVA presentation, “Rebuilding Notre Dame,” let me strongly recommend it. In a bit under an hour, the show offers a fascinating glimpse at the challenges involved in rebuilding a magnificent cathedral.
The devastating fire that ripped through Notre Dame in April 2019 did enormous damage to the Paris landmark. But it also caused two dangerous problems for the team of engineers, architects, and craftsmen who set out to repair the damage. First, the fire weakened the remaining structure of the basilica, raising questions about whether the ancient walls might collapse. Second, the lead that had lined the roof fell inside the building, coating the interior with toxic dust that had to be painstakingly removed before restoration efforts could safely proceed.
So before they could even begin rebuilding the cathedral, the restoration team had to shore up the walls and clean up the interior—more or less simultaneously. Buttressing the walls required a mountain of scaffolding and a series of specially designed braces; in effect, the repair entailed constructing a temporary building within the cathedral. The clean-up of the lead dust required countless hours of meticulous dusting, all done by experts wearing protective breathing equipment.
And those tasks, again, came before the restoration itself. Then came the challenge of finding replacements for the “forest” of huge oak timbers in the roof, and replacing the spire that had crashed through the old roof, landing on and destroying the main altar, during the fire.
NOVA makes good use of graphics and simulations to illustrate what happened to Notre Dame during that fire, what could have happened if key repairs were not made, and what must happen before the building can be reopened. (The target date is 2024.) Along the way, the interviews with expert restorers provide a new appreciation for the astonishing expertise that went into the original construction of the basilica, more than 800 years ago.
Thank goodness, after a lively debate, French officials have made the commitment to restore Notre Dame to its original glory, rather than attempting some new architectural statement. As far as possible, the building that is reopened in 2024 (if that ambitious deadline is met) will look exactly like the basilica that so many millions of people have admired, in which so many faithful Catholics have worshipped. The innate desire to preserve something beautiful has overcome the restless impulse to make something new.
The NOVA presentation covers only the beginnings of the restoration process; there is much more work to be done. Let’s hope that the process also provides opportunities for more inside reports on the restoration of a masterpiece.
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