Out of the Ashes, a New Notre-Dame Cathedral

From The Wall Street Journal:


For many years, Philippe Villeneuve has worn above his heart a tattoo of a stained-glass rose window from Notre-Dame. Inked on his left arm are two more images from this, the most beloved of all Christian cathedrals. One is of the great organ, the other of its spire, which was destroyed by the nighttime fire that engulfed Notre-Dame on April 15, 2019. A heartbroken Mr. Villeneuve had these etched just days after.

This display of bodily devotion is apt for a man who fell in love with the 13th-century Gothic cathedral 53 years ago, when he was 6, on a visit with his grandpa. Ten years later, he built a model of the sacred building out of balsa wood (over long days when his mother thought he was studying for exams). Today he is the chief architect in charge of restoring the charred edifice.

How difficult is it to work on a restoration with the world watching? “We’re so focused on the monument, we don’t even notice,” he says, in an answer relayed via WhatsApp by the spokesman for the Friends of Notre-Dame, a nonprofit at the forefront of fundraising in the U.S. Mr. Villeneuve is in Washington on a lecture tour with Rémi Fromont, another architect on the team. Of the 40,000 donors to Friends of Notre-Dame, 30,000 are American.

Does restoring a place of worship pose challenges different from those of a secular project? “No. You don’t need to be a churchgoing Christian to restore Notre-Dame,” Mr. Villenueve says. “You just need to understand and love it.” He admits it’s the most challenging restoration work his architects have done, and not only at a technical level. “It’s an emblematic monument, part of the world’s heritage. As such, literally everyone has an opinion. But people should stay in their lane and focus on what is best for the monument.”

In the initial clamor to rebuild, outlandish ideas were put forth, including by President Emmanuel Macron, who favored a new spire of contemporary design. Others included a roof garden, as well as rebuilding with glass or steel, not wood. Mr. Villeneuve, an adamant originalist, threatened to quit if Notre-Dame wasn’t restored exactly the way it was before. The army general in charge of the works, a martinet appointed by Mr. Macron, told Mr. Villeneuve to “shut his mouth.” Sanity prevailed, and the French Parliament passed a law to ensure that the rebuilding was identical to the original.

Also destroyed was the wooden roof above the stone-vaulted ceiling. Its reconstruction requires the remaking—with timber from white oaks—of a “forest” of 25 trusses, structures that hold up the roof. Most of the cathedral’s blueprints are thought to have been destroyed during the widespread desecration of churches after the French Revolution. A faithful restoration of the trusses would have been near-impossible had Mr. Fromont not made detailed drawings of the “forest” as part of a postgraduate study of Notre-Dame. Although Mr. Fromont is too modest to say so himself, that study has proved a structural lifesaver.

It is the trusses that have brought Messrs. Villeneuve and Fromont to the U.S., drawn to a project undertaken by Handshouse, a Massachusetts nonprofit focused on architectural education, and the Catholic University of America in Washington. These two institutions undertook to build a truss—No. 6 of the 25 at Notre-Dame—by working off drawings by Mr. Fromont.

Tonya Ohnstad, a professor of architecture at Catholic U, set up a course for her students on the project, titled “Joinery and Craft of Notre-Dame.” Students worked with skilled craftsmen, using the same techniques that were employed in medieval Europe to build a replica of the truss from white oak sourced in Virginia. The project was complete in August 2021, and the French architects wished to see it.

Ms. Ohnstad describes the “exhilaration” her students felt as they engaged in this task, which was also a way to “get their hands back into making things after Covid” and months of Zoom classes. “Everyone had lost all their senses.” Theirs was also a romantic fantasy: Handshouse and the students had hoped Notre-Dame would use their truss, “accept it as a gift.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal