In April 2019 the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, France, went up in flames. The iconic building suffered extensive damage, with the wooden spire collapsed through the stone-vaulted roof. The Gothic structure, over 150 years old, was lost. Almost two years later, the spire is being re-built, and French oaks more than two centuries old will form part of it.
1. The Notre-Dame’s new spire
For the rebuilding of the 96 metre tall spire, a contemporary redesign had been on the cards. However, last summer French president Emmanuel Macron dropped this idea and opted for an identical restoration of the original, added in 1859 by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. This led to the search for the perfect oak trees, 1,000 to be precise, which are needed to reconstruct the spire and the wooden lattice of the roof. Architects Philippe Villeneuve and Remi Fromont were brought in to direct the reconstruction process, and the hunt for the oaks began.
2. The hunt for the perfect trees
At the start of this year, the perfect trees were found in the former royal forest of Bercé, in the Loire region of France. Drones were used over winter to scan the snowy forest near Le Mans, looking for the first eight trunks needed to support the spire. Using 3D imagery the drones located specimens measuring 3 feet wide and over 60 feet tall with no visible defects. The trees found in Bercé also have a slight curve to them, making them ideal for the spire.
The trees are over two hundred years old, making them mere saplings during the French Revolution. Aymeric Albert, the French forestry commission’s commercial director, described the sawn “exceptional” trunk of one of the 200-year-old oaks, “It’s perfectly straight and without any internal defects.”he said. Large enough to construct an 18-metre long beam, the trunk will help support the weight of the spire.
Discussing the use of the trees for the Notre-Dame spire, Pauline Delord, a 15th-generation forest guardian who is responsible for protecting and managing the forest, explained, “We know it’s the end of something, but it’s also the beginning”. Her colleague Claire Quinones shared her opinion, adding, “It’s the best second life we can give (to the tree)”.
General Jean-Louis Georgelin, the army general in charge of the reconstruction of Notre Dame, tells how the trees were planted under the reign of King Louis XIV to provide wood to build the masts for French naval ships. “We are poor people who only live 60, 70, 80, 100 years maximum. But the trees are here after,” he says. “We recognise the humility of the human being in front of the immensity of the universe.”
As well as the eight oaks felled in Bercé, more trees have been donated from over 200 French forests throughout the country. All selected trees must be felled before the end of this month when the sap rises and the wood contains too much moisture. Each trunk is worth around 15,000 euros and will be laid to dry for 12 to 18 months before being cut into shape to ensure the beams won’t shrink or move once in place. The new Cathedral spire will represent the four corners of France through their important donations provided from their forests.
There have been complaints from some regarding the felling of trees for use in the cathedral and the environmental concerns around this. A petition addressed to France’s ecology minister called for a stop to the tree cutting, however forestry groups insist that the number of trees being cut down represents only a tiny percentage of the oaks harvested each year in France.
4. The grand reopening
The renovated Notre Dame with its new spire is scheduled to reopen in 2024, however the Covid-19 pandemic of course caused several delays last year. The old spire, which was lead lined, also left large amounts of lead dust at the site which pose a contamination risk, so it is time consuming work. Many believe that the 2024 date set by Macron is unrealistic, but General Georgelin is not one of them. “We will reopen the cathedral in 2024, no doubt about that,” he assures.