Why we must take care of iconic buildings

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

The emotional response to the devastating fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral shows that such iconic buildings really do mean a lot to us, not just to our industry but to the world. Whether conscious or otherwise, the built environment and infrastructure influences how people perceive a place, its economy and its people.

The construction of Notre Dame was completed in 1345. It’s a masterpiece of medieval architecture, a building that, for all the advances in materials and building techniques over the years, still takes your breath away. There are a number of rare buildings around the world that are particularly important to us; they are the places people gather and the heart of communities. Notre Dame is one of those. With an estimated 13 million visitors a year, whether that be Catholics attending mass or tourists hoping to see Quasimodo, the cathedral is important to many people around the world.

Historical buildings are a reminder of an area’s history, usually made of marble, old brick or heart pine, the aesthetics are just beautiful. That said, Notre Dame’s aging wooden foundation has been topic of concern for some time and was undergoing a £5+ million renovation project at the time of the fire. The entire frame of the 850-year-old building is made from timber, with an estimated 1,300 trees used for the construction of its beams. There is always going to be a risk of fire with timber structures.

Within days of the fire they announced it would be restored and there would be an architecture contest to rebuild the spire. I agree, rebuilding the cathedral is the right thing to do but I also agree with the French Prime Minister, who said the rebuilt cathedral needs to reflect the techniques and challenges of our times. The goal of restoration is not always to replicate the past. Modern tastes and technologies may influence how damaged structures are reimagined. Notre Dame is a building that has been restored many times over the years, it wasn’t a perfectly preserved building. It’s suffered wars, destruction and repair. I don’t think we need the new build to be a replica with no trace of the fire, the fire is now part of its history and I don’t think that should be forgotten.

While the cause of the fire is still unknown, we must remember complex, historic buildings, especially those undergoing restoration are at risk from fire. Within hours of the Notre Dame fire, people were quick to point out the dangerous state of the Palace of Westminster, which has been crying out for restoration for over a decade. If there is one thing to take from this tragedy, it’s to not take such iconic buildings for granted, to look after them and make every effort to ensure they are preserved for years to come.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.