For most of the last year, Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets could be seen walking purposefully on the Île de la Cité in central Paris, staring at and contemplating Notre Dame Cathedral.
On a scorching hot day in the French capital, he stands back there and points to the landmark, still surrounded by scaffolding after it was devastated by a devastating fire in April 2019.
“I’ve done this so many times, she’s like an old friend,” says Smets. “This is the cradle of Paris, the heart of the city.”
All that staring and thinking has now paid off for Smets, who this week won an international competition to redesign the cathedral grounds.
His ambitious plan, which was unanimously supported by the jury, sees more trees, a clever cooling system for the large area in front of the cathedral during heat waves and a new reception center and archaeological museum in the now-deserted car park under the main front plaza leading to the waterfront which opens towards his.
“When they told me we had won, I couldn’t believe it. It was so emotional. It is a great honor to be part of the rich history of this place. Our goal is to glorify this wonderful monument,” says Smets.
“My Parisian friends never used to come here and I wondered why. It’s a beautiful place on an island near water. We want to bring people back and make it alive.”
His €50million (£34million) project to create a more open and pedestrian-friendly space in the 4,500 square meters surrounding Notre Dame Cathedral is being funded by Paris City Hall and selected from a shortlist of four.
The cause of the fire on April 15, 2019, which it took firefighters 15 hours to fight, is still unknown. Today, most of the area set to be ‘reinvented’, like the cathedral itself, is closed to the public for safety reasons: remodeling work on the building is ongoing and there are concerns about contamination after the cathedral’s lead roof was eroded by the blazing flames This destroyed Le Foret, the wooden roof structure, and brought down the 45 m (150 ft) high spire.
The fire spared the celebratory Gothic facade and the twin towers with bells that rang at the coronation of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the death of President Charles de Gaulle.
As a wave of public emotion swept through France after the fire, President Emmanuel Macron promised the cathedral would be restored to its former glory by 2024, when most of the major work to rebuild the cathedral is due to be completed and it will reopen. Smets’ team will start redesigning the environment in 2025 and he hopes it will be completed in 2027.
Smets says his relationship with Notre Dame dates back 40 years. He remembers seeing the monument for the first time when he was seven or eight years old and visiting Paris with his parents.
“I remember that sweet moment when I found myself in front of the facade, which is imposing with its two towers, but also assumes human proportions … Notre Dame is not on a distant hill, it is close to the people and the Seine ” , he says after his win was announced.
“We want to see and explore Notre Dame differently and were also inspired by the British way of having large lawns near the church for people to sit and look at and for children to play,” adds Smets.
Smets is sitting at a local coffee shop, flipping through the winning schedules on his tablet; His project, drawn up in collaboration with two French architectural firms, was selected after an international competition evaluated by a jury made up of city and church officials and those involved in the reconstruction of Notre Dame. Local residents and traders were also surveyed.
About 12 million tourists visited Notre Dame each year before the fire, posing a challenge for the landscape architect, who says he took a climate-centric approach to the project.
Smets says he saw the square in front of the cathedral as a kind of ‘clearing’ surrounded by trees that provide shade for visitors in summer and create new views of the Seine. The idea is to repave the area with stones from a dozen French quarries, cut to exactly the same size as the tiles inside the cathedral. A floor cooling system will then be installed, which will send a 5 mm thick layer of water over the square in front of the cathedral in summer. This lowers the temperature of the area by several degrees, creates a microclimate around the cathedral, and creates a shimmering and reflective foreground for tourist photos.
Another challenge was to create more green space and plant more trees without compromising the ‘sheltered’ view of the cathedral, which was solved by planting new trees in a precise pattern behind existing ones.
He will also merge the current patchwork of parks, streets and waterfront areas around the monument and plant 30% more trees and greenery. Fences around the park behind the cathedral will be removed, lawns will flank the Seine.
“We have to make the city fit for climate change. So we asked ourselves how we could create a public space that lowers the temperature and creates a microclimate,” says Smets.
Smets, 47, who splits his time between Paris and Brussels, and his team of 20 architects and landscape designers have completed more than 50 projects in 12 countries. In France, he is best known for developing the Atéliers Park around the Luma Tower in Arles, designed by American architect Frank Gehry. In London he created a “jungle effect courtyard for the Mandrake Hotel in Fitzrovia and also a sunken garden for the home of art collector and philanthropist Maja Hoffmann, who funded the Luma.
“For 800 years, the cathedral has witnessed change. During that time, you can see that the island has changed around them, the buildings around them have changed, but NotreDame has stayed the same,” says Smet.
“By redesigning the environment, we’re putting Notre Dame back at the center of the entire city.”