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How 32 elite architects protect France’s historic monuments

We speak to one of the architects about the gruelling recruitment process and the constant compromise between past and future

Olivier Salmon was selected to join in 2016; three of the group’s architects are working on Notre-Dame after the fire Pic: Agnieszka Gaul / Shutterstock / Olivier Salmon

The restoration of Notre-Dame cathedral has put the spotlight on a little-known group of architectural experts which represent a unique working body in Europe.

There are currently 32 architectes en chef des monuments historiques in France, who have responsibility for the study, preservation and conservation of the country’s state-owned architectural heritage.

The group was established 130 years ago

They are a select few, recruited via a gruelling 18-month process, and have the unusual employment status of being private-sector architects with non-salaried civil servant contracts.

They intervene when the state needs their expertise to maintain the 1,300 listed buildings that it owns nationwide.

While the Notre-Dame project might have been the first time many people heard of this group, it has been in existence for 130 years.

Olivier Salmon is a member of the group, with a regional focus on listed buildings in Lot-et-Garonne, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vendée in west France.

Commissions include the restoration of Luçon cathedral in Vendée; Saint Nicolas tower, one of the three medieval towers guarding the port in La Rochelle; and the Château d’Oiron in Deux-Sèvres.

Read more: Photos: the massive castle voted France’s most popular monument 2023

‘Always a compromise between past and future’

In Luçon the chief architect’s focus is currently on repairing the cathedral’s ornate baldachin – a canopy typically placed over an altar and often supported by columns.

It was commissioned in around 1770 and is among the highlights of the cathedral’s liturgical fittings.

Standing nearly 15 metres high, the baroque monument is made up of marble, gypsum and wood, the latter parts of which now show significant signs of instability. 

Dismantling it piece by piece has required incredible finesse.

Mr Salmon’s work on the site does not stop there – he has also been tasked with studying one of the cathedral’s façades as part of another, separate, renovation project, as well as planning a future layout for the cathedral’s treasury.

It has all necessitated a whirlwind of studies and diagnostics to give an estimate of costs, choose the best companies for the job, and, finally, launch the restoration.

His role requires balancing the interests of historians, conservators, archaeologists and all those who care for the building’s unique heritage, with those of the construction workers and architects planning for its future.

“That compromise between past and future lies in every aspect of our job,” Mr Salmon says.

“You cannot work following guidelines or protocols which have been applied to other buildings. It is always a case-by-case decision.”

Read more: What are the rules for solar panels near historic French monuments?

Gruelling recruitment process to join architect group

To be part of the group requires an encyclopaedic knowledge and understanding of architecture with a three stage examination process, each one whittling down the number of candidates.

The first stage is a written test made up of three papers.

Candidates are asked to resolve stability problems in a specific building (12 hours), draft an intervention project on a specific building (12 hours), and answer questions on architectural history (eight hours).

This is followed by an oral test in two parts.

Remaining candidates then have six months to work on the renovation of a historical monument, selected at random, as part of the final round of selection.

Recruitment does not happen every year

Mr Salmon was among just seven architects selected from 70 applicants in 2016, the last time vacancies were advertised.

Charlotte Hubert was another successful candidate, one of only two women among the 32, who served as the association’s president between 2018 and 2020.

Exams are not scheduled regularly but are determined by the government’s needs. Before Mr Salmon’s round, the previous exams were in 2004.

Twelve new vacancies were advertised this year and the jury is currently conducting oral exams. It reserves the right to select fewer candidates.

The French government has had a service dedicated to historic monuments since 1830 but the exam was created only in 1893, six years after France launched medieval architecture studies in its top universities.

A separate group of civil servants looks after protected buildings

Architectes en chef des monuments historiques are distinct from the architectes des bâtiments de France – another body, created in 1946, which is responsible for many of the country’s protected buildings and is composed of civil servants.

While their remit covers high-profile buildings and structures – including cathedrals, ministries, national museums, viaducts, prisons and bridges – the architectes en chef des monuments historiques operate largely under the radar.

That anonymity was shattered on April 15, 2019, however, when fire broke out at Notre-Dame cathedral when everyone wanted their opinion on the extent of the damage and options for repair. 

Read more: General leading Notre-Dame restoration in Paris dies on mountain hike

Ms Hubert summed up the personal reactions of her colleagues, telling one newspaper that the blaze was like watching a “living nightmare” unfold.

By the time the fire was put out, the cathedral’s spire had collapsed, most of its roof had been destroyed, and its upper walls were severely damaged.

‘Notre-Dame fire was as if a library had burned’

Just as grave, from the architects’ point of view, was the centuries of expertise that had also been lost.

“It was like a library had burned. This framework was an open book, the living testimony of a savoir-faire,” said Mr Salmon.

The group took immediate action by implementing new safety and security systems in the case of fire. 

Many architects have also taken preventative steps, the removal of outdated lightning rods from certain buildings, for instance.

Architects argued over Notre-Dame rebuild

Pascal Brunet, Philippe Villeneuve and Rémi Fromont were selected from the architects’ group to lead the Notre-Dame reconstruction effort. 

For Mr Villeneuve, who has been fascinated by the cathedral since he was six, working on its repair has often felt surreal.

Architects argued for months about whether the wooden framework should be a replica of the original or a new design taking inspiration from the evolution of modern architecture. 

The former was finally decided.

“We drew the framework, marking assemblies, modifications and repairs with a felt pen. We have crafted the whole framework plan and its cross-section on a 1:50 scale,” Mr Fromont told La Croix.

“On a 100 metre-long wooden framework, you can imagine the amount of work.”

For his part, Mr Salmon is full of admiration for the way the renovation has progressed, with craftspeople working non-stop to meet the 2024 reopening target.

“The builders of 2023 are carrying the heritage of Mr Viollet-le-Duc himself,” he says, citing the architect who oversaw the cathedral’s extensive 25-year renovation from 1844. 

“It is this memory which has been passed on.”

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