After fifteen months of suspense during which designers from around the world have come up with the most audacious if not totally bizarre designs for Notre-Dame’s new spire and roof, we finally have a verdict. President Macron and the panel of experts presiding over the fate of the 850-year-old Gothic cathedral, which narrowly survived last year’s terrible fire, have unanimously approved almost every single recommendation made by the architect-in-chief Philippe Villeneuve.
His 3,000-page report, launched with a four-hour presentation in Paris on July 9, could be summarised in a sentence: Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt identically.
For a large majority of people in France and beyond, it is a huge relief, and for the 57-year-old Villeneuve, the guardian of the cathedral, it is a sweet and emotional victory. Villeneuve belongs to Notre-Dame. As a small boy with a passion for organ music, he found his vocation in architecture while seated on the wooden benches of the cathedral, listening for hours to Pierre Cochereau, Notre-Dame’s legendary organist, improvising on one of the world’s largest organs (5 manuals, 111 stops and 7,374 pipes). Today, Villeneuve is a chief architect at Historic Monuments, one of 39 responsible for France’s architectural heritage, each of whom looks after a portfolio of important buildings.
In 1893, the Department of Historic Monuments started recruiting the most gifted art historians and architects of their generation through a series of thorough and demanding tests. “Erudition, talent, respect, discretion and moral qualities” were among the job’s requirements. They have now been France’s elite architectural corps for more than 120 years.
When I met him last summer, it was clear Villeneuve did not favour any contemporary addition to the cathedral – especially not what he called a flèche signature, in other words a trophy spire by a star architect. “In the 850 years of the cathedral’s existence,” he told me, “every architect who built or restored Notre-Dame has served the monument rather than himself. The first four architects, in other words the cathedral’s ‘authors’, remain anonymous. We don’t know who they were, and they most probably wouldn’t have considered themselves as anything other than builders.”
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