Fires and historical buildings: Notre-Dame and Bloemfontein City Hall

29 April 2019

The recent fire that consumed the roof and elements of the Notre-Dame cathedral reached the headlines of most international news sites. Although the nature of the damage to the interior of the cathedral is still uncertain, the building was not completely destroyed by the fire as Gothic buildings were designed to resist a fire from spreading to the rest of the structure. This is due to the fact that not only the walls, but also the ceilings, were built with stone – the stone vaults. However, it will still take French authorities weeks to determine the full extent of the damage and engineers will first have to stabilise the structure before a thorough examination can take place. It is expected that preservationists will use drones to inspect the damage and that the restoration process might take years – representing a colossal historic preservation project.

Notre Dame – Image by Francois Guillot

From a heritage perspective it is significant to note that the restoration process might not attempt to restore the building to its exact former glory. A competition for architects will determine the appearance of the (new) spires as well as other aspects of the building. For the past 800 years the Notre-Dame cathedral has been integrated with the cultural and material landscape of Paris and European history, also as a symbol of Catholic and political power. These facts will be taken into account during the complicated restoration process of the cathedral.

The previous roof structure of Notre Dame dates back to the 12th century and was nicknamed “The Forest,” a space built of 1,300 timber frames. Foster has proposed an updated design featuring glass and steel, as well as the potential for an observation deck. Norman Foster told The Guardian that, “In every case, the replacement used the most advanced building technology of the age. It never replicated the original.”

Bloemfontein City Hall

On local soil the restoration of the Bloemfontein City Hall, which was allegedly torched by striking municipal workers on 21 June 2017, continues and will be completed by the end of this year. Architect Anton Roodt explained that most materials used for the process were sourced locally, but some of the materials, such as the wood used for window frames and roof tiles, had to be imported.

Restoring the hall

They also had to obtain specific materials to clean the marble floors. This national heritage site, built in 1935 and designed by South African architect, Gordon Leith, has an Italian-style interior and sandstone exterior.

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