How 32 elite architects are protecting France’s historic monuments
The restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral has brought to light a little-known group of architectural experts who represent a body of work unique in Europe.
There are currently 32 Chief architect of historical monuments In France, they are responsible for studying, preserving and preserving the country’s state-owned architectural heritage.
The group was founded 130 years ago
They are a select few, recruited through a grueling 18-month process, and have the unusual employment status of being private sector architects on unpaid civil servant contracts.
They step in when the state needs their expertise to maintain the 1,300 listed buildings it owns nationwide.
While the Notre Dame Project may have been the first time many people heard about this group, it has been around for 130 years.
Olivier Salmon is a member of the group, with a regional focus on listed buildings in Lot and the Garonne, Charente-Maritime, Deux Sèvres and Vendée in western France.
Commissions include the restoration of Luson Cathedral in the Vendée; Saint Nicholas Tower, one of three medieval towers guarding the port of La Rochelle; and Château d’Oiron in Deux-Sèvres.
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“Always a compromise between the past and the future”
At Lawson, the chief architect’s current focus is on repairing the cathedral’s ornate canopy – a canopy typically placed over an altar and often supported by columns.
It was commissioned around 1770 and is among the cathedral’s most notable liturgical installations.
The Baroque monument is about 15 meters high, made of marble, plaster and wood, the last parts of which now show significant signs of instability.
Taking it apart piece by piece required incredible ingenuity.
Mr Salmon’s work on site does not stop there, as he was also commissioned to study one of the cathedral’s facades as part of another separate renovation project, as well as planning the future layout of the cathedral’s treasury.
All of this required a storm of studies and diagnostics to give an estimate of costs, choose the best companies for the task, and finally launch the restoration process.
His role requires balancing the interests of historians, conservators, archaeologists and all those concerned with the building’s unique heritage, with the interests of the builders and architects planning its future.
“This compromise between past and future lies in every aspect of our work,” says Salmon.
“You can’t operate by following guidelines or protocols that have been applied to other buildings. It’s always a case-by-case decision.”
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Exhausting recruitment process to join the group of architects
Joining the group requires an encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of architecture through a three-stage audition process, each stage whittling down the number of candidates.
The first stage is a written test consisting of three papers.
Candidates are required to solve stability problems in a specific building (12 hours), formulate an intervention project in a specific building (12 hours), and answer questions related to architectural history (eight hours).
This is followed by an oral exam in two parts.
The remaining candidates will then have six months to work on renovating the historic monument, chosen at random, as part of the final round of selection.
Hiring doesn’t happen every year
Salmon was among only seven architects selected from 70 applicants in 2016, the last time vacancies were advertised.
Another successful candidate was Charlotte Hubert, one of only two women out of 32 to serve as president of the association between 2018 and 2020.
Exams are not scheduled regularly but are determined according to the needs of the government. Before Mr. Salmon’s tour, the previous auditions were in 2004.
Twelve new vacancies have been announced this year and the jury is currently conducting oral examinations. It reserves the right to select a smaller number of candidates.
The French government has had a dedicated service for historical monuments since 1830, but the exam was only created in 1893, six years after France launched medieval architecture studies at its top universities.
A separate group of civil servants looks after the protected buildings
Leading architects of historical monuments distinct from French building architects – Another body created in 1946 that is responsible for many of the country’s protected buildings and is made up of civil servants.
While their remit covers high-profile buildings and structures – including cathedrals, ministries, national museums, bridges, prisons and viaducts – Chief architect of historical monuments It operates largely under the radar.
However, this anonymity was shattered on April 15, 2019, when a fire broke out in Notre Dame Cathedral when everyone wanted their opinion on the extent of the damage and repair options.
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Ms Hubert summed up her colleagues’ personal reactions, telling one newspaper that the fire had been like watching a “living nightmare” unfold.
By the time the fire was extinguished, the cathedral’s tower had collapsed, most of its roof destroyed, and its upper walls severely damaged.
“The fire of Notre Dame was like a library burning down.”
Equally dangerous, from the architects’ point of view, were the centuries of experience that were also lost.
“It was as if a library had burned down,” Mr. Salmon said. “This frame was an open book, a living testament to ingenuity.”
The group took immediate action by implementing new safety and security systems in the event of a fire.
Many architects have also taken preventive steps, such as removing old lightning rods from some buildings, for example.
Architects argued about rebuilding Notre Dame
Pascal Brunet, Philippe Villeneuve and Rémy Fromont were selected from the group of architects to lead the reconstruction effort of Notre Dame.
For Villeneuve, who has been fascinated by the cathedral since he was six years old, the work to repair it often seemed surreal.
Architects debated for months over whether the timber frame should be an exact copy of the original design or a new design inspired by the development of modern architecture.
The first was finally decided.
“We drew the frame, marking assemblies, modifications and repairs with a felt pen. We drafted the entire frame plan and its cross-section on a 1:50 scale.
“On a 100-metre-long wooden frame, you can imagine the amount of work.”
For his part, Mr. Salmon was very impressed with the way the renovation process has progressed, with the craftsmen working non-stop to achieve the goal of reopening in 2024.
“The builders of 2023 carry on the legacy of M. Viollet-le-Duc himself,” he says, citing the architect who oversaw the cathedral’s extensive 25-year renovation starting in 1844.
“This is the memory that was passed.”
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