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The iconic spire collapses as smoke and flames engulf Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019.
enlarge The iconic spire collapses as smoke and flames engulf Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019.

Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP via Getty Images

On April 15, 2019, the world watched in horror as the roof of the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire. The fire spread quickly and for several nail-biting hours it looked as if this 850-year-old Gothic masterpiece was about to be completely destroyed. The fire brigade finally got the upper hand in the wee hours of the next morning. Almost immediately after the fire was extinguished, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild Notre Dame.

But first, the badly damaged structure had to be reinforced and stabilized, and interdisciplinary teams of scientists, engineers, architects and craftsmen had to be assembled to determine the best way to proceed with the restoration. That year-long process — led by chief architects Philippe Villeneuve and Remi Fromont — is central to a new NOVA documentary premiering tonight on PBS. Saving Notre Dame follows several experts as they study the components of the cathedral’s iconic structure to find out how best to repair it.

Director Joby Lubman was among those transfixed when the fire broke out, and he stayed up much of the night as the cathedral burned, until it became clear that the structure would eventually survive, albeit badly damaged. The next morning at the office, “Everyone was a little shocked when we talked about it,” he told Ars. “And it may sound opportunistic, but I thought, ‘The restoration of this icon is going to be quite something to document.'”

Lubman and his development team contacted the appropriate authorities and within a few weeks were attending meetings with scientists, architects, engineers and others who combined their expertise to restore Notre Dame to its former glory. “It’s the ultimate restoration and a perfect synergy between science and history,” he said.

While Lubman never felt that he and his crew were in any real danger, filming on site was challenging due to strict safety protocols. No one was allowed to work under the vault, which was cordoned off. And a scene in the documentary shows an alarm going off on the very first day of filming because the 550-ton heavily mangled scaffold towering over the restoration site had shifted precariously in the wind.

“We all had to leave the site,” he said, including scientists. “That set the tone for our shots, which were very unpredictable. It was a lot, we get what we get [on film] when we go on site.”

The original engineers

Notre Dame is an architectural masterpiece, a testament to the collective expertise of centuries of craftsmen. “They were the original engineers, before engineering was a term,” Lubman said. “You couldn’t go to school to learn engineering, it was passed down from father to son over many, many generations. It’s quite beautiful to think that these buildings are the product of thousands of years of experience. I think so much of that knowledge is imprinted into the materials themselves that were used. People today can look at the craftsmanship and the tool markings and understand exactly how they did it.”

Among the experts in Saving Notre Dame is glass scientist Claudine Loisel, who was relieved to discover that the cathedral’s famous stained glass windows were intact and not overly damaged. There were micro-cracks in some of the panels from the fire’s thermal shock, and most of the windows were covered in the toxic lead dust released when the lead roof burned down. She devised an effective decontamination plan using a small precision vacuum cleaner, followed by removing any residue with cotton balls dipped in distilled water. X-ray spectroscopy analysis helped her determine how many wipes it took to remove the lead without damaging the paint underneath.

For that segment, Lubman also took his film crew to York, where conservationists have adopted a new conservation approach for the stained glass windows of York Minster Cathedral. The cathedral caught fire in 1984, shattering the glass of the south transept’s rose window, though the lead held it together, allowing it to be broken down and painstakingly reassembled. The new approach involves installing protective clear glass exterior frames before replacing the original stained glass windows. The gap between them improves ventilation and prevents condensation on the original stained glass, also protecting it from harmful UV rays.

By akfire1

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