It was a clear spring evening in Paris, just one week before Easter last year, when at 6:20pm fire broke out beneath the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral. The cathedral, built in 1160, had, until that point, been an unshakeable fixture of the Parisian skyline, withstanding the chaos of revolutions and wars over more than eight centuries. Despite its status as an icon of gothic architecture and religious devotion, the timber structure was no match for the unforgiving flames which tore rapidly through the roof and eventually toppled the 300ft spire, leaving a trail of seemingly irreparable damage.
The world watched on in disbelief as France’s collective spirit took a devastating blow. At the time, there appeared to be little hope of preserving the precious cultural and religious relics housed within the cathedral, let alone the burnt-out structure itself. Whether by divine intervention or sheer dumb luck, however, many treasured items, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns, were able to be retrieved from the rubble, and a groundswell of global public support and funding saw the prospect of a restoration become a reality.
Enter award-winning documentary makers, Windfall Films, with Saving Notre Dame, giving viewers unprecedented access to the project and the work of the global team of craftspeople on the front line. Throughout the hour-long special, the daunting magnitude of the task is revealed as workers share their first-hand experience of a battle against ferocious weather, precarious scaffolding and an insurmountable list of regulations and protocols, racing against the clock to stabilise what remains of the original structure. It is clear from the outset that this is not an ordinary team; there is a strong sense of solidarity and comradery no doubt buoyed by the scale and scrutiny of the job at hand.
As the documentary progresses, the fine line between rebuilding and restoring becomes key. For those in charge of the project, this is not a case of simply replacing what was lost with something new. Instead, the craftspeople must painstakingly recreate everything from the limestone ceiling to the numerous and intricate stained-glass windows damaged by the blaze. The spire alone has prompted its fair share of controversy as debate continues about whether to opt for a replica or surrender to the ease and practicality of a new design. Add to that the estimated cost of more than a billion US dollars and an ambitious timeline of five years, and it’s hardly surprising that there are many who question the necessity of preserving the original building. Some have even questioned the need for the project at all.
In an attempt to answer those questions, the documentary calls on the insight of a panel of international experts, not only from the spheres of architecture and history, but a variety of fields, each with a unique perspective on the important role of this much-loved building. These include architect of the World Trade Centre, Daniel Libeskind, British theology professor Candida Moss, and Vice President of Walt Disney Africa, Evert van der Veer, an unlikely group that offer their explanation as to why Notre Dame was a cathedral worth saving in the eyes of the global community.
Whatever your stance on the restoration effort, Saving Notre Dame provides a rare and fascinating glimpse into the people behind such a project, paying homage to their talents and skills, and celebrating the power of perseverance in achieving the seemingly unachievable.
Saving Notre Dame airs on Sunday 12 July at 8:30pm on SBS.