Editor’s Desk: Notre-Dame

How Technology of the Future Can Help Restore the Past

The devastating fire that ravaged the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, last month has shaken the architecture world.  The iconic cathedral has undergone many series of renovations over its long history, notably during the reign of Louis XIV, after the French Revolution, as well as post-WWII.  Modern renovations have been underway for the past few years, focusing largely on Notre-Dame’s roof.  In late 2018, the renovation of the cathedral’s spire began, requiring the temporary removal of copper statues on the roof.  Then, on April 15, 2019, a disastrous 15-hour fire nearly brought the entire cathedral to the ground.  While the overall structure remains intact, there was a brief time where it looked like the medieval cathedral was going to be lost forever.  As we mourn the damage caused to one of the most influential pieces of French Gothic architecture, we must also look at the overall impact this event has on the industry.  What can we learn from what happened to Notre-Dame?

         First, the Notre-Dame fire is a clear wake-up call to all building owners and designers that whether they are your average, run-of-the-mill structures or centuries-old, cherished pieces of architecture, there is a real requirement for modern, functioning fire-alarm systems and hazard-prevention techniques.  As we go to print, the investigation into the fire is still ongoing, but it’s been speculated that sparks, short circuits, and heat from welding during the renovations could be to blame.  The architect responsible for fire safety at Notre-Dame even said that the risk of a fast-spreading fire was underestimated, yet it was well-known that the roof was made of old, dry timbers that would voraciously catch fire.

         Second, the Notre-Dame fire has shown us how modern technology can help preserve and restore architectural wonders.  French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed that Notre-Dame will be restored within five years for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, which we all know is a lofty goal, even with the incredible donations pouring in to fund the effort.  However, thanks to modern technology, it’s not necessarily an unreachable goal.  While there have been several attempts to map Notre-Dame with 100% precision, there have been challenges, notably with rendering the scans into a 3-D model.  There needed to be a way to scan Notre-Dame and convey it in a way that would bridge the gap between science and art to demonstrate the historic and artistic importance of the structure.

         Andrew Tallon, the late Vassar College art historian, along with Paul Blaer, recently mapped the interior and exterior of Notre-Dame with incredible precision, using a laser scanner to produce over one billion points of data.  Using a tripod-mounted laser that was accurate within 5mm, Tallon was able to take 3-D snapshots of Notre-Dame by measuring the time it took for a laser beam to travel to a surface and back.  Self-described as obsessed with Notre-Dame, Tallon valued the importance of understanding how buildings and users interacted, both positively and negatively.  With this understanding of both collaboration and conflict between architecture and the public, his meticulous digital archive of images will prove to be invaluable during the rebuilding process.

         Looking past how Tallon’s work will undoubtedly affect the repair process for Notre-Dame, this same 3-D technology can make a positive impact on the design industry overall.  Firemen responding to a call at an office building, for example, can pull up a detailed rendering and know the best way to proceed, saving lives and structures with better accuracy.  Buildings in areas prone to earthquakes and other natural disasters can also benefit from technology such as Tallon’s by mapping structures and mitigating expected damage before it’s too late.

         Notre-Dame is over 800 years old and has survived revolutions, wars, and natural disasters.  Its longevity is a testament to the incredible craftmanship and integrity of its original construction, although this recent fire is an unfortunate setback for the cathedral.  However, with the help of 21st-century technology and Tallon’s fastidious dedication to the relationship between architecture and art history, Paris will soon enough have their beloved Notre-Dame back.

editor & publisher

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