UVA Arts, University of Virginia

Vol 11 Winter 19 Library
Firefighters at the Notre-Dame de Paris during the April 2019 fire. (Credit Cangadoba, edited by Philip Terry Graham, Wikimedia Commons)
School of Architecture

School of Architecture Professors Provide Their Insights on the Notre Dame Fire

On Monday, April 15, the entire world looked on in sadness and disbelief as flames leapt from the Notre Dame Cathedral, and 800 years of history and international reverence and adoration seemed to be on the verge of devastation. We would soon learn that the fire, while certainly tragic, would not mark the end of this story, but rather an unforgettable chapter in its longstanding narrative and the beginning of a sort of rebirth. The reconstruction would be born of blood, sweat, tears, and likely hundreds of millions of donated dollars coming from around the world — a testament of the Gothic masterpiece's important place in cultural history.

Back on Grounds, UVA Associate Professor of Architectural History Lisa Reilly would soon be inundated with calls from media looking for her take on the fate of the architectural masterpiece, and what might be next for its reconstruction. Reilly, who specializes in medieval visual culture and architecture shared with UVA Today that the building’s architects had in fact built in safeguards for fire. “At Notre Dame,” Reilly said, “as with other cathedrals of the time, there is a network of wooden trusses above the stone ceiling, supporting the steeply pitched roof that was designed to move water and snow away from the building through the system of drains and gargoyles.” While the wooden tresses fueled the fire, Reilly said, the separation of wood and stone worked as intended. “Fire was a huge problem in the Middle Ages, as people relied on it for heat and used oil lamps and candles [as lighting]. Separating the stone covering from the wooden tresses seems quite intentional on the part of the architects, and it largely kept the fire from spreading from the wooden part of the building to the stone part.” 

In the fire’s aftermath, Reilly’s Architecture School colleague Professor Kirk Martini, who also holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in structural engineering, said that the building’s transom was likely its greatest vulnerability. He pointed out that limestone, a key building element of the structure, is susceptible to both heat and water. “There may have been damage to the stone, even in the places that currently appear to be intact.” Because of the weakness of the material, he said in the early days following the event, it was nearly impossible to assess the extent of the damage. The fire, while tragic, can also provide a learning opportunity for architects, as did the 1895 fire that burned UVA’s Rotunda. “It shows us that even buildings damaged that badly can be rebuilt and that their restoration can actually teach us something about the architecture. With the roof gone, architects can learn a lot about the interior structure of Notre Dame, and that can help them better understand and better rebuild the building.” 

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