Can Notre-Dame’s dazzling Gothic architecture be rebuilt?

Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre calls for restoration, rehabilitation and partial reconstruction

TOPSHOT - Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15, 2019, in the French capital Paris. A huge fire swept through the roof of the famed Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019, sending flames and huge clouds of grey smoke billowing into the sky. The flames and smoke plumed from the spire and roof of the gothic cathedral, visited by millions of people a year. A spokesman for the cathedral told AFP that the wooden structure supporting the roof was being gutted by the blaze. / AFP / Fabien Barrau

The gravity-defying Gothic cathedral survived centuries of France’s turbulent past and, as of Monday, a violent blaze that gutted its main spire and threatened to erase its iconic towers.

President Emmanuel Macron vowed to reconstruct Notre-Dame, one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, as firefighters doused the last flames in the ruins overnight.

But restoring the architectural features of the masterpiece, built over almost two hundred years, will be a challenge of titanic proportions.

“We are all heartbroken,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said as she stood at in front of the charred vault on Monday evening.

The 850-year-old landmark has stood tall at the heart of the city for centuries, its walls filigreed with stained glass and its ceiling supported by tall stone arches. It has been on the World Heritage List since 1991, together with other landmarks that dot the river Seine.

Mechtild Rössler, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, told The National while at the scene on Tuesday that restoration will be possible.

“The building is standing and I have to say I am greatly relieved,” Ms Rössler said. “Restoration, rehabilitation and partially reconstruction will be possible. We have put experts at the disposal of the French authorities.”

A UNESCO Rapid Assessment mission will be determining the extent of the damage and the condition of the remaining infrastructure. While the World Heritage Centre director said she hoped the assessment will take place soon, she also acknowledged that in the case of the fire that engulfed Rio de Janeiro's National Museum last year operations took two weeks to receive the green light.

The French Interior Ministry said on Tuesday the primary preoccupation of the police and fire services was the “security and safety of the building” and identifying weaknesses in Notre-Dame’s structure.

“We have identified some vulnerabilities in the structure…notably in the vault and the north transept pinion that needs securing,” Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez said.

The vulnerabilities include “three main holes” in the structure, that of the spire, the transept and the vault of the north transept, according to the official.

Residents of five buildings around the north transept were being evacuated.

With the collapse of the roof, the exterior walls are now in danger of caving in. Notre-Dame’s famous steel buttresses –  a form of structural support that became popular in the Gothic period – are designed to be strong enough to prevent the exterior walls of a building from being pushed outward by the force of the ceiling above them.

The extensive damage to the ceiling and the effect of the heat on the stained-glass window mean the walls are now precariously bearing the load of the infrastructure.

Lucy Maulsby, an associate professor of architectural history at Boston’s Northeastern University, said she and her colleagues have been looking closely at images from the fire “to see whether there’s any light visible inside the building.” The presence of light would mean the fire has dropped down into the “belly of the building”, melting the stained-glass.

Emma Wells, a church historian and a lecturer at the University of York, told The National that while the events in Paris are a "once in a generation" moment, church fires are an integral and recurring theme in history.

“Church fires are a common occurrence. Canterbury cathedral and York Minster (both in the UK) suffered a similar fate,” she said.

In 1984, lightning set fire to York Minster in the north of Britain, causing £2.25 million damage.

Ms Wells said she believed that the idea of restoration itself is subjective. “There’s no one right way. Keeping what we have and revealing bits of what was there could be the way forward,” she said.

One option, Ms Wells offered, could be to have a modern glass roof “bringing to life the historical structure”, similar to the nearby Louvre Pyramid. The glass structure was built only 30-years-ago, but it has since “in its own right become an icon”.

Fundraising has already begun, with some high-profile pledges being made. Funds have reportedly already hit 300 million as two billionaire families announced they would be stepping in.

Rebecca Rideal, historian and author of a book on the great fire of London in 1666, said this kind of solidarity has also been a constant throughout history.

“Looking back to similar events in the past, like the St Paul's Cathedral event in the great fire of London (of 1666), donations came in far and wide. It’s a practical measure that people can take [to address the grief that they feel],” said Ms Rideal.

The British royal family has sent a message to Mr Macron to express solidarity. “My thoughts and prayers are with those who worship at the Cathedral and all of France at this difficult time," Queen Elizabeth II wrote.

In 1992, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle, one of the official residences of Queen Elizabeth II and the largest inhabited castle in the world.

It suffered extensive damage as several ceilings collapsed. It was initially feared that reconstruction would cost £60 million, but final cost was £36.5 million. The Queen contributed £2 million of her own money toward rebuilding the 11th century palace.