The recent collapse of Notre Dame Cathedral is definitely a tragic story in the 21st century that has affected the entire global society. This destruction of the cathedral caused fright in the neighboring cathedrals and churches, brought despair to the architectural field, and made both Catholic and non-Catholic sympathize with the loss. Although it was unfortunate, this case led to changes in the historical and architectural field that would not have happened if it were not for this fire.
On April 16, one of the most sorrowful accidents in the history of architecture occurred in Paris. The famous Notre Dame Cathedral burnt down. The French government desperately tried to extinguish the fire as soon as they noticed the blazing cathedral, but the fire could not be stopped, leaving the ceiling and the spires totally destroyed. The interior and the bottom levels of the building were not as damaged as the top floors, but still the overall shape of the cathedral was totally damaged to the extent that it was unrecognizable.
While the cathedral burnt down to ashes, the mourning of French citizens was broadcasted live globally. Emmanuel Macron, the President of the French Republic, showed signs of sorrow through his Twitter, saying “Our Lady of Paris in flames. Emotion of a whole nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all French. Like all our countrymen, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn.” Other representatives worldwide also mourned for the destruction of the cathedral through Twitter posts and interviews.
▲ Reconstruction of the Notre Dame Cathedral
Analysis of the Destruction
An electrical short-circuit was found to be the main cause of the fire. Fire prevention systems, such as firewalls and sprinkler systems were found to be missing in the cathedral. Especially for an old building like Notre Dame, electrical wiring could be devastating for the architecture, since it increases the risk of fire.
The inner structures of Notre Dame Cathedral were also found to be a problematic factor in the collapse of the building. The upper part of the building, including the roof and the spire, was made with a wooden structure, using timber as a structural material. Wooden structures are extremely vulnerable to electrical fires, and this caused the upper part of Notre Dame Cathedral to collapse very easily. Compared to the wooden parts, the stone structures that compose the main lower part of the building did not collapse, due to the fire-resistant characteristics of the stone material.
There are voices inquiring the reasons why the architects did not use fire-resistant materials for the roof and the spire. Answering such questions, Professor Kim Hyon-Sob (Department of Architecture) explained how complicated it is to design a perfect, aesthetic work of architecture. Normally, a building is consisted of two parts: the upper part which consists of the ceiling and the spire, and the lower part which includes the walls and interiors. Professor Kim illustrated that building the upper parts (i.e. the roof frames above the vaults) of the cathedral with a stone structure could force too much weight on the lower part of the building, which could lead to instability, or even collapse.
Over and above the structural perspective, Professor Kim also asserted the importance of the aesthetic aspect of architecture. If ensuring safety from disasters and fire was the only area of concern, it would have been possible to construct a low building with thick, stable stone structures. Though such plans could provide enough stability, it would not show any architectural beauty. Professor Kim stated that when the cathedral was constructed, the focus was on designing a beautiful masterpiece, even if it lacked some stability.
▲ Professor Kim Hyon-sob
Significance in the Architectural Field
Beyond the emotions and sense of attachment among the French people, the building possesses its significance in the history and development of architecture. In fact, Notre Dame Cathedral is regarded as the representative work of Gothic architecture in architectural history. “Notre Dame Cathedral is the main cathedral in the Early Gothic Period. Architectural designs in cathedrals changed dramatically during the time Notre Dame Cathedral was constructed, and Notre Dame Cathedral is in the middle of this style change, thereby integrating the designs of both before and after the 12th century,” Professor Kim explained.
There has been a long history of clash surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral. Centuries after it was constructed, the cathedral faced several threats of being demolished, as the power of Catholic religion declined. Then multiple movements arose to conserve Notre Dame Cathedral, such as the publishing of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo, and the conservation of the building by Viollet le Duc, a modern architect in the 19th century. These movements imprinted the idea in people’s minds that regardless of religion, the cathedral itself stands as a significant work of architecture.
Assignments for the Future
The Notre Dame Cathedral was built in the late 12th century in the middle of Paris. It was the highest building in Europe at the time it was built. The cathedral itself was the signature, the center, and the heart of the French people. It was therefore an emotional disaster for the French to see their main cathedral all of a sudden fall apart. The reconstruction of the burnt parts of the building is one task that the French government has to carry out over the next few decades, both for people within the nation and worldwide.
The reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral is just a starting point. There is intense competition on who will take responsibility for the reconstruction of the building. Whoever takes the responsibility, it is clear that they should reconstruct the building structurally more stable while preserving the past aesthetic appeal.