Wood for historic renovations

With the fire that severely damaged Notre Dame in Paris comes a dilemma. The wooden roof structure and spire were destroyed, a 12th century oak frame that was made of trees that themselves could have been 300-400 years old. Now the question is how do you replace these historic wooden structures? Clearly not with old-growth 400 year old French oak, because that just does not exist. Old growth forests are now few and far in between, and even less so for species like oak. We have spent a millennia pillaging the forests of the world for their largest trees, with little thought to their replenishment – true we do replant trees, but often with more economical, fast-growing species like pine. Hundreds of years ago few thought about replanting the towering trees of the world.

So the dilemma – replace the wooden roof structure with oak, or maybe modern laminated wood (LVL), or something like steel?  I have read that people have already offered oak, like 100-year old oaks from the oak forests of Normandy to help rebuild, and I get that the rebuild should mimic the traditional building techniques as much as possible in order for Notre Dame to maintain its historic nature. The question of course is should we harvest 100 year old trees? Should their longevity trump the needs of a historic building? The actual wooden roof structure is only visible to those who walk through the attic space, no one else. The main roll of this roof structure is to maintain the 210 ton lead roof. How far do you take renovation using original methods and materials? I saw an example of this in Bergen, Norway, where they are restoring the houses of Bryggen, the Hanseatic League’s trading empire from the 14th to the mid-16th century. The techniques are old-school, but then again those hoses only date from after the fire of 1702.


The stone of Notre Dame would have been cut by 12th century stone masons – by hand. The trees similarly would have been hewn, by hand. Would we go so far as to replicate these techniques? It works on a small scale building, that’s for certain, but something requiring the rebuild of an original roof supposedly constructed of 13,000 original trees, one per beam – unlikely. Just as unlikely as we would not cut stone using a machine (an exception is the recreation of a 13th century castle in France, Guédelon Castle where original techniques are being used). What about integrating some modern technology – using glue laminated, or mechanical key laminated oak beams?  They could still be oak, but made from smaller trees, from sustainable forests. Or maybe awesome Glulam beams made from more sustainable timbers. The tight grain of a 400 year old tree cannot be replicated, and certainly not by a 100 year old tree.

The reality is that rebuilds like Notre Dame will never be 100% historically authentic – they are too large to be done that way. The ancient beams are burnt and lost, and they can’t simply be replicated in any easy manner. Modern techniques will have to be used, failing some attempt to travel back in time to procure both materials and 12th century artisans. The spire wasn’t even medieval, and dated from 1859, replacing an earlier spire. Oh but please keep those modern glass and aluminum infused architects away from it at all costs – find someone who is able restore its historic qualities, using modern materials in a manner that respects the buildings history.

Oh, and maybe, just maybe, we should plant more trees like oak for future generations.


Architectural heritage… another one bites the dust

Sometimes it seems as if Toronto is a city of constant construction. But there is also a darker side to many cities, and that is the destruction that occurs, and often it very much goes under the radar. I’m talking about historical buildings of course. Toronto has a varied history in making historically significant buildings disappear. I think one of the most significant losses was the Toronto Armouries. Built in 1891, it was demolished in 1963 to make way for the provincial courthouses that sit on the site today. Many such buildings have disappeared, often due to a lack of interest in maintaining historic architecture for the future.

The Toronto Armouries after 1900 (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1568, Item 0220)

Another classic loss is that of Chorley Park, the fourth Government House built in Ontario (and the last). It was built between 1911-1915, and lasted a mere 45 years before it too was demolished in 1960 after the city of Toronto bought the house for $100,000. The 1960s of course marked a time when Toronto demolished much of its architectural legacy. Chorley Park is today parkland.

Chorley Park (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1128)

You have to wonder when there are books dedicated to Toronto’s lost architectural treasures, like Doug Taylor’s “Lost Toronto“. Lost not because of natural disasters, or war, but because of progress. Look, I’m not against progress, as long as that progress is achieved in a way that balances the history of a city, and the need to build non-descrip, monolithic buildings. And let’s face it much of what is built in the modern world lacks character. The demolitions continue however, sometimes an “accident” by a developer, often planned. One of the more recent victims, the buildings of the Davisville Junior Public School, being demolished to make way for a new school. I do whole-heartedly understand the new for new facilities, but it does lend itself to the gradual erosion of both our cultural, and architectural heritage.

Nixing the Davisville Junior Public School buildings.

Davisville Junior Public School was built in 1962, and represents (or did represent) a prime example  of the mid-century modern style that flourished in Toronto after WW2. At the time the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) had its own in-house architects, lead by chief architect Frederick Etherington. Ultimately a lack of funds to maintain the building (leaky roof anyone?), and upgrade it, has lead to its doom (note that two architects, Carol Kleinfeldt and Roman Mychajlowycz offered the TDSB two pro bono expansion plans that would have saved the building). At the end, as you can see it will be all gone by the end of next week. I photographed the school just after Christmas, and decided to post it as a B&W photo, to indicate that the building will soon be just a memory (and I should have spent more effort photographing it).

Other cities like Montreal seem to do a much better job at maintaining and promoting their architectural heritage, even restricting the building of huge monolithic towers. Toronto on the other hand seems to love the concept of facadicide (but we’ll leave that to another post).