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How One Man’s Legacy Could Help Rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral

Andrew Tallon’s pioneering analysis of the past could hold the key to the future of Notre-Dame.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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Following the devastating fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, hundreds of millions of Euros have already been pledged to help facilitate its reconstruction. But while funding is crucial, technology may well hold the key to making an accurate restoration possible.

andrew tallon notre-dame cathedral

Left: One of Tallon’s cathedral scans, image via National Geographic; right: Dr. Andrew Tallon, image via Vassar College

This is where the late Doctor Andrew Tallon comes in. A pioneering art historian and father of four, Tallon sadly died on November 16, 2018, from cancer at the age of just 49. Though he is no longer with us, his work now appears more vital than ever.

To call Tallon a surveyor would belie his unique expertise — he was actually a historical modeler. The researcher’s work involved the use of laser-mounted tripods that build a point cloud of information on every surface of a building’s interior. Tallon scanned more than 45 historic religious buildings, but his work on Notre-Dame received the bulk of attention in a special feature for National Geographic back in 2015.

Notre-Dame was a lifelong source of fascination for Tallon. “I had this little guidebook and I annotated it like a nutcase,” he said, describing the year he was in fourth grade and living in Paris. “I longed to know the usual questions. Who made that thing? How did they make it? Could I ever go up in one of those passages?”

Many years later, as a tenured professor of Vassar College, Tallon fulfilled his wish to conduct an in-depth study the cathedral. “That very same thrill that I longed for as a kid looking up at those passageways in Notre-Dame — ‘I want to go up there’ — well, here I am up there, and it’s thrilling,” he said. Tallon’s primary question then became: What more can we learn about this incredible building?

The software used by Tallon to create accurate 3D models of Notre-Dame Cathedral; image via National Geographic

One of Tallon’s cathedral scans; image via National Geographic

“When you’re working on medieval buildings, it’s difficult to have the impression you can say anything new. They’ve been looked at and written about for ages,” Tallon told National Geographic. “So I’ve been using more sophisticated technology these days to try to get new answers from the buildings.” The strategy worked. Tallon’s technique has revealed much more about the cathedral’s original builders, including the immensely skillful work they carried out — but also the shortcuts they made.

The scans accurately recorded every quirk of this intricate structure, highlighting some anomalies that verged on jaw-dropping. One billion points of data revealed that the western end of the cathedral is completely out of step with the adjacent structure. Tallon went so far as to describe it “a total mess … a train wreck.”

Image via MIT Technology Review

Images via Research Gate

Despite this colorful assessment, Tallon marveled at the ingenuity of builders that created a cathedral that transcends its occasionally irregular parts. “There was a biblical, a moral imperative to build a perfect building,” he said, “because the stones of the building were directly identified with the stones of the Church”—the people who make up the body of the church.

“I like to think that this laser scanning work and even some of the conventional scholarship I do is informed by that important world of spirituality,” said Tallon. “It’s such a beautiful idea.”

Tallon conducting his work inside the Cathedral; image via National Geographic

The historian’s amazingly accurate scans are able to pick up every imperfection in the build, a fact that will surely become crucial when rebuilding work begins. The scans will offer an unparalleled reference point for specialist craftspeople looking to recreate the ornate roof details and spectacular spire of the building.

In conjunction with the generous donations still coming in from around the world, Tallon’s work forms a beacon of hope for the people of Paris. Stay tuned for more news on the reconstruction of Notre-Dame Cathedral in the coming months here on Architizer.

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