The world watched in shock when the Notre-Dame de Paris (built 1163-1345) burned on April 15, 2019. While the flying buttresses, towers and South rose window were spared in the destruction, the cathedral’s lead roof and supporting timber trusses were lost. The attic, famously named “La Forêt,” or The Forest, was made of 25 trusses placed closely together with each beam constructed from an ancient oak tree. Two years after the fire, two architecture students from the Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center (WAAC), second-year Master of Architecture student Adele Gedeo and fifth-year Architecture student Adithya Kidambi, each picked up an ax and helped construct a full-scale truss. Equipped with their design knowledge and excitement for this hands-on experience, the two “dove into all things Notre-Dame de Paris from day one,” said Gedeo.

Handshouse Studio, based out of Massachusetts, develops unique projects and workshops to create large-scale reconstructions using traditional design and building construction techniques. They invited colleges and universities to participate in a 10-day workshop (July 26 to August 4, 2021) to reconstruct Truss #6, that was once located above the choir. The full scale truss measured 45 feet wide by 35 feet tall, or about three stories tall. 

Catholic University of America (CUA) hosted the workshop on their campus in Washington, D.C. The School of Architecture + Design was represented by the WAAC; Florida State University and Washington University also participated.

Adithya and Adele, who were already in the Washington, D.C. area, were able to participate in the workshop and the hand-raising event at the National Mall. They also participated in a course at CUA where they researched the history and structure of Notre Dame and joined lectures with experts from around the world. “We studied multiple drawings of [the] roof in order to discover its dimensions, geometry and joinery,” says Adele. Some of the drawings were created by Rémi Fromont and Cédric Trentesaux, the French lead architects of the reconstruction process at Notre-Dame de Paris, noted Katie Bahr, of the Catholic University of America. With this research, the students helped construct a 1:10 scaled model of Truss #6 using dried white oak and power tools. Kidambi remarked at the refreshing experience of not only studying these designs on paper but seeing it come together piece by piece. For the construction of the full-scale truss, the two would have to step back in time several hundred years and get comfortable with medieval carpentry techniques.

The students worked on the truss with Handshouse Studio and faculty and students from other institutions, and “used the strength of our own hands to reshape freshly-felled white oak trees from (nearby Lexington) Virginia,” said Adele. Members of the Handshouse Studio and expert carpenters with Charpentiers sans Frontiere (Carpenters Without Borders), showed “us how to properly use axes and levels to square the logs, and they allowed us to work side by side with them throughout the process of hewing and scribing all the truss pieces with which we were already familiar with from our earlier studies,” she notes. In the medieval tradition, the squared logs were connected with pegs. After “many blisters and sweat-filled, humid days later, we all worked together to secure the structure and hand-raise the Truss #6” for the first time on the CUA campus, said Adele. Then, with the support of the Preservation Training Center of the National Park Service and Preservation Maryland, it was hand-raised a second time on the National Mall with the Washington Monument in the background. Truss #6 was also on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in its Great Hall from August 6 to September 16, 2021.

After a unique year of social distancing and different methods of learning, Adithya and Adele embraced this opportunity to collaborate with others to use historic building construction techniques and bring the truss to life. While the ancient oak that once supported the roof of Notre-Dame and the skilled handcraft of the original builders can’t be brought back to life, this project provided the students hands-on experiences of the teamwork and human power necessary to create a structure like the Notre-Dame de Paris. 

Both Adele and Adithya were inspired by the experience of bringing such a unique project to life. For Adithya, the close engagement with materials and historic construction techniques has helped them become more insightful architects. In a bittersweet note, Adele hopes that Truss #6 “will become a form of study for the reconstruction of the missing forest at Notre-Dame.”