17 July 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Grant Bicknell
Grant Bicknell, architect from Theunissen Jankowitz Architects and UFS graduate who entered GO Architect’s: The People's Notre-Dame Cathedral Design Competition.

On 15 April 2019, people worldwide saw the roof of one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, the medieval Catholic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, severely damaged in a devastating fire. 

Although the fire caused great sadness and the loss of a piece of history that started in 1163 – it also provided some opportunities for renewal.

A South African architect at Theunissen Jankowitz Architects and former student at the University of the Free State, Grant Bicknell, enjoys a challenge and the learning process linked to a new project; he therefore decided to enter GO Architect’s: The People's Notre-Dame Cathedral Design Competition.

His entry was one of 220 from across the world which provided an interpretation and presentation of what the roof should look like. He will represent South Africa in the competition. 

Although the winning design will not be used as blueprint to rebuild the roof, it is an opportunity for participants to provide a creative architectural solution.

The competition

In his design, Bicknell – among others – brought an interfaith space to the table. He explains this aspect: “The world is going through a phase of turmoil and extremes – whether it be religious, political, environmental or economical. All have the effect of polarising opinions and ideologies.” 

“France is not exempt from these catalysts of change, with anti-immigration sentiment, terrorist attacks, and radicalisation all on the rise. All of these are of great concern to the people of France, resulting in a detrimental breakdown of French public cohesion.” 

“Similarly, the Catholic Church is going through a transitional period, trying to overcome a perceived public image of intolerance, an insular nature, and a fear of change.”

Bicknell believes that the Catholic Church, as a guiding light for the people of France and the world, has a responsibility to act as a beacon of positive change. 

He elaborates: “The Notre-Dame de Paris has always been a constant and enduring symbol of French identity throughout its history. The significant cultural gravitas inherent in its built form affords it the opportunity – through careful and considered alteration and addition – to affect positive change in the mindsets of the people of France and the rest of the world.”

Bicknell’s proposed roof intervention recommends the introduction of a functional spiritual haven housed in the former roof of the Notre Dame, where spiritual and non-spiritual leaders of all backgrounds will spread messages of positivity and acceptance. 

“This space is intended to be open to people of all religions, backgrounds, and cultures, and is placed on top of one of the most recognisable landmarks in France and the world. It is housed in the roof structure of one of Catholicism’s most recognisable symbols – an uncharacteristically progressive act of genuine humility from the Catholic Church, placing the needs of the people and the world before its own,” said Bicknell. 

He believes that placing such a controversial and thought-provoking intervention on top of the Notre Dame conveys an effortless message of acceptance and inclusiveness to the people of France and the rest of the world that will ripple throughout society and history.

The designer

As architect, Bicknell is not specialising in any type of architectural work. He says he likes the challenge and the learning process when dealing with work he has no experience in. 

When asked about his dream project, Bicknell indicated that he would love to be part of the David Chipperfield team. “It will be an aggressive learning curve in terms of exposure to the different elements, materials, and thinking. I believe one needs to always hunger for more challenges and that you need to question things. To stagnate in our industry, you will miss out on the bright future out there,” he says. 

The Kovsie

Although he is working on big and challenging projects – providing a farm-feel identity to the new Brakpan mall – Bicknell will always have a soft spot for his alma mater, the University of the Free State Department of Architecture. He will never forget the studio culture, “because it was in those late-night hours that we solved the world’s biggest problems, got into mischief, and at the same time worked to make our deadline the next morning”.

“At no other place on campus would you find a bigger group of liberal and interesting thinkers under one roof. We not only grew in our field, but also in our character and our thinking,” he said.

Bicknell concluded: “Architecture is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if it was, the UFS would be the best choice you could ever make. The Department of Architecture is blessed with lecturers and mentors to shape you in the best architect for solving the problems out there in a creative and rational way.”

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