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The works at Notre-Dame de Paris in December 2019
The works at Notre-Dame de Paris in December 2019   -   Copyright  Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos

In pictures: Inside the restoration project that is bringing Notre-Dame back to life

On April 15, 2019, flames engulfed Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, destroying its roof, toppling its spire and leaving millions of people across the globe devastated.

Donations quickly flooded in to help restore the world's most famous gothic landmark, work that has now had to be halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The restoration is being managed by construction experts Pierrenoel, alongside specialist scaffold and rigging companies. Pierrenoel's president, Didier Durand, spoke to Euronews about how the project was progressing prior to the lockdown.

Durand described Notre-Dame as "both the most beautiful and the most observed building site in the world today."

© PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS
Rope access technician at Notre-Dame de Paris© PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS

Still in danger

One of the main consequences of the fire was the loss in structural stability in the cathedral due to the collapse of its roof, Durand said. The limestone absorbed water used in extinguishing the fire, while some of the stonework has been damaged by the flames.

Much work has had to be done to ensure that other parts of the building do not collapse, including removing the statues that were taken down from the north, south and west gables.

Chimeras and balustrades which were at risk of falling onto the vaulted ceiling were removed from the south and west corners of the south tower where the stonework was badly damaged by the fire.

Climbers had to assess the damage to some of Notre Dames gargoyles, chimeras and sculptures by scaling the building.

©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Notre-Dame de Paris statues covered with protective sheets. 25 June 2019©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum PhotosPatrick Zachmann
©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Recovered statues from the Cathedral's top surface.The statues will undergo a process of restoration. 25 June 2019©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

No further damage to the cathedral walls

To avoid having to drill holes in the medieval walls of the building, granite footings and brick piles were installed so that parts of the cathedral could be restored.

Chief architect Philippe Villeneuve has stressed that the building's eighth-century walls - which have survived many renovations and modifications over the years - should not suffer any damage during the project.

The robots have helped technicians clean the rubble inside Notre-Dame due to the risk of further collapse.

All the remaining debris - mainly wood, metal, stone and gravel - was carefully checked and marked by experts before it was removed from site, Durand explained

The analysis of the debris is twofold: to help understand what started the fire - believed to be a faulty electrical circuit - and to understand how the cathedral was built eight centuries ago.

©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Due to risks of further collapse, only robots are allowed to move the rubble while technicians operate from a safe distance. July 9 2019©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Workers move the remnants of the historic wooden beams outside the cathedral, 11 July 2019©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Workers label and prepare the remnants of the Cathedral's historic wooden beams in order to be moved and analysed©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
© PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS
Burnt wood collected inside the Notre-Dame cathedral. October 2019© PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS
©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
The analysis of the wood and other remnants conducted in order to collect information on the characteristics of the fire and the construction of the cathedral 8 centuries ago©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

Reinforcing flying buttresses

The cathedral has been reinforced and supported with wooden decking between the gutter walls.

Twenty-eight temporary wooden bracings were built under Notre-Dame's iconic flying buttresses, which are a form of structural support that is common in Gothic architecture.

©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
A crane moves the wooden arches that will support the Cathedral's flying buttress. 2 July 2019©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum PhotosPatrick Zachmann
©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
A rope access technician installs a wooden arch to support the Cathedral's flying buttress, 22 July 2019©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

Scaffolding was constructed to access the parts of the cathedral that needed to be dismantled or repaired.

Climbers have helped to keep water out of the cathedral by erecting semi-transparent tarpaulins above the building and over the windows after the stained glass was removed by specialists.

FRANCOIS GUILLOT/ AFP
Notre Dame Cathedral in March 2020FRANCOIS GUILLOT/ AFP
KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP
Notre-Dame Cathedral in July 14, 2019KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP

The biggest challenge to come

"One of the biggest challenges so far is to resolve the problem of the scaffolding that had been installed to restore the building's spire, and was damaged during the blaze," Durand said.

So far, teams have managed to reinforce the scaffolding, a necessary step in the process of dismantling it.

In the next few months, when work will resume, the scaffolding will be cut, tube by tube, and lowered to the ground.

© PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS
Reinforcing the old scaffolding in order to disassemble without any risks for the cathedral structure© PATRICK ZACHMANN / MAGNUM PHOTOS

The riggers will then collect the tubes - 250,000 of them - while being suspended from large beams.

In parallel to the scaffolding removal, other teams will work at night to remove the debris from the top of the cathedrals vaulted ceiling. This includes charred remains of the wooden frame and lead from the roof which melted during the fire.

“In parallel to the scaffolding removal, other teams will work at night to remove the debris from the top of the cathedrals vaulted ceiling. This includes charred remains of the wooden frame and lead from the roof which melted during the fire," Durand said.

All the remaining stone vaults will have to be reinforced, because 15% of them collapsed when the spire fell. An investigation has been carried out by the chief architect with the help of specialists to identify parts of the vaults which need to be consolidated from above. When this work is complete workers will be able to safely go into the building to start the restoration on the internal stonework.

©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Site where the Cathedral's Arrow was standing. A net has been placed to cushion any further collapsing debris.©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

Scientists looking for clues

All of the remains removed from the top of the cathedral's vaulted ceiling as well as others from different parts of the building are sorted in the large tents at the foot of Notre-Dame.

“The Laboratory of Historical Monuments specialists are present to identify, analyse and catalogue all of the items so that they can be put back in the correct location," Durand explained.

The fire in April 2019 released hundreds of tons of lead into the air, contaminating the site and surrounding area.

As a result, the work of many specialists on site had to be occasionally postponed due to the concerns about lead concentration, and measures have been taken to protect everyone on the construction site, including special masks and suits and onsite showers.

©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Research engineers during the selection of stones and steel, iron pieces removed from the cathedral after the fire. All are contaminated by lead.©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos

Tests will be carried out to define the best plan to clean and restore as much as possible in the interior of Notre-Dame, much of it in laboratories outside the cathedral.

Scientists are using the recovered objects as key clues to find the best and the safest way to restore the cathedral.

©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Aurélia Azema from the Laboratory of Research of Historical Monuments observes through a microscope some sample of lead dust taken from a tube of the cathedral organ©Patrick Zachmann / Magnum Photos
Francois Mori/AP Photo
Glass specialist Claudine Loisel checks the Notre Dame cathedral's stained-glass windows in a lab at Champs-sur-Marne, west of Paris.Francois Mori/AP Photo
Francois Mori/AP Photo
The stone expert Jean-Didier Mertz shows a broken nose of the golden angel that was once atop Notre Dame cathedral, in a warehouse at Champs-sur-Marne, west of Paris.Francois Mori/AP Photo

Reopening postponed?

Soon after the fire, a public body was created by French president Emmanuel Macron and headed by retired military general Jean-Louis Georgelin, appointed to oversee the restoration project.

Georgelin said the plan was to open the cathedral on the 15 April, 2024, with a service, but the five year time-frame for restoration seems ambitious to some experts.

Considering the coronavirus outbreak, meeting that deadline may turn into a battle against time.

Additional sources • Saiora Boltabaieva