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Experts rally to restore Notre-Dame

Ben Derbyshire

The fire highlights risks of all kinds to our heritage fabric. Global collaboration will advance our knowledge

With the second devastation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s 1909 landmark still fresh in our minds, the huge tragedy of the Notre-Dame fire for culture and heritage in Paris demands a swift response. It is encouraging to see that some lessons have been learned from previous fires, with care taken to protect the stained glass and much of the art collection salvaged and moved to the Louvre. But significant questions remain about why these events keep happening and how to repair or replace the damaged fabric.

Credit: Getty images

No official cause has yet been given for the Notre Dame fire, but the renovation work has been identified as the ‘likely’ origin. This is no surprise to those familiar with the Cutty Sark and Windsor Castle fires, both caused by incidents during restoration.

Particularly for a building of such cultural and spiritual significance, it is essential to draw on the particular expertise of highly trained conservation professionals, such as those assessed and accredited against international standards like conservation architects and specialist conservation architects. These experts can support fire prevention measures during renovation and maximise the opportunity that renovation works provide for improving a building’s fire protection.

The aftermath of fire is a time when architects naturally collaborate with crafts specialists, conservators and archaeologists as well as the fire safety organisations, insurers, loss adjusters and clients to establish a strategy to move forward – a programme, funding, consents to dismantle, temporary interventions that may be required before intricate and forensic assessment of the damage and the implications to the fabric. But the development of a strategy must also involve a more philosophical debate on whether to restore like-for-like or whether to take a new approach –  ‘scholarly fancy’ or consolidation and painstaking restoration of missing parts?

The fire also gives pause to reflect on other risks to our heritage fabric, from water damage to exposure to the elements or structural undermining. On a recent RIBA visit to the Forbidden City in Beijing, I was struck by the extent of environmental damage to Ming Dynasty marble balustrades, and of course the future of the Palace of Westminster continues to concern conservation professionals and politicians alike.

While the damage to Notre-Dame is clearly a national tragedy for France, there has rightly been a global response to its restoration and the RIBA and its membership are on hand to help wherever they can. Beyond the question of funding, the Notre-Dame project will demand a breadth and depth of expertise – from masons and carpenters to conservators, architects and engineers. It is an opportunity for both French and international talent, as the competition for ideas for the Flèche already demonstrates. 

Incidents during restoration are all too frequent, as at the Cutty Sark.
Incidents during restoration are all too frequent, as at the Cutty Sark. Credit: iStock/Neville Mountford-Hoare

The opportunities this work could provide both for public engagement and for training and sharing experience and knowledge will also be enormous. Our European Gothic heritage derives from the mediaeval masons who designed and built cathedrals, travelling widely in Europe to exchange ideas and techniques. The fire at Notre-Dame will stimulate international exchange of ideas and practice, leading to new national and international initiatives to develop and maintain essential skills.  The RIBA and our network of specialists will continue to collaborate to secure a good – and safe - future for our built heritage.

My thanks to the RIBA Conservation Group and its chair Fiona Raley for their support in preparing this column