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Architecture Competition To Rebuild Notre Dame's Spire Is Announced


French President Emmanuel Macron will meet today with firefighters who saved Notre Dame from total destruction. Macron, for his part, wants the cathedral rebuilt in five years. And that timeline is prompting a debate. Should Notre Dame be restored exactly as before, or should it be modernized? Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Church bells tolled across France to mark the exact moment when the fire started at Notre Dame on Monday. An initial fire alarm sounded some 25 minutes before the blaze was detected, but security services dubbed it a false alarm.

Art specialist Didier Rykner is furious. He says 90 percent of fires in historical monuments in France start because of renovation works. He's part of a group that's been pressuring the government to enact stricter regulations when historic buildings are being renovated, like the mandatory use of heat-sensing cameras.

DIDIER RYKNER: There should be, on every worksite, thermic cameras because, you know, when it burns, for a time, it burns but you cannot can see it. You know, there is no flames. And all of a sudden, the fire starts, and it's too late.

BEARDSLEY: Rykner's angry about other things, like the time frame around the whole restoration project.

RYKNER: The president says it must be rebuilt more beautiful than before. What an arrogant man. And he says you must do it five years. It's impossible. When you begin such work, you can't tell it would be five, six, seven years. You don't know. And you must take the time, or you will do it badly.

BEARDSLEY: The reason for the five-year plan has a lot of people up in arms.



HELENE: Bonjour.

BEARDSLEY: Speaking on a radio call-in show, this architect says it's a scandal that the restoration of such an important monument is being timed to coincide with the city's hosting of the Olympic Summer Games in 2024.



BEARDSLEY: Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has announced an international architecture competition for the rebuilding of the cathedral's collapsed spire.


PHILIPPE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Before the 19th century, Notre Dame had no spire," said Philippe. "It's Viollet-le-Duc who added it, and this competition will decide whether we should rebuild it identically to the old one, in wood and lead, or adapt it to our times." Viollet-le-Duc is the flamboyant 19th-century architect who restored many of France's dilapidating medieval churches and chateaux.

STEPHANIE PAUL: You've got to remember that when Viollet-le-Duc started renovating Notre Dame, it was a wreck.

BEARDSLEY: That's Ministry of Culture Paris tour guide Stephanie Paul. She says Notre Dame was a different church after being desecrated during the French Revolution in 1789.

PAUL: For a brief time, it was a law court. It had been a marketplace. Napoleon Bonaparte, when he has his coronation, actually had to cut short the ceremony because of the rancid stench of rotting vegetables and rotting animal matter in the cathedral.

BEARDSLEY: Paul says the city's beloved cathedral is a living, breathing building that has changed and morphed through the centuries. And people must accept that it can't be kept the way it was 850 years ago. Urbanist architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte agrees. He says the cathedral can be restored in five years using the most up-to-date materials and technology.

JEAN-MICHEL WILMOTTE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Notre Dame had its medieval history, but it can also have a passionate new story today," says Wilmotte. He says, "the fire is now part of the cathedral's history. So why not a new roof in titanium and a spire in lightweight carbon?"

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF JEAN-MICHEL BLAIS' "IGLOO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.