Notre-Dame: Centuries-old oak trees chosen to restore spire

The eight oak trees are the first of 1,000 to be felled for reconstruction of the fire-stricken spire, but critics have condemned their use as environmentally ‘damaging’

10 March 2021
By Hannah Thompson

The first 100-year-old oak trees that are set to be used to reconstruct the fallen spire of the fire-damaged Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris have been chosen.

The ministers of culture and agriculture worked with forest authorities in France to choose the eight 100-year-old oaks that will be used to construct the base of the new spire.

The oak choice is the first step in the reconstruction of the spire, which is expected to be completed in 2023. More than 1,000 oaks from all over France will eventually be used to complete the spire in total.

The first oaks came from the forest of Bercé, in Sarthe. They were chosen due to what forest authorities said was their “specific structure”, with a specific curve, and a diameter of at least one metre.

These are considered perfect for the “stool”, or base, of the spire.

Half of the trees used for the structure will come from public forests, administered by national forests authority l’Office national des Forêts (ONF). The other half will come from private forests, whose owners have donated their trees to the rebuilding works.

This variety is partly due to the government aiming to symbolically include trees from across the country in the rebuilding effort, as a way of showing the importance and symbolism of Notre-Dame to the whole of France.

Later in the project, some trees will also come from abroad.

Once cut down, the trees must be dried for 12-18 months, to achieve 30% humidity, before being transported to the carpenters at the beginning of 2023.

 

‘Incomprehensible’ choice

Some, including Ecology Minister Barbara Pompili, have questioned the project’s use of such old oaks, which are important to France’s heritage, and a key part of certain forest ecosystems.

In a petition signed by 40,000 people so far, she wrote: “Our Earth is in danger, our forests are suffering from global warming, [so] this choice is incomprehensible. What is the point, for a structure that will by definition be hidden by a cover, and visible only by a few privileged people?

“It would be better, in the 21st century, to choose more responsible engineering techniques that are less damaging to our environment.”

But Bertrand Munch, director of the ONF, responded by saying that for every oak felled, one will be planted.

And Philippe Villeneuve, France’s chief architecture of historic monuments, wrote: “We recommended reconstruction of the framework in its original material, especially because of the authentic and durable character of the oak, which also has the plasticity necessary to support the constraints of the building. 

“The spire designed by [original architect of the Notre-Dame spire] Viollet-le-Duc was a complex structural work, made of exceptionally large wood, which we must find again today to ensure its stability.”

(Photo: Yahoo News / Twitter)

Spire reconstruction

The restoration project is aiming to rebuild the once-96-metre-high spire just as it was, using the same design as that used by Viollet-le-Duc in 1843.

At the bottom is the “stool”, which will use the old oaks as a stable base. Then comes the “stump”, which involves intersecting wood pieces, and which establishes the spire’s octagonal shape.

Then, two levels rest on that, which support and create the sharp spire “needle” at the top. The last two parts are visible in the finished design.

Overall, the Notre-Dame reconstruction project is set to be finished in 2024.

Internal restoration has already begun, with two chapels inside the cathedral having already been returned to their original state.

Notre-Dame was significantly damaged by fire - including the total collapse and destruction of the famous spire - on April 15, 2019.

In July of that year, France passed a new restoration law to allow work to begin, and to enable public funds to be contributed to the project. 

High-profile entrepreneurs - including two of France’s richest men, Bernard Arnault and François Pinault - have also contributed, as have members of the public, to a pot of money nearing €1 billion in total.

The restoration plans have been controversial and hotly-debated since the start, with some disputing the project timeline, and others fearing that the fast pace of the works would lead to a bypassing of usual monument restoration channels and protections.

In May 2019, managing MP Cathy Racon-Bouzon responded to critics, saying that she would ensure “an exemplary construction project” and demand a "very high level of excellence” during the entire process.

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Macron: Notre-Dame will be rebuilt as fund nears €1bn
Notre-Dame: Fire believed accidental, as France reacts
Notre-Dame: 856 years of French history

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