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Reimagine the ICONIC Notre-Dame with Bas Smets

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Landscape Architect Bas Smets Reimagines the ICONIC Notre-Dame

Vues sur la Cathédrale et les quais

© Studio Alma for BBS

With an eye towards sustainability, Brussels-based landscape designer Bas Smets intends to create a better Notre-Dame experience for both tourists and Parisians.

The world watched despairingly when the medieval cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire in 2019. It was inconceivable that this beloved French icon, completed in 1345, might so easily be destroyed. But like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Notre-Dame’s restoration steadily progresses with a hope that portions can reopen in 2024, just in time for the summer games.

Taking the lead on Notre-Dame’s exterior refurbishment is Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets who is working collaboratively with architectural and urban planner GRAU and heritage expert Neufville-Gayet Architectes. Smets, who received his master’s degree in Architecture and Civil Engineering from the University of Leuven and his master’s in Landscape from the University of Geneva, won the extremely competitive appointment to redevelop Notre-Dame’s and Île de la Cité’s public spaces. 

Smet’s plan reimagines the historic cathedral’s relationship to its surroundings and includes extending and unifying the exterior with sustainable, climate-resisting plantings, creation of a promenade and park along the Seine that affords views of the Parisian skyline, shaded seating areas and a central fountain feature that will occasionally trickle across the forecourt’s hot pavement in warmer weather, mimicking a light summer rain and providing semi-natural coolant.

ICONIC LIFE was fortunate to chat with the extremely busy Smets to learn more about his process.

Bas Smets

Bas Smets

When and how did you become interested in landscape design?

I have always been interested in how we live on this planet and how we share this space with other living organisms. Life on the planet is a question of space. During my studies I came to understand that it is landscape architects who shape the environments we live in. Being formed as an engineer as well as a landscape architect has allowed me to imagine new types of landscapes that help integrate nature into our man-made environments that are our cities.

The competition for this appointment must have been fierce. Do you know with how many you were competing?

A large number of both French and international offices had replied to the candidacy organized by the city of Paris. Out of these candidacies four teams were selected to participate in the competition that took 10 months.

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© Studio Alma for BBS

How did it feel to be selected?

It was great to be selected among the most renowned French landscape offices to compete for this public commission. Winning it was simply amazing. It is such a great challenge and opportunity to add a layer to the rich history of this place. It felt as if our years-long research into climatic public space had been rewarded.

Why do you think you won this assignment? What was it about your entry that ‘struck’ the selection committee?

I had assembled an interdisciplinary team together with the French architects GRAU and NGA. We proposed to rethink the emblematic public spaces around the Notre-Dame as a sequence of climatic atmospheres. Victor Hugo called the Île de la Cité the cradle of Paris. For 800 years Notre-Dame has been a privileged witness to a city in constant transformation. Rethinking the public space around the Notre-Dame was, for us, the opportunity to imagine the type of public spaces a city needs in the 21st century . Our climatic approach responded to the ambition of the city of Paris to become more resilient to the effects of the climate crisis.

What were the existing (pre-fire) Notre Dame exteriors and gardens like, and how do you intend to change them?

The surroundings had been refurbished in the seventies, when an underground car park was built in front of the Cathedral. The plans for a renewal of the public space had been in the making and were accelerated after the fire. We propose to rethink the five major urban figures that were present around the Notre-Dame: Parvis, Placette, Promenade, Berges and Square. Each figure is recomposed with a double intent—making them climate resilient and allowing more uses by both visitors and inhabitants. 

Notre-Dame

© Studio Alma for BBS

What is the most markedly different aspect of your design, and what are your general objectives?

We placed climate resilience as our priority, while transforming the historical typologies that characterize such a quality to the public spaces of Paris. By making these spaces adapted to a changing climate, we guarantee their use all year round, taking into account rising temperatures foreseen in the coming years. At the same time we kept the distinction between what is underground and what is above ground, which allows us to keep the public space free of any functional elements. The former parking garage will be transformed into a visitor center that opens towards the Seine and that is accessible via two generous staircases. 

The project intends to create a better experience for both the tourists and the Parisians. Tourists will be invited to make a tour of the Cathedral, discovering the beautiful eastern facade and its connection with the Seine river. The Parisians will discover generous lawns to sit on in between the Seine and the southern facade of the Notre-Dame.

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What are particular aspects of your design that overtly address climate change?

For the Parvis, or main plaza in front of the Cathedral, we had to invent a way to create a microclimate during the hot summer days. We could not plant here because of the Roman archeology lying below. We propose to activate a thin layer of water that slowly runs down the plaza, immediately refreshing the air through evaporative cooling. We have calculated that this will lower perceived temperature by 5 degrees Celsius. This feature runs with rain water that is collected in the former parking garage that will be transformed by the architects GRAU and NGA into a visitor center. 

As for the planting scheme, we have made a list of both native plants and plants historically used in Paris that are climate resilient. We are looking especially into drought resistance. We will be using many species to double the existing amount of trees on site.

Vue sur le parc des berges

© Studio Alma for BBS

The estimated completion date for the entire Notre-Dame project (interior and exterior) is 2027. Will you be intricately involved until that time?

I will stay directly involved as the team leader until the completion of the project. It is rare to be able to work on such an important site, so I want to make sure everything will be executed the way we have designed it.

Your home base is Brussels. Where do you stay while working in Paris?

I lived in Paris for six years before founding my office in Brussels in 2008. Since then I have kept a ‘pied-à-terre’. We are looking at opening a second office in Paris in the years to come to be able to closely follow the construction of the project

Who is it that oversees your work? Have these ‘powers-that-be’ been easy to work with? 

We work for the city of Paris, and they oversee our work in biweekly meetings. At the same time we are in constant dialogue with all the partners involved, for the diocese of Paris to the French State in charge of renovating the Cathedral. Since the fire has touched all of us profoundly, there is a feeling of common purpose that creates a very productive and constructive work atmosphere.

Vue accès passage

© Studio Alma for BBS

What are some of your other international projects, and which did you find most enjoyable?

Last year we finished the project for Luma Parc des Ateliers in Arles, France. We transformed the semi-desert climate of a former industrial railway yard into a Mediterranean climate by accelerating what nature would have done over time. Planted with more than 80.000 trees, shrubs and plants, the park is made with the species of the three surrounding biotopes and connects all the buildings of the new arts center of the Luma Foundation. This project was very challenging from a technical point of view. We had to invent artificial aquifers underneath the mounts of earth to create a natural environment in which plants can thrive.

In London we designed the courtyard of the Mandrake Hotel, adding 500 climbers to create a waterfall of leaves and trees. We won the AHEAD awards for the best landscape worldwide in 2019 with this project. We hid the plant medium in the U-beams that support the walkways to the different rooms. 

In the south of Albania we radically transformed the waterfront of the city of Himara. A former high sea wall was replaced with several sloped terraces restoring the visual and physical connection with the water. The pine trees provide shade and create a linear coastal pine forest in front of the buildings.

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