Notre Dame fire: Macron's five-year rebuilding pledge is unrealistic, experts warn
"It will certainly take years, perhaps even decades, until the last damage caused by this terrible fire will be completely repaired."
Cathedrals often took more than a century to build in medieval times, a process that sometimes spanned the lives of several monarchs.
So French President Emmanuel Macron's pledge Tuesday to restore the fire-devastated Notre Dame within five years was at odds with experts who predicted that restoring the jewel of Gothic architecture would most likely take much longer.
A host of specialized artisans and skilled workmen will need to be gathered from around France, and likely beyond. These include master stone-cutters, mortar makers, carpenters, roofers, quarrymen and sculptors.
Speaking before Macron's announcement, Emily Guerry, a professor of medieval history at England's University of Kent, anticipated restoration work on the 850-year-old icon would take around two decades.
“This will be the largest, most important cultural renovation project in France for some time to come,” she said, adding that the process would be “very delicate.”
Jean-Claude Bellanger, secretary-general of Les Compagnons du Devoir, an organization that provides training in manual trades, told Le Parisian newspaper that the niche nature of the work would require an influx of new talent.
“We need to open some 100 places in our carpentry, stone-cutting and roofing sections,” he said, with at least 300 more skilled tradesmen also needing training.
A decade is necessary to train some of the specialized workers required for such a project, Bellanger added.
Bertrand de Feydeau, vice president of preservation group Fondation du Patrimoine, told France Info radio that the 800-year-old roof that went up in flames was built with wood from forests that have all but disappeared.
It won't be rebuilt precisely as it was before because "we don’t, at the moment, have trees on our territory of the size that were cut in the 13th century," he told The Associated Press.
But before any work could even start, the building has to be made safe, according to Fondation du Patrimoine.
"There is still a risk of collapse of any part of the church, so the priority goes to the 'securitization' of the area to make sure that experts can go safely into the church," said Julien Guinhut, the head of communication and fundraising at the organization. "We are deeply concerned that we could have structural issues."
Macron's promise was aimed at galvanizing a nation reeling after a blaze tore through the 12th-century landmark.
And with around $1 billion raised in donations for Notre Dames's reconstruction, Macron appeared confident it could be made whole again in time for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.
"We have so much to reconstruct," he said. "So yes, we will rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame more beautifully. And I would like it to be achieved in five years from now. We can do it. And we will mobilize."
But the timescale of similar projects suggests Macron might be focusing on optimism over realism.
The Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, was badly damaged during World War II and work to repair it is still going on more than 70 years later.
"This is certainly a tragedy with a European dimension, because the Gothic style was invented in France,” Peter Fuessenich, who is leading the reconstruction in Cologne, told the AP. "It will certainly take years, perhaps even decades, until the last damage caused by this terrible fire will be completely repaired.”
Pierluigi Pericolo, who is in charge of restoration and security at the St. Donatian basilica in the French city of Nantes, said it could take two to five years just to secure and stabilize Notre Dame, given its size.
"It's a fundamental step, and very complex, because it's difficult to send workers into a monument whose vaulted ceilings are swollen with water," he said on France Info. "The end of the fire doesn't mean the edifice is totally saved. The stone can deteriorate when it is exposed to high temperatures and change its mineral composition and fracture inside."
Historians and experts in medieval architecture tried to assuage worries around the world about the future of Notre Dame, saying that such disasters were natural in the lifespan of such buildings.
Sara Uckelman, a professor at Britain’s Durham University, pointed out that the cathedral has endured sieges and two world wars.
“I'm finding that my background and training as a medievalist means I'm, overall, finding it a lot less devastating than many people,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I know how churches live. They are not static monuments to the past. They are built, they get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt."
Uckelman added, “It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters."
Sara Uckelman, the professor quoted in this article, is a Countess in the SCA, and is well-known for her study of Medieval Buildings.
She had this to say in a SCA FB Forum: "The funny thing is, as a result of my FB post, I've now done four media interviews, had to decline a fifth, AND have had the piece picked up in a number of online newspapers and news sources, such as the Miami Herald, Yahoo News, and NBC News, in my capacity as An Official Academic. And yet, none of what I have to say stems from any of my academic credentials. It has, more than anything else, its roots in my SCA activity that has let me grapple with historic in a very holistic way. I know that we haven't lost the medieval stonemason techniques, because *I know people who still use them.*"
Also, on her FB Page:
Sara Uckleman wrote:While what has happened to Notre Dame today has shocked me and moved me to tears more than once over the course of the evening, I'm finding that my background and training as a medievalist means I'm, overall, finding it a lot less devastating than many people.
Because I know how churches live. They are not static monuments to the past. They are built, they get burned, they are rebuilt, they are extended, they get ransacked, they get rebuilt, they collapse because they were not built well, they get rebuilt, they get extended, they get renovated, they get bombed, they get rebuilt. It is the continuous presence, not the original structure, that matters.
The spire that fell, that beautiful iconic spire? Not even 200 years old. A new spire can be built, the next stage in the evolution of the cathedral.
The rose windows? Reproductions of the originals. We can reproduce them again.
Notre Dame is one of the best documented cathedrals in the world. We have the knowledge we need to rebuild it.
But more than that: We have the skill. There may not be as many ecclesiastical stone masons nowadays as there were in the height of the Middle Ages, but there are still plenty, and I bet masons from all over Europe, if not further, will be standing ready to contribute to rebuilding. Same with glaziers, carpenters, etc.
Precious artworks and relics may have been lost. There is report of one fireman seriously injured, but so far, from what I've read, no one else, and no deaths.
This isn't the first time Notre Dame has burned. I'm dead certain it won't be the last.