Conservation France

Facelift for Panthéon, Paris's grande dame

Building that has become an expression of national pride to undergo a €100m restoration lasting ten years—but funding is still to be found

Radical engineering has led to the building’s decline

One of the largest restoration projects in Europe is due to begin this August in the French capital. The Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the French body responsible for caring for state monuments, is preparing for a ten-year, €100m programme to restore the Panthéon, an 18th-century building that has become an expression of national pride. During the first phase, the structure will be covered in scaffolding with awnings featuring work by a yet-to-be-selected contemporary artist.

Classical beauty

The building was conceived by the architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot as a church dedicated to Geneviève, a patron saint of Paris. But the 1789 revolution swept away the old order a year before the building was completed, and in 1791, the National Constituent Assembly ordained its rededication as the temple of the new republican nation. Despite being repurposed many times in the 19th century, the Panthéon has become the final resting place of some of the great and the good of French culture, science and national identity, including Rousseau, Zola, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Malraux, Marie Curie, the socialist hero Jean Jaurès and Jean Moulin, a symbol of the French Resistance.

The architectural style of the building, which boasts an 82m-high dome, may not be original, but its method of construction is. Soufflot was one of the first to use a skeleton of iron bars set into the masonry, which enabled him to create a building that was the tallest in Paris until it was outdone in 1889 by Gustave Eiffel’s all-metal tower.

Although the use of iron reinforcement was a major step forward in

architectural engineering, it is also one of the major reasons for the Panthéon’s current sorry state. A leaking roof has rusted the ironwork, causing it to swell and to split the stone cladding.

In the first phase of restoration work, which will take 18 months and cost an estimated €19m, the lantern, the cupola and the colonnade that supports the base of the dome will be rejointed, and replaced with new stone and ironwork where necessary. The dome’s lead roofing will also be replaced. Where possible, the original ironwork will be stabilised and treated to prevent further decay. The glasswork of the dome and the lantern will be replaced to improve the interior lighting.

Subsequent phases will restore the Grecian peristyle, the vaults, the interior and external walls and the stone platform on which the building rests.

Funding challenge

During the first stage, the dome and its colonnade will be enveloped in freestanding scaffolding that will be a piece of monumental engineering in its own right; piling 17m deep will support a 37m-high, 315-tonne base. However grand the Panthéon and its restoration, though, these are hard times. In a move that represents a major departure for France, funding for the project will come not only from the state and the usual institutional philanthropists but also, it is hoped, from an online crowd-funding appeal. So far, the appeal has raised only €57,000, but donations will be taken until 6 May.

Meanwhile, corporations are being invited to “participate in the decoration of the awnings” by sponsoring the art that will cover the scaffolding, the idea being to make it one of the biggest and most visible contemporary art shows in Europe.

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