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France announces global design contest to rebuild Notre Dame spire as donations near $1 billion mark

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, center, and French officials gather outside Notre Dame cathedral after a ceremony at the city town hall on April 18, 2019 in Paris. France paid a daylong tribute on April 18, 2019 to the Paris firefighters who saved Notre Dame Cathedral from collapse, while construction workers rushed to secure an area above one of the church's famed rose-shaped windows and other vulnerable sections of the fire-damaged landmark. (Pierre Gautheron/Abaca Press/TNS)

French officials announced an international competition Wednesday to replace the 300-foot spire that once crowned Notre Dame Cathedral but was lost in Monday night’s devastating fire.

Architects from around the globe will be invited to submit their visions of what should succeed the original 19th-century design from architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

The world watched in horror as Viollet-le-Duc’s lacy spire made from wood and covered in lead burst into flames and toppled over Monday.

France will be looking for “a new spire that is adapted to the techniques and the challenges of our era,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said.

Philippe spoke a day after French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral within five years — in time for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

“The idea of a competition all over the world, I think it’s absolutely right,” Stephen Murray, a professor emeritus of Gothic architecture and medieval art at Columbia University, told the Daily News.

“We shouldn’t just slavishly imitate what was already there. We should allow the inclusion of modern materials and modern ideals,” he said.

Murray said the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava seemed an obvious choice as a top contender.

Calatrava, who designed the Oculus at the World Trade Center, draws much of his inspiration from Gothic architecture and knows how to blend the aesthetic with modern designs, he said.

“We have our own passions and concerns as 21st century people. This should be an ecologically innovative structure. To simply chop down a bunch of oak trees and put them up there again to catch fire would be a defeat,” he said.

In addition to the competition, French officials also announced Wednesday that General Jean-Louis Georgelin, former chief of staff of the armed forces, would oversee the reconstruction effort.

They said new legislation also was in the works to give a legal framework to the herculean task and guarantee “transparency and good management.”

While the cost of rebuilding remains unclear, nearly a billion dollars already has been pledged by France’s richest families, through small donations and by companies including L’Oréal, Apple and Disney, officials said.

Disney, which adapted Victor Hugo’s classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to an animated musical in 1996, announced its $5 million donation Wednesday, calling the cathedral an “irreplaceable masterpiece.”

“Notre Dame is a beacon of hope and beauty that has defined the heart of Paris and the soul of France for centuries, inspiring awe and reverence for its art and architecture and for its enduring place in human history,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in a statement.

Parisian officials, meanwhile, said Wednesday that firefighters performed many drills at the cathedral before Monday’s tragedy and knew what they were doing when the blaze erupted.

They said there was no delay in response to the inferno and that firefighters focused much of their effort on safeguarding the wooden structures in the twin bell towers. If those burned and the bells fell, one official said, they would have caused a “chain-reaction collapse” of the treasured landmark.

“If the fire reached this wooden structure, the bell tower would have been lost,” José Vaz de Matos, a fire expert with France’s Culture Ministry, said at a news conference. “From the moment we lose the war of the bell towers, we lose the cathedral.”

While the fire destroyed most of the 850-year-old cathedral’s lead roof and spire, many of the church’s art and religious relics were saved, including its most famous treasures, The Crown of Thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis.

Notre Dame’s iconic rose windows also survived in “good condition,” although Lt. Col. Gabriel Plus of the Paris Fire Brigade said the windows might still be at risk due to weakness in their support walls.

Firefighters took great care not to spray the delicate stained glass too hard as they battled the flames, Plus said.

“The experts are scrutinizing the whole of the cathedral, part by part, to identify what is weakened, what will need to be dismantled or consolidated,” Plus said.

A crane and planks of wood arrived at the site as firefighters continued their probe. The Paris prosecutor’s office said investigators were still waiting to tour the cathedral.

Since the fire, the island that houses the cathedral has been closed to the public and its residents evacuated.

Murray echoed other experts by saying a top concern was coming up with an umbrella structure to protect the cathedral’s vaulted stone ceiling from rain after the fire punched three massive holes through it.

“Those vaults have great pockets, and if water collects in them, the weight could cause further collapse,” he said.

In the longer term, he suggested reconstruction of the roof could include a “solar dimension.”

“Imagine solar panels generating power for the entire building and beyond,” he said.

“I expect some traditional wooden plans will be submitted,” he said of the overall roof and spire reconstruction effort. “But my hope is that it will be much more innovative.”


© 2019 New York Daily News

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