A rare glimpse of what’s going on behind the scaffolding at Notre Dame de Paris

Visitors are generally not allowed in – not because of any desire for secrecy, but simply that, with so much going on at once, there just isn’t time or space to welcome them.

Yet, two years on from the devastating fire, Le Parisien, a popular daily newspaper, treated viewers to a virtual guided tour of Notre Dame’s restoration, where experts engaged in the project are only too happy to talk about their work. Philippe Villeneuve, chief architect for Notre Dame since 2013, is delighted to report the project broadly on schedule, expecting itto be finalised in the Summer of 2025.

Despite an eight-week pause during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the cathedral, though not entirely finished, will be ready to welcome the public in 2024, when a te Deum will be performed on the Great Organ on 16 April Paris, just before Paris hosts the Olympic Games.

Two years ago, as engineers and architects surveyed the damage immediately following the fire, they estimated eighteen months just to reinforce the stone structure, which had been weakened, first by the extreme heat of the fire, then from the torrents needed to extinguish it, which all left it vulnerable to high winds and other perils. That estimate seems to have been spot-on and in November, 2020, work began preparing for reconstruction of the roof and of the gorgeous vaults beneath them, ten storeys high and so beautiful that they almost made you weep.

Image by Frances Cowell

Modern building techniques and materials could have saved time and money, but oak and lead will return Notre Dame to how it was on the eve of the fire. And, while a modern make-over has been ruled out, the finished cathedral will still comprise many features not envisaged by its original architects, but added over the centuries. Notable among these are the organ and the cathedral’s iconic flying buttresses. Perhaps more controversial is the decision to preserve features added during the major make-over directed by Eugene Violet-le-Duc in the mid-nineteenth century, including intricate frescoes adorning some of the chapels, and of course the famous spire that crashed heart-breakingly through those majestic stone vaults.

The first big challenges were how to dismount the old scaffolding, much of it welded together in the heat of the blaze; and how to clean up the lead dust given off from the burning roof that cloaked the building and everything in it.

You can imagine dismounting the scaffolding as a sort of giant, perilous game of pick-up-sticks; not least because, with the collapse of the roof, it was pretty much all that was holding the rest of the structure in place. Because no extra weight could be applied, the only solution was to build a new, heavier scaffold around it and lower steeple-jacks from giant cranes from above to cut and remove pipes one by one. No wonder it took a year and a half!

Image by Frances Cowell

While most of the lead dust has now been removed, eliminating all of it is a work-in-progress, and anyone entering the site must shower before leaving it so as to impede further contamination of surrounding streets and buildings.

And the roof – a masterpiece in itself, said to be built from 30,000 oak trees, earning it the moniker le forêt – the forest: most of the remnants of burnt wood have now been removed, with each joist and beam to undergo a forensic analysis to try to determine the origin and cause of the fire.

Construction of the spire is already underway separately, and is due to be completed by the end of 2023. The brass coq will again adorn its pinnacle, having been found among the embers on what remained of the roof, miraculously more or less safe and sound.

Our guide took us for a closer look at two chapels, Saint Ferdinand and Notre-Dame-de-Guadalupe, already restored to how they were on the eve of the fire, and now serving as models for the other 22 chapels. From the stone- and fresco-restoration experts working there, we learn that in the chapel of Saint Fernand, this means cleaning and retouching Violet-le-Duc’s frescoes, while in Notre-Dame-de-Guadalupe, the original stone surfaces are now restored to their earlier splendour, showing off intricate stone carvings. Both chapels are now sealed off from the rest of the site: to go into them, you must first walk through a foot-wash to remove any traces of lead dust on your shoes.

The choir and many of the chapels, especially those in the nave, suffered no real structural damage, but will be cleaned thoroughly – our experts emphasise the use of materials chosen carefully for their minimal or zero environmental impact.

The organ, which will pelt out that te Deum in three years’ time, is yet another masterpiece within a masterpiece. Installed in the late eighteenth century, it comprises 8,000 pipes, some of them three storeys tall and others no bigger than a biro, each made from a tin-lead alloy, as delicate as a violin. Like everything else, they were coated in lead dust. Cleaning and decontamination entails dis-assembling the organ entirely and removing it from the site, although the very biggest pipes are being cleaned in-situ, as moving them would be too risky. Once reassembled, just re-tuning the organ is expected to take six to eight months. This work is now reported to be well ahead of schedule.

All this is good news, of course. But the most heart-warming part of this tour was meeting the people for whom working on this project is much more than just a job! That starts with Philippe Villeneuve, the architect in charge of the restoration. He has been in thrall to Notre Dame since his childhood, to the point of spending two years of his adolescence constructing a cardboard model of it, 80cm long and 60cm high. It is largely he who we have to thank for insisting that the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it had been, using original materials, and its hard to imagine anyone better for this role.

Speaking to the dedicated, professional scientists, engineers, technicians and craftspeople working with Monsieur Villeneuve, you share their excitement at the unique challenge that calls on their expertise in the latest in scientific diagnosis and analysis and knowledge of ancient building and decorative techniques in tandem with the practical challenges of working on this unique site.

Who will pay for it all? Many, many people, it turns out. In fact, so many people wanted to contribute that numerous scams popped up to cheat them. To pre-empt this, the official website was launched within two days of the fire, and within three, 236,000 donors had pledged or given €228 million. That is in addition to people offering mature oak trees on their properties for reconstruction of the celebrated roof. Indeed, at one point, the problem began to look like one of too much money, shifting the priority to ensuring that the gifts of well-wishers all be put to good use and not allowed to languish where some might be wasted. The final tally counted as many as 300,000 individual donors.

By the end of the tour, it is hard not to be impressed with the combination of modern technology and mastery of ancient crafts. It is also an impressive feat of project management under tight time constraints that demands fine-tuned sequencing, scheduling and coordination of tasks and the expertise to carry them out: simultaneously where possible, such as the organ and the spire, and precise sequencing where necessary.

Until she has a roof to replace the giant wooden structures needed to secure the stone structure, giant cranes continue to hover and whir, barely hinting at the extraordinary scale, complexity and precision of the once-in-a-generation project taking shape below.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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