“The sizes are gigantic,” Philippe Villeneuve, lead architect of the Notre Dame reconstruction, said at the Briey site last week.
On Thursday, workers climbed ladders and carefully assembled the future base of the tower, an X-shaped structure made of thick oak beams with the longest side measuring 50 feet.
“I often think of it as the core of a construction site,” Villeneuve said. “There is no room for mistakes.”
The tower itself, shaped like a spire and covered in lead, rises to a height of more than 300 feet when all the elements are assembled in Paris Cathedral.
It would be fair to say that France, if not much of the world, is watching.
The date of the fire, April 15, 2019, will be deeply remembered in France. As the tower collapsed, bystanders watching from the banks of the Seine wept silently. Millions watched the scenes in disbelief on television. Many French people still know exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.
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“People couldn’t believe it was possible — but unfortunately it was,” recalled Dany Sandron, an art historian who was close to the crowd at Seine and has worked at the construction site for years.
Notre Dame had been Paris’ most popular tourist attraction, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that attracted more than 12 million visitors each year. But many people in France also saw it as a cultural symbol, a visual anchor for Paris and a reminder of the Catholic traditions that proudly support the secular republic.
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The cathedral’s iconic bell towers and elaborate stained glass windows withstood the flames. The crown of thorns that Jesus wore during the crucifixion was saved. But the roof collapsed, the medieval wooden interior was destroyed and many objects disappeared. The cause of the fire is still unknown.
President Emmanuel Macron stood in front of Notre Dame that night as smoke still billowed: “We will rebuild this cathedral.” His hope was to have it ready for visitors by July 2024, when France will host the Summer Olympics. But French officials now say they are aiming for the end of 2024.
“We have two extraordinary events in France in 2024: the Olympics and the reopening of Notre Dame,” French army general Jean-Louis Georgelin, who is overseeing the project, told reporters who toured the workshop on Thursday. “France’s image is at stake in these two events.”
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Villeneuve had been involved with Notre Dame before the fire and had overseen renovations since 2013. He was not in Paris when the first fire engines rushed to the cathedral. But as soon as he heard, he jumped on the last train from the Atlantic coast.
“Luckily I didn’t see the tower fall,” he said. “I don’t think I ever really recovered from that.”
In the following days, he and his team identified the most unstable parts of the cathedral. As workers secured the building over the next two years, French architects, church representatives and politicians considered rebuilding.
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Some architects suggested reconstructing the collapsed roof as a greenhouse, or with stained glass instead of wood, or even a swimming pool entirely. Not all of the proposals seemed serious, but advocates of modernized design argued that the fire offered an opportunity to start over, as previous generations of architects had done.
Notre Dame has gone through several changes during its more than 850-year history. Over the centuries, cathedral windows were widened and flying buttresses rebuilt. After the old steeple was removed for safety reasons in the 18th century, the cathedral went decades without its most iconic feature. Under the architectural direction of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Notre Dame underwent such dramatic changes in the 19th century that many scholars today say the building represents that period more than its medieval origins.
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Successive French presidents have wanted to leave their mark on central Paris and have personally championed projects such as the Louvre pyramid and the Pompidou center. Macron, who had been elected to the reform platform two years before the fire, proposed a “contemporary architectural gesture” in the new tower design. But after a backlash—including the architect Villeneuve’s threat to resign—he agreed to a reconstruction that closely mimicked the original.
However, it looks different in some ways.
“Before the fire, we had a very dirty cathedral – walls that looked almost black or dark gray because of the contamination from candles and smoke,” said art historian Sandron. “Now the color of the stones is very light.”
Aurélien Lefevre, who leads the team of carpenters working on the reconstruction, said the project remains a challenge – but not an insurmountable one. Problems can arise at any stage, which is why the trial run of assembling the wooden beams during the past week was a decisive step.
“We’re not immune to forgetting something,” Lefevre said.
Especially for younger carpenters, participating in the project can be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he said.
Nearby, dozens of carpenters were sawing, hammering and polishing wooden beams made from centuries-old oak trees. More than 1000 carefully selected trees from all over France have been felled for the reconstruction.
At the edges of the workshop, the wall frames of local construction projects had been pushed aside to leave room for the focus area of the coming months.
Outside, Villeneuve rattled off a list of the project’s milestones: “The galleries are complete, the north and south transects done.”
Other parts – including the tower, interior, vault and furniture – are still in progress. But after the shock and destruction of 2019, every sign of progress is important to those who care deeply about the building.
“It’s a balm for my scars,” Villeneuve said. “By rebuilding the cathedral, I am also rebuilding myself.”