Architectural Fabric of Paris on Fire

Notre Dame, said to be one of the world’s great historic monuments that is more than 850 years old, caught fire last night and nearly burnt to the ground. Though the structure is intact, the damage was devastating.

According to architecture writer Oliver Bennett, “That sense of permanence was denied to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris yesterday, as the fire raged. It seemed as if, when the spire fell, that the very world was falling in. Parisians wept in the street; indeed, the world wept.

It is deeply jarring to see an important historic building go up in flames. In 1992, Windsor Castle was one such calamity, but the scale of Notre Dame eclipses that.

History and architecture of the building:

The cathedral was built on a small island called the Île de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine. Construction began in 1163, during the reign of King Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. It is considered a jewel of medieval Gothic architecture that is visited by over 13 million tourists each year. When the architects of Cathedral of Notre-Dame set to work some 850 years ago, their goals were nothing if not ambitious. The church’s sanctuary, they decreed, must be taller than any built before. The nave would rise 108 feet, and the two 223-feet-tall towers would cast a far-reaching shadow over the roofs of Paris. The 12th century had just entered its second half, and to achieve new heights, the builders made early use of external supports known as flying buttresses.

The cathedral today is one of the most iconic images of Paris, second only, perhaps, to the Eiffel Tower.

The last time it suffered great damage was during the French Revolution, and soon after fell into decay. The monument was restored to its former glory in the mid-nineteenth thanks to Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, which brought public attention to its neglect. The book helped spur significant overhauls from 1844 to 1864, when the architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc redid the spire and flying buttresses.

How and when did the fire break out:

The cathedral, where Mass is still offered on Sundays, is currently undergoing extensive renovation. Weather and time had taken a toll on the building. Broken gargoyles were replaced by plastic, limestone crumbled at the touch. The renovation was expected to cost nearly $180 million, according to the New York Times.

The fire started around 6:50 pm, minutes after the building closed for tourists. More than 400 firefighters attempted for hours to put out the fire. At one point on Monday night, fire officials worried that the blaze might destroy the entire structure.

While the exact cause remains to be determined by investigators, experts suspect the fire was sparked by torches or welding or cutting equipment.

What is the damage?

Cathedral spokesman has said that building has suffered “colossal damage.” The entire roof has been destroyed, and its medieval-era wooden interior entirely gutted. The greatest symbol of loss: the cathedral’s iconic spire. “I ran to the cathedral and saw the spire of the cathedral falling,” said an onlooker, “Something just collapsed inside me. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”

Some Positivity?

Notre Dame’s twin bell towers have been saved. Also saved: a number of precious artifacts and relics, including a crown of thorns supposedly worn by Jesus Christ before his crucifixion. Many other treasures had been removed earlier as part of the renovation.

President Emmanuel Macron pledged, “We will rebuild it [the cathedral] together. It will undoubtedly be part of French destiny and our project for the years to come.” He announced an international fundraising campaign and called on the world’s “greatest talents” to help in the effort. French billionaire François-Henri Pinault—husband of actress Salma Hayek—has already offered 100 million euros towards the effort.

(Complied from the New York Times and other news agencies)


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