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After The Fire

Should the historic Notre-Dame cathedral be restored to its previous state?

Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

The world watched in horror as a fire tore through Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019. The 800-year-old cathedral is the most popular tourist destination in France. Although it was severely damaged, the French government passed a law requiring that the cathedral be rebuilt exactly as it was before the fire.

Luckily, researchers made high-tech scans of Notre-Dame in 2015, which will help ensure that it’s restored with incredible accuracy. But one of the biggest challenges is how the cathedral was built. Notre-Dame’s design is Gothic, which was a popular style between the 12th and 16th centuries. Soaring arches, tall stone towers, detailed sculptures, and ornate stained-glass windows are all signatures of Gothic architecture.

Unlike modern buildings, Notre-Dame has no understructure, or framework, holding it up. Instead, it was built using a traditional technique called stone masonry. Chris Pellettieri, a stone carver who helped renovate the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City explains: “All the true Gothic cathedrals were built of stone upon stone.”

On April 15, 2019, a fire tore through Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. People around the world watched in horror as it burned. The cathedral is 800 years old and the most popular tourist destination in France. It was severely damaged in the blaze. But the French government passed a law requiring that the cathedral be rebuilt. They said it should look exactly as it did before the fire.

Luckily, researchers made high-tech scans of Notre-Dame in 2015. That will help architects restore the cathedral with incredible accuracy. But rebuilding the structure will still be a big challenge. That’s partly because of how the cathedral was built.

Notre-Dame has a Gothic design. This style was popular from the 12th to 16th centuries. It features soaring arches and tall stone towers. Detailed sculptures and stained-glass windows decorate its walls.

Unlike modern buildings, Notre-Dame has no metal framework to hold it up. Instead, it was built entirely of stone arranged to support its own weight. This traditional technique is called stone masonry. Chris Pellettieri is a stone carver who helped renovate a similar cathedral in New York City. “All the true Gothic cathedrals were built of stone upon stone,” he explains. 

The result is a self-supporting stone structure. When Notre-Dame was built, stone carvers made every single brick, column, and arch by hand. Teams worked together to carve identical pieces out of stone. Each piece was carefully placed so that it could support its own weight and the weight of those above it.

Cathedrals built using techniques like stone masonry are an immense undertaking, according to Pellettieri. “The thing that’s special about Notre-Dame is that it took a huge collaborative effort to do it,” he says.

Some argue that if Notre-Dame is rebuilt, it should be modernized. After all, the cathedral has been altered and updated many times over its long life span. But Pellettieri isn’t convinced it needs to change. “Being old doesn’t make it good, but it’s been around for a long time,” he says. “To me, it’s worth preserving.”

The result is a stone structure that completely supports itself. When Notre-Dame was built, stone carvers cut every single piece by hand. They carved rock into bricks, columns, and arches. Teams worked together on pieces that needed to look the same. Each piece was placed extremely carefully. It needed to support its own weight and the weight of the pieces above it.

Building a whole cathedral using stone masonry is a giant task, says Pellettieri. “The thing that’s special about Notre-Dame is that it took a huge collaborative effort to do it,” he says.

Some people argue that architects should add modern features to Notre-Dame if they rebuild it. After all, the cathedral has been altered many times over the centuries. But Pellettieri doesn’t think it needs to change. “Being old doesn’t make it good, but it’s been around for a long time,” he says. “To me, it’s worth preserving.”

Check out our MATH+ article “A Captivating Cathedral” to learn more about Notre-Dame’s history.

Check out our MATH+ article “A Captivating Cathedral” to learn more about Notre-Dame’s history.

Use this information to convert measurements of the western facade of Notre-Dame. Round your answers to the nearest hundredth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use this information to convert measurements of the western facade of Notre-Dame. Round your answers to the nearest hundredth. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

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The facade is 4,100 centimeters wide. What’s that in pieds du Roi? (1 pied du Roi = 32.48 cm).

The facade is 4,100 centimeters wide. What’s that in pieds du Roi? (1 pied du Roi = 32.48 cm).

This Rose Window was first designed in the 13th century. It was 35 pieds du Roi wide. What’s that in meters? (10 meters = 30.90 pieds du Roi).

This Rose Window was first designed in the 13th century. It was 35 pieds du Roi wide. What’s that in meters? (10 meters = 30.90 pieds du Roi).

The central entrance doors are 4,500 millimeters tall. What’s that in pieds du Roi? (0.5 pieds du Roi = 162.4 millimeters).

The central entrance doors are 4,500 millimeters tall. What’s that in pieds du Roi? (0.5 pieds du Roi = 162.4 millimeters).

Life-sized statues decorate Notre-Dame’s exterior. One is 60 inches tall. What’s that in pieds du Roi? (0.5 pieds du Roi = 6.4 in.).

Life-sized statues decorate Notre-Dame’s exterior. One is 60 inches tall. What’s that in pieds du Roi? (0.5 pieds du Roi = 6.4 in.).

A. The earliest blueprints for the facade list each tower’s height at 242 pieds du Roi. Their modern measurement is 226 feet. How many pieds du Roi are in 1 foot?

A. The earliest blueprints for the facade list each tower’s height at 242 pieds du Roi. Their modern measurement is 226 feet. How many pieds du Roi are in 1 foot?

B. Using the proportion you found in part A, what is your height in pieds du Roi?

B. Using the proportion you found in part A, what is your height in pieds du Roi?

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