It May Not Be the Same, But It Can Be Rebuilt

The fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris on April 15 is still reverberating in France and around the world. Experts from across Columbia share their thoughts and ideas on how to move forward with the rebuilding of what is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture.
Paul Blaer, Senior Lecturer in Discipline, Department of Computer Science
May 09, 2019

In 2006 and 2010, I assisted Andrew Tallon, an art professor at Vassar, in taking roughly 50 high-density scans and photographs of Notre-Dame. Andrew, a former graduate student at Columbia, was fascinated by the cathedral—the subject of his Ph.D. thesis—and worried about its condition.

Paul Blaer

With an advanced Leica laser scanner, we were able to build detailed scans—with an accuracy of around a centimeter—of large sections of the building, including areas not open to the public and, therefore, rarely photographed or measured. These high-resolution scans, consisting of billions of data points, should allow us to digitally replicate in 3D models the structure of the cathedral as it was a decade ago.

Tragically, Andrew died last year from brain cancer at age 49, and although it would have been painful for him to see the damage to this beloved building, I'm sure he'd be proud to know that his work will help in its restoration. My hope is that his painstaking work will help bring back this architectural wonder close to its original state.

[Watch a video of Andrew Tallon discussing his laser scanning work with National Geographic in 2015.]

Luckily, the stone structure seems to be intact. Most of the damage is in the vaulting where the spire was and in two other locations. We took great care scanning many images in the choir of the building, just ahead of the crossing, which sits under the now collapsed spire. This data should allow restorers to figure out the precise measurements of those sections, including their original thickness. Although Notre-Dame may never be the same, it can be rebuilt.