Notre Dame Fire Revives Demand For Skilled Stone Carvers In France | KALW

Notre Dame Fire Revives Demand For Skilled Stone Carvers In France

Jul 20, 2019
Originally published on July 22, 2019 10:23 am

A little over three months after Paris' Notre Dame caught fire, French officials say the cathedral is still in a precarious state and needs to be stabilized. Ultimately, they aim to restore the monument, a process that will take years.

When that work begins, there will be a new demand for experts who have the same skills required to build Notre Dame 900 years ago. In the workshops of the Hector Guimard high school, less than three miles from the cathedral, young stone carvers are training for that task.

In an airy and light-filled workshop in the north of Paris, a handful of students chip and chisel away at heavy slabs of stone. Each works on his or her own piece, but all are sculpting the same project: the base of a Corinthian column. The students are earning a professional degree to hew the stone pieces needed to maintain and restore France's historical monuments.

Scaffolding is seen during preliminary work on top of the Notre Dame cathedral three months after a major fire in Paris.
Stephane de Sakutin / AP

Every year, about 30 new stonemasons graduate either with this degree, the professional license in stone carving for historic monuments, or a less advanced diploma in stone carving.

François Menut is one of the students working toward the professional license.

"I've always been passionate about drawing and art history, but I also wanted a job that was physical," says Menut. "With stone carving, we give life to an edifice and perpetuate history. We're also creating a link with the past and transmitting values that are important to conserve in society."

On April 15, he and his classmates watched in horror as Notre Dame burned for 12 hours, unsure if it would still be standing the next day. Some now hope they will have the chance to help restore it.

François Menut works on the base of a Corinthian column. "With stone carving, we give life to an edifice and perpetuate history. We're also creating a link with the past and transmitting values that are important to conserve in society," he says.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

But none think the job can be done in five years, as French President Emmanuel Macron has suggested. As Menut puts it, "You can't be president and stone carver at the same time."

In medieval times, stone carving and masonry were masculine professions, but today there are women studying the trade.

"In the beginning, it was my own parents who were surprised when I left my architecture studies to do this," says Marjorie Lebegue. "But most everyone who finds out I'm studying to be a stone carver says, 'Wow, what a beautiful profession.'"

Luc Leblond instructs the aspiring stone carvers.

"There's no reason this should be a masculine profession," he says. "Men have more physical force, but as a professor, I see the women have a sharpened sensitivity for the more detailed work. So it's complementary."

Left: Luc Leblond, an instructor and a stonecarver who has worked on Notre Dame in the past. He says the cathedral must be restored to its original structure. Right: Stone carving tools.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

Women make up 17% of the students in the two-year, post-baccalaureate degree program in stone carving on historic monuments. The Centre de Formation d'Apprentis du Bâtiment Saint Lambert, the Saint Lambert center for training and apprenticeship — which offers the degree in conjunction with the Hector Guimard school — is run by a woman.

To earn their degree, students must also take classes in math, French, computer design, geography and art history.

"Art history is extremely important," says Eliette Coutherut, the head of the Saint Lambert center. "You can't work the stone without knowing its history and the different currents that influenced architecture."

By the time the students earn their degrees, Coutherut says, they've had four years of training in stone carving, due to requirements to enter the degree program. On graduating, they are fully qualified to work, either alone or as part of a masonry stone carving team on France's most treasured historic monuments.

"You can't work the stone without knowing its history and the different currents that influenced architecture," says Eliette Coutherut, head of the Saint Lambert Building Apprentice Institute.
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

The program began in 1945, as a way to help restore France's historic monuments damaged in World War II.

Aside from this degree, the only other way to become a licensed stone carver of historic monuments is by joining a sort of modern-day guild known as "Les Compagnons du Devoir," the Companions of Duty.

That program is based on the way young people were trained for professions in the Middle Ages. To become a "compagnon" takes at least five years of rigorous training, and apprentices are expected to travel around France working on different sites. The apprentices live and eat together and follow certain customs. They have gained a near-mythic status in France.

At Saint Lambert, the students mix age-old stone carving techniques with cutting-edge technology. Lebegue works on a 3D stone carving diagram on her computer, while others draw on drafting sheets, using a compass and ruler.

Marjorie Lebegue is one of the students working towards a professional degree in stone carving. "In the beginning, it was my own parents who were surprised when I left my architecture studies to do this," says Lebegue. "But most everyone who finds out I'm studying to be a stone carver says, 'Wow, what a beautiful profession.'"
Eleanor Beardsley / NPR

"The computer helps gain in time and accuracy," says Lebegue. "But for stone carving, you have to have a 3D vision and be able to represent objects in space. And drawing by hand is still the best way to acquire that skill."

Aside from their schoolwork and stone carving in the atelier, each student has a part-time apprenticeship with one of the 100 or so companies that are qualified to work on historic buildings and monuments in France.

"Our work involves very specific requirements and we are short of skilled labor in a dozen or so traditional professions," says Frederic Létoffé, the president of the monument restorers' professional association. "But the Notre Dame fire woke the country up."

Létoffé says together with the government, they've now launched a campaign called "France Worksite" to promote the restoration of heritage sites and revive young people's interest in old professions like stone carving.

"Notre Dame made people realize these skills are still needed and still important," he says.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's been a little more than three months since Notre Dame burned. French officials say the 856-year-old cathedral is still being stabilized. When restoration work truly begins, there'll be a demand for people with the skills to rebuild the historic structure.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley visited a class of aspiring stone carvers and sends this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF STONE CHISELING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In an airy and light-filled workshop in the north of Paris, students chip and chisel away on heavy slabs of stone. Each works on his own piece, yet they are all sculpting the same project - the base of a Corinthian column. These young people are earning a professional degree in stone carving. France turns out about 30 stonemasons a year. Francois Menut will be one of them.

FRANCOIS MENUT: (Through interpreter) I've always been passionate about drawing and art history. But I also wanted a job that was physical. With stone carving, we give life to an edifice and perpetuate history. We're also creating a link with the past and transmitting values that are important to conserve.

BEARDSLEY: These students watched in horror as Notre Dame burned. Some now hope they will have the chance to help restore the cathedral, but no one thinks the job can be done in five years, as President Emmanuel Macron suggested. As Menut puts it, you can't be president and stone carver at the same time.

In medieval days, stone carving and masonry was a masculine profession. But today, there are women studying the trade. Marjorie Lebegue says her male classmates have always been supportive and welcoming.

MARJORIE LEBEGUE: (Through interpreter) In the beginning, it was my own parents who were surprised when I left my architecture studies to do this. But most everyone who finds out I'm studying to be a stone carver says, wow, what a beautiful profession.

BEARDSLEY: Professor Luc Leblond says there's no reason stone carving should be just for men.

LUC LEBLOND: (Through interpreter) Men have a little more physical force. But, as a professor, I see that women have a sharpened sensitivity for the more detailed work, so it's complementary.

ELIETTE COUTHERUT: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Eliette Coutherut is head of the school where the students are earning their degrees - the Saint Lambert Building Apprentice Institute.

COUTHERUT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: While greeting the young people, she stresses the need for professionalism by making them remove caps and EarPods before shaking hands. Coutherut says their degree demands coursework in math, French, computer design, geography and art history.

COUTHERUT: (Through interpreter) Art history is extremely important. You can't work the stone without knowing its history and the different currents that influenced architecture.

BEARDSLEY: The students mix age-old techniques with cutting-edge technology. Marjorie Lebegue is bent over a 3D stone carving diagram on a computer, but she also has a drafting pad and compass on her desk.

LEBEGUE: (Through interpreter) The stone carving computer design programs - they help you gain in time and accuracy. But you still have to learn to represent things in space and have a 3D vision, and drawing by hand is the best way to acquire that skill.

BEARDSLEY: Each student has a part-time apprenticeship with one of the 100 or so companies that are qualified to work on historic buildings and monuments in France. Frederic Letoffe is president of their professional association.

FREDERIC LETOFFE: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We are short of skilled labor in a dozen traditional professions," he says. His group of companies, together with the government, has just launched a campaign to revive young people's interest in professions like stone carving. Letoffe says the fire at Notre Dame woke the country up.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARK PRESTON'S "...AND IT WILL RISE WITH THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.