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Saving Notre-Dame

Saving Notre-Dame

France, Architectural Restoration –

SB ARCHITECTS and COOPER COPETAS combine history, art and technology in their design proposal for the reconstruction of the cathedral’s spire and roof that were destroyed in a fire 

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THE WHOLE WORLD reacted with shock when parts of Notre-Dame Cathedral went up in flames in Paris. It was not only history and beauty that were destroyed but the hearts of millions.

Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris
On 15 April 2019, a structure fire broke out beneath the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris. The French Gothic cathedral was built over time through 1163-1345 by several architects including Pierre de Montreuil and Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus
Hand drawing of Notre Dame cathedral by SB Architects
Hand Drawing: SB Architects’ design for the reconstruction of Notre-Dame consists of a roof, and spire of glass bricks that projects upwards by a gleaming steel structure
Hand drawing of notre dame cathedral y SB architects
Hand Drawing: View from the Seine
Notre Dame spire render
Elevation of the spire. The rooster reclaims its place at the top
Paris metro tunnel

Cooper Copetas, a Parisian and designer at SB Architects’ Miami office, has design ideas for Notre-Dame that are influenced by his commutes through Paris’ Metro:

I knew the same creative force of Viollet-le-Duc that majestically hailed my passage through the busy stations (Paris Metro) had to be incorporated into this proposal. It’s our aim to create something expressive but disciplined through parametric design methodology. The humbly integrated design may be geometrically complex, but without veering into overly elaborate territory, resolutely unique without unnecessary ostentation.”

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Amidst Prime Minister Édouard Philippe’s call for design proposals for the reconstruction of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, global architecture firm SB Architects unveiled a concept based on the unbuilt ideas of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc – the architect behind the original spire – in an Art Nouveau language of the 21st century.

Fusing the timelessness of drawing to modern technology, Cooper Copetas, a Parisian and designer at SB Architects’ Miami office, uses the power of parametric modelling to build from the work of le-Duc and his pupils. The lines are first explored in pencil, then watercolour, then transcribed digitally into code to create an in-depth view of the structure and details. 

notre-dame spire render
By design, the twelve patinaed Apostles that were part of the cathedral prior to the renovation of the roof and the subsequent fire remain, though their location is altered to leave space for four decorative oculi. The four counterparts of the other twelve statues return to the valleys, acting as anchors for the metallic laces tied to the roof
notre-dame interior render
Interior: The Spire with its cone of frosted glass bricks filters a scattered beam of light throughout the heights of the nave

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A vision for new roof and spire begins to take shape. Projected upwards by a gleaming steel structure, the cone of frosted glass bricks filters a scattered beam of light throughout the heights of the nave. By design, the 12 patinaed Apostles that were part of the cathedral prior to the renovation of the roof and the subsequent fire remain, though their location is altered to leave space for four decorative oculi. A gothic rosette formed by inverted pointed arches opens to the sky, and the rooster reclaims its place at the top, as if announcing the arrival of the most recent work of Notre-Dame de Paris – La Rose.

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A chat with COOPER COPETAS, a Parisian and designer at SB Architects’ Miami Office about the design of Notre-Dame’s new spire

Cooper Copetas

The materials picked for the design are very special to the Parisian skyline.”

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1 A bird flying past might see in your spire in the sky what you see during your metro journeys underground. Does your experience of travelling through the Paris metro translate to some elements of movement and otherworldly perception to your design of the Notre Dame spire?

One could say that. The dynamism of the design is suggested in two ways: first the intricate le-Duc inspired metalwork tying down the roof, second the seemingly limitless mosaic of light patterns found in the cone structure. The metro experience is, to me, a frame of reference. By that, I mean it’s the 0 on the “Garnier Standards” scale for what is in store for Parisian planning & architecture. Taking that into account, I can’t design anything in Paris, especially not a monument, that is in any sense lower in quality than the intricate volumetric and glistening tile work of the Parisian Metro.

2 You are guided by a philosophy that prioritises site-specific design for your spire. How do you do this and what materials will you use?

The materials picked for the design are very special to the Parisian skyline. The French Belle Epoque (the Paris we mostly see today) is a maze of complex sandstone stereotomy, ceramics, steel and glass. Just look at the Grand Palais – it’s that fully realised ideal of Parisian architecture: colossal and exuberant, but relatively unassuming in the urban landscape. Every single one of these materials are utilised within the design, fusing to the soul of the edifice, rendering the building uniquely Parisian. 

3 With so much technology and advanced computing in architecture these days, it is beautiful that you manage to stay humble to the spire design without over-elaboration and embellishment. Is this difficult to do? 

You would think so… especially with me! When I’m handed a pen and paper, I’m prone to drawing hypercomplex neo-baroque architecture just for fun. The key word is ‘drawing’, If I understand what I’m designing for, I’ll withhold my pen from under/overproducing. So that once I’ve drawn it, I can compute it. Using that drawing as a guide, I have no reason to tip the scale into overcomplicated chaos. Current technology is like the pen; as long as I’m sensible, the architecture will be optimally designed, regardless of what tool I use.

4 From the whimsical disorder of art nouveau to high-brow baroque to the brusqueness of Romanesque to the disciplined beauty of Haussmann, Paris is a wonder of architectural design through history. What are your favourite design styles of this French city? 

My previous go-to would be Art Nouveau, because I believe it to be the style and technique of architecture with the highest standard-to-execution ratio. Frankly, I don’t expect anyone to react with the same awe to something designed by Corbusier as they would to Horta.

But, I must admit that I have no unambiguous favourite. If, whatever style is executed to the highest standard required for which it can be defined, then I’ll fully admire it! 

5 You are now based in Miami. What architectural styles do you like there?

Miami is filled with architectural gems. I think Miami excels in its Classical Revival Architecture and Brutalism. There’s some top-notch stuff around where I live. You also can’t ignore the boom of new blocks going up. Amidst the forest of cranes, there are a couple impressive contemporary projects that I would consider to be world-class.

6 What advice would you give an architecture student who wants to recreate or repair a building of great historical value the way you are doing?

Do your homework and read as much as you can! Interview as many people as you can, and don’t be afraid to experiment. I know the urge to pick a contemporary design (that may be local to your project) as inspiration is strong, but it’s a phenomenal mistake – take influence, but don’t use it as your core precedent. 

Look at the long-established and the traditional, especially in a historical city. Research not only the way the building is designed but also how the style is designed: Does it have a theory of proportion? What is descriptive geometry? How was that building originally rendered before construction? Is there a hierarchy of any sort? What is the methodology applied to come up with such style/building? What’s the geopolitical context? Has it inspired derivatives? The list is as long as you want to make it, but questions like that must be answered. If you follow this suggestion, your end concept will be far stronger!

7 How to you relax after a hard day at work, and what Paris food do you love most when you’re back in the city?

I relax by either going out for a drink and/or by reading by the water or in a cafe. What I read is typically non-fiction, teetering on sociopolitical, religious essays, science and physics. Otherwise, it’s the daily news, but I wouldn’t consider that very relaxing! If all else fails, I’ll sketch!

red wine

What I look forward to eating in Paris depends on the season! Spring is steak tartare; Summer, croque madame with a pot of mustard; Autumn is a confit de canard; and Winter is a boeuf Bourguignon. Of course, topped off with a glass of wine.” 

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Story by Carol Kraal. Information and selected photographs courtesy of SB Architects