Notre-Dame de Paris: portrait of a craftsman

23 juil. 2020

Julien Le Bras: “The strength and beauty of our trade lies in solidarity, passion, craftsmanship and a taste for challenges”.

My name is Julien Le Bras and I have been chair of the company Le Bras Frères since 2015. Le Bras Frères was founded by my grandfather in 1954, then my father and his four brothers took over. It is a family affair, in which I have always been involved. As a child, I used to play with wood scraps and chips! Very early on, I became interested in the company know-how, which goes from ashlar to roofing and woodwork. In 2008, after graduating from high school with a major in science, and obtaining a diploma in civil engineering, I joined the family company. Seven years later, the company took a chance on the young: I became chairman at 27 years old! Our history with Notre-Dame began in 2009, when the Regional Direction of Cultural Affairs of Île de France appointed us to renovate the ridges of the cathedral. The project consisted in repairing or replacing the ridges that were too damaged on the nave and the North transept. In 2018, we were immensely honored to be appointed to restore the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris, with three work packages: scaffolding, woodwork and roofing. 

Then, in April 2019, everything changed. The night of the fire will forever remain engraved in my memory. A series of phone calls alerted me. I left the meeting I was in in a rush and discovered the footage that was being broadcast continuously by all the information channels - the spire engulfed in flames. I immediately checked on my team members, who, thankfully, were safe, and hurriedly drove to Paris with my father. The next morning, we went to the cathedral site and started work immediately: there was not a moment to lose. In only 24 hours, and amidst indescribable chaos, we managed to safeguard the northern gable, using calculations scribbled on the stairs of the piazza, and ordering 40 cubic meters of wood which were sent under police supervision by one of our suppliers in Switzerland. The Ministry of culture commissioned us for two thirds of the removal, evacuation and reconstruction of Notre-Dame. This was the beginning of two intense months of work, during which each and every one of us gave the best they could, without counting the hours or letting exhaustion get the best of them, and operating under intense media pressure. About one hundred employees from Europe Echafaudage and Le Bras Frères power through the week and weekend, separated from their families, energised by emulation and the immense feeling of fraternity which has taken over the building site. Reinforcing the north, south and east gables in about ten days, installing glue-laminated beams above the temporary tarpaulin, building arches to reinforce the mainstays as well as some of the vaulted ceilings, installing building site equipment (bungalows, boiler rooms, electrical wiring…), operating cranes, setting up a sliding umbrella to allow the rope technicians to evacuate the rubble… The list goes on! And it is not over. We now need to catch up on the delays caused by Covid and the closure of the site.

Overall, I would say that rebuilding Notre Dame has made us realise, more than ever, where the beauty and power of our work lies: in solidarity, passion, craftsmanship and a taste for challenges. These values strengthen us daily and have allowed us, for the past year, to overcome difficulties and gain the trust of our commissioners. My dream for the future? To keep expanding the list of exceptional sites we have restored over the years - the cathedrals of Amiens, Poitiers, Strasbourg, Reims, the Pantheon, the colonne Vendôme, the royal chapel of the château de Versailles… - the restoration of a certain spire… the spire of Notre-Dame de Paris!