The Notre Dame fire: considerations for reconstruction

by Peter J. Larkham

Notre Dame on fire, April 2019
Notre Dame on fire (LeLaisserPasserA38, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 4.0)

On Monday 15 April 2019 fire broke out at the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. It is hard to think of a more iconic ecclesiastical building in such a key location in such a tourist-historic city. Media images show smoke billowing high into the sky, the high roof burning, and the thin central spire collapsing – all watched by numerous disbelieving locals and tourists.

The cause and rapid spread of the fire have yet to be investigated, although part of the cathedral – where the fire appeared to start – was under repair and scaffolded, and a number of historic properties have been damaged by fire under such circumstances (for example at the National Trust’s Uppark House in 1989, which started from lead workers ignoring carefully drafted “hot work” rules against precisely this risk).  The spread of smoke, heat and fire within the large timber roof voids of major churches is problematic to control and contain.

The extent of the damage is also, as yet, uncertain. Media images, especially from the air overnight, seem to show the entire structure of nave and transepts ablaze. However, early photographs of the interior suggest that the walls and stone vaulting survive virtually intact, the fire service prevented the spread to the two bell towers.  The largely nineteenth-century spire and the timber roof structure, where some oak beams dated to the thirteenth century, have gone.  As with Uppark, the removal of some items to allow the repairs to proceed, and swift action on site, means that many treasures have been saved.  The extent of heat and water damage to the surviving structure is to be assessed.

Photo of Notre Dame taken in 2008
The iconic tourist view of Notre Dame (Wowo2008, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Since so much of the structure remains, and this is such an iconic tourist attraction, it is inevitable and appropriate that it will be restored. There was, equally, never doubt that the fires at Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace and York Minster would result in restoration, though aspects of the nature of that restoration were debated.  Uppark and, more recently, Clandon House and both fires at the Glasgow School of Art were more controversial, with Uppark’s return to the condition of “the day before the fire” being largely dictated by the survival of detailed evidence and, critically, the terms of the insurance settlement.  Who will pay for Notre Dame, though?  Already two of France’s wealthiest people have promised millions: François Pinault, honorary chairman of Kering, which owns fashion labels including Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Gucci, pledged €100m and Bernard Arnault, owner of the group Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, €200m. Yet the Catholic church is one of the richest organisations worldwide – how much will it contribute?  Or the city of Paris, given the importance of this site to the city’s worldwide image?  Or public appeals to Paris-phil tourists?

Photo of Coventry Cathedral
Coventry Cathedral: ruins of St Michaels and new cathedral porch (Photo by Peter Larkham)

In fact the destruction has similarities to many of the churches damaged during Second World War air raids. Despite early emotive language such as “destroyed”, it was mostly the timber structures that were burned out by incendiaries, and in most such cases the stone (or sometimes brick) walls, often with towers and spires, remained.  Despite the heat and water damage to the surviving structure, photographs show that most of these churches – including several of Christopher Wren’s in the City of London – could have been repaired.  However, only some were.  Two factors acted against many.  One was cost: after such a conflict not only was the UK in deep financial crisis but so were the various churches as organisations, and arguably there were more urgent humanitarian calls on their finances.  Second was the long-term decline in religiosity and church attendance in the UK (and other countries) during the twentieth century, especially in the bombed town and city centres.  So some ruins were sold for development; others were retained as ruins – memorials or public open spaces (in London, Birmingham, Bristol, Coventry, Liverpool, Southampton and other places).

Quote 2 Blog 52Notre Dame is highly unlikely to suffer such a fate. Although a much overused word, its iconic status will protect it.  International interest is already mobilised in support of this tourist site, and Catholic religiosity is also generally greater than some other denominations (as can be seen in the wave of French post-war church building).  So what options and guides exist for decision-makers?

  1. Restoration to “day-before-the-fire” condition
  2. Restoration to an external “day-before-the-fire” appearance but using modern materials and techniques
  3. Retention of the shell as a tourist site, with construction of a new adjoining structure for worship (the Coventry model)
  4. Demolition and construction of a wholly new cathedral.

The first option is possible but expensive; one cannot replicate medieval tooling and oak timbers of this scale are now exceptionally rare. An extremely detailed pre-fire survey – which might exist – would be necessary even to begin this.  Options 3 and 4 seem less likely given the apparent survival of stone structure.  So option 2 looks most likely, with new approaches to minimise future fire risk and potential damage, and – possible – weight loading on the surviving walls. Damaged stone can be replaced, and smoke and water damage cleaned.

Quote 1 from textBut this “restoration” is, in essence, a “reconstruction”: a replacement or replication of fabric that has been destroyed. In fact reconstruction is generally regarded as an exceptional circumstance in heritage management (notwithstanding the frequency with which it occurs!) and a number of charters and guiding documents have sought to specify those exceptional circumstances in which reconstruction may be allowed.

  • The Declaration of Dresden (1982) made an exceptional case for the “complete reconstruction of severely damaged monuments” by war, but also noted that this must be based on reliable documentation of their condition before destruction.
  • The Krakow Charter (2000) further stated that reconstruction of an entire building, destroyed by armed conflict or natural disaster, may be acceptable if there are exceptional social or cultural motives that are related to the identity of the entire community.
  • The Riga Charter (2000) stated that exceptional circumstances arising from “tragic loss through disasters whether of natural or human origin” may pertain when “the monument concerned has outstanding artistic, symbolic or environmental … significance … [and] provided that appropriate survey and historical documentation is available”. Further provisions included the avoidance of falsification of context or damage to significant historic fabric; and the need for reconstruction to be established through full and open consultation among national and local authorities and the community.
  • The World Heritage Convention Operational Guidelines (2015) state that the reconstruction of archaeological remains or historic buildings or districts is justifiable only in exceptional circumstances, without detailing those circumstances.
  • Heritage England’s post-consultation Advisory Note on the Reconstruction of Heritage Assets (2016) states that “such reconstructions need to be based on clear and sufficient evidence if they are to be fully meaningful and should avoid the creation of something that never existed in that form in the first place”, raising the problematic issue of authenticity:

“Authenticity also has a bearing in cases where a heritage asset that has been damaged comprised construction of several different periods and in some cases of different cultures, sometimes including past reconstruction. If there is a good record of this physical evidence then reconstruction firmly rooted in authenticity could be undertaken. But should all the components of a multi-phase asset be faithfully reconstructed or should relative significance be taken into account? There may also be cases where previous phases of work have been structurally defective or where past re-creation work has resulted in fabric that does not reflect what was there before, but which reflects the thinking of the era in which it was re-created. In such instances a full understanding of how the place developed and the clear definition of its conservation values and significance can be used to provide evidence and the rationale for decisions on the approach to be taken.”


Photo of St Dunstan-in-the-East, City of London
Ruined church as garden: St Dunstan-in-the-East, City of London (Photo by Peter Larkham)

Interestingly, like most if not all large old structures, Notre Dame has undergone changes that might question originality and authenticity. There was a major restoration project between 1844 and 1864, supervised by Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who added the spire. Cleaning from 1963 and in 1991-2000 also radically changed its appearance.

Quote 3 Blog 52Consultation with local stakeholders, community and amenity groups is a crucial part of these decision-making processes. Development planning, including reconstruction, is not just a task for the professionals involved in the technical aspects.  The provision of physical and intellectual access by the public to cultural heritage sites, and the vital part played by interpretation and presentation, is fundamental to the Ename Charter on Interpretation (2008), but the desirability of public engagement at the earlier planning and decision-making stages must also be stressed.  This is emphasised in the Deschambault Declaration on the Preservation of the Heritage of Quebec (1982): ‘the public has a legitimate right to participate in any decision in regard to actions to preserve the national heritage”. But who is “the public” for a building such as Notre Dame and how are they to be reached: the Parisian public, the French public, the Catholic public, the worldwide tourist public who have visited the site, those who have read or watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and so on? For most people with no professional education in architecture or heritage, it is the external visual appearance of structures and areas that is paramount, hence the popularity of replicas and façadism.

Quote 4 Blog 52Even amongst professionals, authenticity has lost the absolute quality which it used to enjoy and has become, through redefinition and refinement, a contingent quality. It is a slippery and elusive notion.  Do we mean in this context that the reproduction is authentic to the spirit of the original and accurate in the minute detail but not original in terms of facture?  If so, does this matter – is it real facture or the appearance of facture that counts?  Have we come so far in teasing out the meaning and application of definitions that we have obscured any understanding of the practical applications of technological advances?  Authenticity is surely an arguable, mutable value rather than an absolute quality and unlike uniqueness may have relative qualities and attributes.  If guidelines for heritage reconstruction could move away from the notion of absolute, binary, right or wrong answers to difficult questions, based on the notion of a really absolute authenticity, towards a culturally relative, pragmatic approach in which the notion of authenticity is a negotiable rather than an absolute concept, then the post-fire reconstruction of Notre Dame is more likely to be more widely supported and seen as successful.


References to disaster, authenticity and reconstruction:

Architectural Design (1980) Viollet-le-Duc. Academy Editions, London. Examples of Viollet-le-Duc’s extreme reconstruction philosophy.
Assi, E. (2000) ‘Searching for the concept of authenticity: implementation guidelines’, Journal of Architectural Conservation vol. 6 no. 3 pp. 60-69.
Bold, J., Larkham, P.J. and Pickard, R. (eds) (2018) Authentic reconstruction: authenticity, architecture and the built heritage, Bloomsbury, London.
Brandi, C. (2005) Theory of restoration, trans C. Rockwell, Nardini Editore, Florence.
Fishlock, M. (1992) The great fire at Hampton Court. Herbert Press, London.
Nicolson, A. (1997) Restoration: the rebuilding of Windsor Castle. Michael Joseph, London.
Rowell, C. and Robinson, J.M. (1996) Uppark restored. National Trust, London.
Taylor, C. (1991) The ethics of authenticity. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Waitt, G. (2000) ‘Consuming heritage: perceived historical authenticity’, Annals of Tourism Research vol. 27 no. 4 pp. 835-862.
Weiler, K. and Gutschow, N. (eds) (2017) Authenticity in architectural heritage conservation: discourses, opinions, experiences in Europe, South and East Asia. Springer, Basel.


Prof Dr Peter J. Larkham is Professor of Planning at the University’s School of Engineering and the Built Environment. Peter studied his PhD in urban geography at the University of Birmingham, where he then worked on projects that were funded by the Leverhulme Trust and British Academy, before joining Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) in 1991. He has published over 65 refereed journal papers and 40 book chapters, presented numerous papers at conferences across the globe, and edited and written several books. His specialism is Urban Morphology and Conservation Planning.

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