Visitors to Notre-Dame in Paris could be in for a “shock” when it reopens in 2024, promised the site’s restoration leader Jean-Louis Georgelin. Since the devastating fire, the cathedral has undergone an intensive €846 million (£727 million) renovation using some innovative – and controversial – conservation techniques.
Construction first began on Notre-Dame in 1163, and in the following centuries frequent modifications transformed the building into the iconic example of French Gothic architecture it is today. On 15th April 2019, a sudden blaze tore through the upper roof before engulfing the famous nineteenth-century spire. The internal upper walls and some of the exteriors were damaged too, but extensive damage was thankfully avoided due to the sturdiness of the stone vaulted ceiling.
“People were crying. People were praying. People were kneeling in the street,” recalled Jean-Michel Leniaud, a historian of architecture, who watched in Paris as firefighters battled to contain the blaze.
Conservation was essential to stabilise and restore the historic building after the fire. Although some wanted Notre Dame to be reborn with a new look, it was decided to honour the building as faithfully as possible. It also provided specialists with the opportunity to reverse 150 years of dirt that had built up since the building was last cleaned. “Following the fire, a thorough cleaning campaign of all interiors was required. The interior elevations will regain their original colour since the chapels and side aisles were very dirty,” explained a spokesperson for Rebâtir Notre-Dame de Paris, who are responsible for the restoration.
For two years remote-controlled robots were used to collect the debris as lead dust swirled through the air. The latest cleaning phase involves the application of latex paste to the interior stonework, which absorbs dust and dirt before being peeled away. Chief architect of French national historic monuments, Philippe Villeneuve, said that the cathedral would be “luminous” once completed.
The process is not without controversy, however, after a similar product was used in the restoration of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral 20 years ago, sparking intense debate around the level of chemicals in the mixture. In recent years the harmful ammonia that is often mixed in with latex as a stabilizer has been removed.
The allure of over cleaning surfaces has drawn criticism for potentially changing the original colour of the stonework. Critics also claim other modern additions like LED lighting will cheapen the 850-year-old relic and insult the Catholic tradition. “The really important questions in restoration are not, in essence, technical, they are aesthetic and historic and artistic,” said Michael Daly, the director of ArtWatch UK. “The question at Notre Dame, as at St Paul’s, is whether there is any good basis for wishing to present an artificially brightened and ahistorical white interior.”
John Larson, the retired head of conservation at London’s Horniman Museum, added “if you judge everything by whether it is looking brighter and cleaner, you’re judging it on the basis of how a bathroom looks.”
Notre-Dame Cathedral is scheduled to reopen to the public in April 2024, exactly 5 years after the fire and coinciding with the Olympic Games in Paris.