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Architecture Spotlight: France's senate cancels international competition for Notre Dame

Jean Sorensen
Architecture Spotlight: France's senate cancels international competition for Notre Dame

Canadian architects who may have looked forward to entering an international contest to redesign the burned out portion of France’s Notre Dame Cathedral have been pre-empted by the country’s senate which voted to rebuild the original structure.

French news sources have reported May 29 that the French senate has approved a bill to pay for the landmark’s rebuilding but a clause states it must be built in its original form.

The news comes as a reciprocity agreement began in 2019 which opened the door for Canadian architects to work in European Union countries providing full services without the assistance of a local firm.    

Arch Daily, an architectural website, said: “The (senate) law will ensure the cathedral is fully restored in time for the Paris Olympics in 2024, but requires the cathedral be restored to its “last known visual state.” “

The senate decision is in opposition to the mid-April announcement by French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe who sought an international competition to redesign the roofline of Notre Dame Cathedral in a new modern design with a “spire suited to the techniques and challenges of our times.”  

Returning it to its original form also departs from the roots of architecture which attempt to capture the best of an era’s building form just as the Notre Dame Cathedral did when it was designed and built in the Gothic fashion between the 12th and 14th centuries.

“Notre Dame was cutting edge when it was first built. It was leading technology at the time. It was the best of its time,” said Ian R. McDonald, president of the Architect Institute of B.C. (AIBC), adding that architecture is not timeless but, it is the best of its time. European architecture, he said, has the healthy attitude of successfully blending distinctive features of old with the new as seen in the first volley of post-fire designs volunteered by the architectural community as they paired modernistic designs with the heritage features of the church.     

McDonald said that while local European architects have come forward with designs, Canada has its own reservoir of talented architects that could have contributed to a new design. Revery Architecture (formerly Bing Thom), Francl Architecture, Michael Green Architecture are a few names in the forefront in B.C.  Patkau Architects is also a force in Western Canadian architecture.   “I would put the Patkaus (John and Patricia) up against anyone internationally,” McDonald said.

John Patkau said Canada has three centres known for architecture – Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver and “they are all on the same level” when it comes to international competition. “We have done a number of competitions in the U.S. and been successful,” he said.

Interviewed before the announcement to quash the international competition, Patkau said he had no immediate plans to enter a design but “as the story unfolds we might consider it.” The benefit of these international competitions, he said, was really for the younger firms or junior architects. “If successful, it’s a big international opportunity for a young architect,” he said.

The difficulty with international competitions, McDonald said, is that they take a lengthy period of time to organize as criteria need to be developed. The World Trade Centre Site Memorial Competition, from the time of a memorial announcement to the winning entry announcement, took approximately two years.    

But, Canadian architects are no slouch when it comes to modernistic designs. Such designs are rooted in iconic structures like the Seagram Building in New York which opened in 1958 and broke rank from the traditional marble and granite monoliths. Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Seagram’s Sam Bronfman convinced her father to create a structure which expressed the best of the current society, and held a promise of a better future.  She took on the role of project manager, working with two modernistic pioneering architects: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Together the trio created a gleaming bronze and glass structure that today is considered an iconic building in Manhattan.

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