A faithfully reconstructed, full-scale replica of one of the oldest timber trusses destroyed during the April 2019 fire at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral is now on view at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of the museum’s scaled-back 2021 Summer Block Party. The architectural facsimile, constructed in strict adherence to plans drafted by French architects Rémi Fromont and Cédric Trentesaux and with support from Charpentiers sans Frontières, will remain on display until September 16.
The 45-foot-wide, 35-foot-tall replica of truss number six was hewn, cut, and assembled using medieval techniques and tools by a team of traditional carpenters, timber framers, artisans, and architecture students and faculty who came together on the University Mall at Catholic University as part of a teaching initiative organized by Massachusetts-based educational nonprofit Handshouse Studio.
The ten-day build workshop, hosted by Catholic University of America’s School of Architecture and Planning, kicked off July 26 and culminated in an on-campus truss raising event on August 3 next to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the University Mall. The three-story replica, blessed by Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory during the event, was then transported and hand-hoisted again on the National Mall for a one-day public exhibition period in cooperation with Preservation Maryland and the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center.
In the penultimate phase of the Notre Dame de Paris Truss Project, the truss was transported to the National Building Museum and installed in the museum’s Great Hall, opening for public view on August 6.
After its stint in D.C., the truss will ultimately be bestowed as a gift to France and the “collective effort to rebuilt Notre Dame de Paris as it was originally made,” per a Handshouse Studio press release, which referred to the effort as a “gesture of global solidarity honoring the importance of cultural heritage.” (To be clear, the historically accurate truss will not actually be used in the ongoing restoration efforts at the famed Gothic cathedral on the Île de la Cité.)
“We believe collaboration is intrinsic to the effort to revive the Notre Dame de Paris’ iconic edifice,” elaborated the nonprofit. “We feel that the true value of this process is the embodied energy created by the thought, care, skill, and learning that comes from rebuilding objects as they were originally made.”
In the final, forthcoming phase of the Notre Dame de Paris Truss Project, Handshouse Studio will lead the creation of a large-scale model of La Forêt, the cathedral’s 25-truss roof structure constructed from over 1,300 oak trees. All of these primary trusses were destroyed in the 2019 fire. This stage will unfold as a collaborative effort between Catholic University, Florida State University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center. The completed model of La Forêt will then be installed, like truss number six, at the National Building Museum in a future exhibition.
“The loss of the roof during the 2019 fire at Notre Dame was devastating, complete, and more than simply material,” said Tonya Ohnstad, visiting assistant professor and interim associate dean of graduate studies at Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning, in a news release published by the school in advance of the project kick-off. “It destroyed a forest of trees, generations of building technology, and an unimaginable amount of human spirit and energy embodied in the timber structure. What an incredible opportunity to be able to be part of the reconstruction, demonstration, and passing on of tectonic knowledge.”
In conjunction with the Notre Dame de Paris Truss Project, Ohnstad led a special course open to Catholic University students and alumni as well as other interested parties that took a deep dive into both the architecture of Notre Dame and the medieval building methods employed in its construction, which began in 1163 and largely concluded in 1260. Experts from various fields including medieval history and timber construction participated in a public lecture series hosted as part of the course, which, per the university, explored “French protocol passed down from the Middle Ages for timber harvesting, fabricating, assembly, tools, and raising techniques.”
Students and alumni then joined the larger Notre Dame de Paris Truss Project team on the University Mall to transform Virginia-harvested white oak logs into structural timbers without, of course, the use of any sort of modern equipment.
“The building itself is such an icon of architecture,” said School of Architecture and Planning alumni and project participant, Abigail Sekely, in a news release. “If you analyze the history of Paris, the history of the French people, the history of the Church, it just goes on and on as to why this building is so important. The fact that I could have some tiny part of that is so special.”
Also on view (inside) the National Building Museum’s Great Hall as part of the pandemic-safe (sorry, no ball pits) 2021 edition of Summer Block Party is MASS Design Group’s Lo-Fab Pavilion and Foon Sham’s Maze of Knowledge. Outside, D.C. muralist Lisa Marie Thalhammer has transformed the museum’s West Lawn with her Equilateral Network. An outdoor film series also held on the West Lawn and produced by the DowntownDC Business Improvement District concluded last month.
On August 17, the museum will also host a virtual talk on the topic of traditional timber framing in the United States and France featuring Handshouse Studio cofounder Rick Brown, Alicia Spence, project manager of the Notre Dame de Paris Truss Project, and François Calame, ethnologist for France’s Ministry of Culture and founder of Charpentiers Sans Frontières. More info can be found here.