Lost to a devastating fire, the iconic spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral can never be recaptured exactly as it once was — nor can any other damaged parts of the 856-year-old structure. Built over a period of nearly 200 years beginning in the middle of the 12th century, Notre Dame represents countless hours of skilled labor, and the forests that supplied its massive old growth oak frame are long gone. Felled sometime between 1160 and 1170 and coming from trees thought to be up to 400 years old at the time, these timber beams simply can’t be replaced with trees from today’s forests, which are much younger and smaller.

Exterior shot of Paris' beloved Notre Dame cathedral.

But long before the fire broke out, Notre Dame already represented how even our oldest and most significant architecture can evolve over time: its 300-foot spire was only added in the mid-19th century during a major restoration project by architect Eugéne Viollet-le-Duc. This spirit of adaptation and survival will likely guide many of the proposals to revamp the cathedral, as President Emmanuel Macron has promised the nation of France that Notre Dame will be rebuilt “more beautiful than before” within five years’ time.

Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a competition to reconstruct Notre Dame almost as soon as the blaze was extinguished, telling reporters that the building will receive “a spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our time.”

“The international competition will allow us to ask the question of whether we should even recreate the spire as it was conceived by Viollet-le-Duc,” says Philippe. “Or, as is often the case in the evolution of heritage, whether we should endow Notre Dame with a new spire. This is obviously a huge challenge, a historic responsibility.”

The Notre Dame Cathedral's iconic rose window.

Preserving the remaining portions of the cathedral will be a challenge, as the Paris fire service has reported that many elements, including the gables that hold the building’s renowned rose windows up, are “no longer supported by the frame.” A new design will have to find a way to strengthen this frame without the use of old-growth wood.

Architects have noted three main areas of damage, including the hole where the spire once stood, the transept, and the vault of the north transept. To make matters even more complicated, the wooden structures that previously supported the ceiling are waterlogged from efforts to stop the fire, and 210 tons of melted lead from the roof’s shingles poured into the cathedral’s interior, causing additional damage. While most of the stone structure was saved, much of it remains dangerously unstable.

Exterior shot of Paris' beloved Notre Dame cathedral.

In light of all this, any calls to recreate Notre Dame as a true replica of its former self may not be entirely realistic, reigniting a common debate around efforts to rebuild historic structures. Should architects use new technologies to reproduce the cathedral as faithfully as possible, or come up with a new design that honors its past while acknowledging what it’s been through, potentially incorporating a few contemporary elements? It will be interesting to see what architects entering the competition come up with, and how the public will react to their ideas.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons