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Debate Over Rebuilding Notre Dame


To France now, where the culture minister says Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is still in danger of collapsing. After the fire this April, that site was closed for three weeks for lead pollution cleanup. This week workers returned to stabilize the structure so that reconstruction can begin. Now, what a restored Notre Dame will look like is still up for debate. Jake Cigainero in Paris has more.

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: Just days after the blaze ripped through Notre Dame's roof and spire, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced an international architecture competition.




CIGAINERO: "The competition," he says, "will determine if the spire will be a replica of the 19th-century design by French architect Viollet-le-Duc or something more modern for our times." Eager architects from around the world flooded Instagram and Twitter with their visions of Notre Dame restored with contemporary flair. There were glass roofs, slick, twisting spires and garish Disney castle towers. But if you ask the French, 55% of the public wants the iconic cathedral to be restored exactly as it was before, according to a recent poll by Odoxa/Dentsu.


UNIDENTIFIED FRENCH CLERGY MEMBER: (Singing in foreign language).


CIGAINERO: In June, clergy put on their vestments and hardhats to celebrate the first Mass inside Notre Dame since the fire.


UNIDENTIFIED FRENCH CLERGY MEMBER: (Singing foreign language).


CIGAINERO: The service was closed to the public, but people still gathered at the barriers to ogle the ravaged Gothic cathedral.


CIGAINERO: Elodie Cuenca came into the city from Versailles to see the damage with her own eyes. Cuenca said we should consider the times we're living in, but she's still cautious about drastically changing the aesthetic of Notre Dame.

ELODIE CUENCA: Maybe we should make a mix between modern architecture and - to respect the past.

CIGAINERO: Jean Nouvel, the most famous living French architect, known for his ultramodern designs, said in a TV interview, Notre Dame is a testimony of culture and history so it shouldn't be changed too much.


JEAN NOUVEL: (Speaking French).

CIGAINERO: Nouvel says, "I think here, we have to be more Gothic than ever." Ultimately, the government will make the final decision following extensive studies and discussions with specialists, historians and architects. But before reconstruction can begin, debris still has to be removed from inside the cathedral, and the ceiling vaults, stabilized. Thierry Zimmer is the deputy director of a research lab analyzing the rubble, and his team will advise architects on what materials to use. Zimmer says restoring Notre Dame exactly as it was before might not even be possible. The original stones came from quarries that were, at the time, outside Paris. Now parts of the city sit on top of those pits.

THIERRY ZIMMER: We say that all Paris, it's something like gruyere. Like a cheese, there's a lot of holes. Yes.

CIGAINERO: Which makes it dangerous to excavate from those same spots.

ZIMMER: We have great difficulties. For example, we know exactly what we want, but we have no stones to do it.

CIGAINERO: If crowning Notre Dame today with a reimagined, modern steeple is controversial, Viollet-le-Duc's spire also caused an uproar in 1859. And even before that, French writer Victor Hugo lamented any changes to the medieval cathedral. In his famous 1831 novel, "Notre-Dame De Paris," he wrote, if we had the leisure to examine the various traces of destruction imprinted upon the old church, the part of time would be the least. The worst would be men, especially men of art, since some have assumed the title of architect in the last two centuries.

For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.