For helping restore one of the world’s most iconic pieces of architecture
Most project leaders don’t expect “running into a burning building” to fall under their job responsibilities. But that’s precisely what Antoine-Marie Préaut did on 15 April 2019, when the roof and iconic spire of the Notre-Dame Cathedral were engulfed in flames. Jumping into action, he helped save some of the Paris landmark’s most valued relics: the Crown of Thorns, historical artifacts and works of art kept within the building.
That moment speaks to Préaut’s passion for preservation initiatives and a deep appreciation of cultural heritage. “The heritage of the past allows future generations to remember the most beautiful, ordered, innovative, daring—so much knowledge that our ancestors generously gave to us,” he says. “Architecture is the heritage of tomorrow, a material witness to the concerns of a society.”
As regional curator of historical monuments at the DRAC Île-de-France, Préaut participated for more than four years in the effort to secure and restore Notre-Dame and the prized objects within it. He calls it “the most influential project that I have worked on, without a doubt—an experience full of discoveries and learnings.”
It’s also been an opportunity to elevate his leadership skills. For the first eight months after the fire, his team managed the operations to secure and protect the cathedral and its contents, eventually transferring that responsibility to a public institution.
“The restoration of Notre-Dame is not the work of one person—it requires many different skills, expertise and know-how,” Préaut says. “In this situation, it is vital that everyone—architects, engineers, conservators, scientists, researchers—clearly understands their role and what they are expected to deliver.”
The first phase of the project aimed to secure and protect the remains of the building. Teams relocated 1,300 works of art and fortified sections of the structure to protect the famed stained glass rose windows, along with the church’s gargoyles and other sculptural elements. The most perilous part of the project? Taking down the 200 tons of burned scaffolding that surrounded the spire when the fire began. “It required months of preparation to ensure we could dismantle it without jeopardizing the safety of the workers, local residents or the stability of the cathedral itself.”
Efforts to secure the cathedral continued until September 2021, when officials announced restoration work could finally begin. Since then, teams have been working to repair vaults and masonry and the cathedral’s organ, and to begin rebuilding the structure’s roof and signature spire—pushing to meet Notre-Dame’s scheduled reopening in 2024.
During the cleaning and restoration work, team members have found many aspects of the cathedral that had been hidden, including sumptuous decorations in the chapels and a rood screen uncovered by the archaeological excavation. “Soon the whole world will marvel at their discovery,” Préaut says.
As busy as he’s been with the cathedral’s restoration, Préaut has also pitched in to protect—and given new life to—other local historic monuments, such as the Maison du Peuple de Clichy-la-Garenne. An icon of 20th century architecture, it’s being restored to house a factory, a restaurant, offices and exhibition spaces. “It had been deteriorating for years due to the lack of a project manager and program of works, but now things have changed,” Préaut says.
Whether a project is the stuff of global headlines or it matters mostly to local residents, Préaut approaches it with the same level of determination.
“When I start on a project, I try to remain focused on the objectives that have been set for me or that I have set for myself,” he says. “There may be difficulties, obstacles or objections, but I move forward step by step to complete the project, trying to be convincing, reworking solutions if necessary and always with the principle of moving forward.”
Q&A: Antoine-Marie Préaut on maintaining confidence, liberating yourself from expectations and reaching for the stars
What project has most influenced you personally?
Every project that I have been responsible for has influenced me and allowed me to meet passionate and exciting people. But I especially remember the restoration of the Pont Transbordeur at Martrou. It is, without doubt, one of the most amazing projects I have seen.
What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now?
To be able to make progress in a world that is constantly changing, while maintaining confidence in themselves and the future. I believe it’s important that project leaders are brave enough to free themselves from traditional expectations to bring out the ideas and discoveries necessary to succeed in today’s volatile world.
What famous person would you recruit for your team?
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet. I don’t know him, but he seems to be achieving his dreams and knows how to reach the stars.