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Notre Dame blaze ‘stuff of nightmares’ for architecture experts

Westminster Abbey is set to toll the Abbey bell for an hour.

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris following a fire (Victoria Jones/PA)
The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris following a fire (Victoria Jones/PA)

Watching Paris’s Gothic masterpiece Notre Dame cathedral burn is the stuff of nightmares for anyone who looks after Britain’s historic buildings, architecture experts have said.

Ptolemy Dean, who is in charge of the upkeep of Westminster Abbey in his role as its Surveyor of the Fabric, said: “I felt sick and horrified at the sight of that marvellous building going up in flames.

“Horrified by the speed that those flames licked through the roof space and then seemingly running across the horizon of that church.

“It is a shocking, horrible and unexpected thing to happen, particularly during holy week. It is in fact what we all dread happening to a building we have charge of.

“You are just reliant on the fire brigade putting this thing out and you do not know where this inferno will stop and in the case of Notre Dame, it just seemed to go on and on and on.”

He said Paris had been a powerhouse of impressive Golthic architecture from the 11 and 12th centuries, and it influenced many buildings in England including Westminster Abbey in central London.

Westminster Abbey is set to toll the Abbey bell for an hour from 5.43pm on Tuesday, marking 24 hours from the moment in Paris when the fire began at Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris following the fire (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Mr Dean warned that “we must never be complacent” about the threat of fire and felt that lessons could possibly be learned once the cause of the Paris fire are known.

He said: “Fires have broken out in historic buildings endlessly.

“The Glasgow School of Art recently had a fire. They were doing the building works and had another catastrophic fire. We must be open to listening to what is to be learned from other fires.

“The Paris Notre Dame fire, I am sure, will yield further developments in fire safety which we will need to take heed of.”

Notre Dames’s stone structure has not buckled and there is a chance of salvage, according to the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) president Ben Derbyshire.

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(PA Graphics)

He said the 12th century roof timbers have all gone as has the spire. Seeing this “very important part of architectural history” tumble was “a dramatic and sad moment”, he added.

The experts all said that the vaulting beneath it acted as a kind of fire break, meaning the damage to the structure below was not as bad as it might have been.

Becky Clark, the Church of England’s director of cathedrals and church buildings, said: “Like everyone else, I was horrified.

“You see these pictures of flames galloping through the roof and across the building and that is everybody’s worst nightmare for anyone who looks after a church.

“My first thought is that I hope nobody has been hurt. We must give thanks for the miraculous thing that nobody seems to have been killed in this particular instance. It could have been much much worse.”

She felt Notre Dame had a good evacuation policy to get people safely out and “that is something we would look to all of our cathedrals to do”.

She also described devastating fires like this as “incredibly rare” and noted that Britain’s historic buildings have survived everything from lightning to the Luftwaffe.

There has not been a major cathedral fire in the UK since 1984 when York Minster was hit by lightning and suffered some extensive damage to its roof, she said.

It lead to firewalls being put in Westminster Abbey’s roof to try and help stop the spread of a blaze.

Dry risers, which are pipes that can push water up to roof level, were also installed as a precaution after a bombing at the Abbey in 1942.

A Westminster Abbey spokesman said the building has a state of the art fire detection system and works very closely with London Fire Brigade (LFB) throughout the year in risk assessments, exercises, work plans and architectural briefings.

He said the LFB concentrates on response times, and in a recent exercise two appliances were on scene within five minutes of an alarm quickly followed by others from all over London.

Despite Britain’s talented cathedral architects, regular inspections and policies on things like how to do work with soldering irons are managed, Ms Clark warned that fires could still occur.

She said: “We do not know what the causes of the Notre Dame fire are, but periods of renovation are particularly vulnerable periods for any cathedral or church because you have people going onto spaces they do not normally go into, you have different air movements and electrical items up in spaces they normally would not be in.

“Periods of doing major renovation or restoration work are when you have to be particularly careful.”

Riba has been involved in a major review of fire safety, standards and regulations since the Grenfell tower fire in 2017.

Mr Derbyshire said: “We have a deep concern that the ways in which buildings are constructed bring with them risk and therefore we need to be very mindful of the so-called construction design management regulations which are supposed to safeguard people and also the structures during design and construction.”

He added that he will be talking to Riba’s head of conservation group and that “whatever help is required, we will be delighted to offer it” to Notre Dame.

A Glasgow School of Art spokesman said: “Like their Scottish counterparts, French firefighters went above and beyond yesterday, and it is in no small part due to their heroic efforts that so much of the building and its contents have been preserved.

“In the days and weeks to come many decisions will need to be made about the future of Notre Dame.

“We stand ready to help the team in Paris in any way we can by sharing our experiences of working to stabilise a damaged historic structure and ensuring that data which is vital for the rebuild is gathered and recorded.”

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