Tribune’s architecture critic on the gut-wrenching sight of flames engulfing Notre Dame Cathedral

For good reason, onlookers wept Monday as they watched the gut-wrenching sight of flames engulfing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and toppling its delicate Gothic spire and wood roof.

The cathedral, with its muscular bell towers, graceful flying buttresses and delicate rose windows, is a magnificent synthesis of engineering, architecture and art — a monument left by medieval builders that still dazzles the modern world.

For Catholics, many of whom who regard Notre Dame as a monument to religious devotion as well as an architectural masterpiece, the timing of the blaze, during the week leading to Easter, made it all the more searing.

French President Emmanuel Macron crystallized the thoughts of millions Monday when he tweeted that the blaze was like "a part of us being on fire."

With Paris fire officials saying late Monday that they had prevented the fire from destroying Notre Dame’s main structure, the grim task ahead will be to determine the fire’s cause, assess the robustness of the structural elements that survive, and, if possible, map a route for rebuilding the edifice, more than 850 years old.

If, as Paris fire officials suspect, the fire was caused by a $6.8 million renovation project on the church's spire, the conflagration would recall the 2006 fire that destroyed all but the exterior walls of Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler’s Pilgrim Baptist Church on Chicago’s South Side. That blaze broke out during roof repairs.

“You assume that people are taking the proper precautions if they’re using open flames,” said Gunny Harboe, a Chicago architect who specializes in historic preservation. “But clearly mistakes sometimes get made.”

Sometimes, he explained, contractors need to apply a flame directly to a surface to make repairs.

The cathedrals of medieval France, built in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, have “beautiful but fragile roof systems that are made out of wood,” said Harboe, who has visited Notre Dame several times. “When the roof is centuries old, it’s just tinder. It doesn’t take much to get it going.”

The first stone at Notre Dame was laid in 1163. The cathedral wasn’t finished until 1345.

Along the way, Notre Dame’s builders experimented with structural innovations — pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttress (an arched exterior support) — that allowed them to reach once-unthinkable heights and transform exterior walls into diaphanous expanses of stained glass.

In some ways, their rational approach anticipated the innovations that Chicago architects and engineers would use centuries later in designing the first skyscrapers in the 1880s.

But unlike even greater realizations of the Gothic ideal at later cathedrals, the one in Paris is distinguished by its location in the center of the city, on an island in the Seine River. That embeds it in daily life, and in the public mind.

“Because it’s urban and it’s right in this tremendous confluence of governmental buildings, cultural buildings and university buildings, it’s more important by virtue of its contact with all these different things,” said Alison Fisher, an associate curator of architecture and design at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Indeed, the cathedral has come to represent French survival, having outlasted the Hundred Years’ War, the French Revolution and two world wars. By virtue of its age, scale and layers of history, it has no precise equivalent in Chicago. The castle-like Water Tower that survived the Great Fire of 1871 is a bauble by comparison.

The cathedral took on added cultural relevance when it was immortalized in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” the tale of the bell ringer Quasimodo.

Looking ahead, experts on medieval architecture said Monday, a key question is whether the stone vaults over the cathedral’s nave and crossing survived.

“The best case is that the stone exterior walls and vaults remain,” said John Stamper, associate dean and professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame. “They’ll have to restore those vaults. There will be burn damage on them. … That’s better than having to rebuild the stonework. They’ll rebuild the roof and they’ll have to rebuild the spire over the crossing.”

The worst case, Stamper added, is if the burning timber roof structure fell onto the vaults and caused them to collapse.

The cathedral of Notre Dame has been damaged before, though never to this extent.

During the French Revolution, the kingly statues lining the facade were beheaded. In the mid-19th century, the cathedral was restored by the French architect and author Eugene Viollet-le-Duc.

In 2012, as the cathedral prepared to celebrated its 850th anniversary, a renovation added new lighting, built a platform to view the Gothic facade, renovated the organ and provided new bells.

Last year, the Catholic Church in France made an urgent appeal for funds to restore the cathedral.

Now, a much greater sum will be needed to restore one of France’s, and the world’s, great landmarks.

Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.

bkamin@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BlairKamin

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