Restoration – the first act draws to a close

The removal of La Samaritaine’s original decorative elements is almost completed.

Frescoes, friezes, handrails, enamelled tiles, crests, doors, wooden window frames – every separate piece has been taken down and stored in workshops outside Paris for restoration. For Jean-François Buytaert, in the Rue de la Monnaie loading bay during the delicate operation of bringing down the skylights from the fifth floor of the Jourdain building, it is the end of a process that has lasted nearly 10 months. The project manager – seconded full-time to the site by SOCRA, the authorised representative of La Samaritaine’s “Historical Monument” group –  admits that this phase has been a headache because of the logistics. “The assembly of the scaffolding, procurement, loading of the trucks – everything is extremely restricted due to the narrowness of the construction site, plus the fact that we’re in the heart of Paris in the midst of heavy traffic. This is an exceptionally complex site,” he continues, “which demands flawless organisation of tasks, as everyone is affected if there’s even the slightest glitch”.

Despite these frustrations, the schedule is still on track. A team of around 20 experienced restoration specialists, including metalworkers, carpenters, locksmiths and engineers, set to work painstakingly dismantling the décor, numbering each piece and preparing them for departure, meticulously avoiding any damage in the process. “The excellence of our creative professions starts here,” explains Buytaert.

Founded in 1990 in Marsac-sur-l’Isle in the Dordogne, Socra is known for its renovations of prestigious heritage projects, including the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, the sculptures of the Opéra Garnier, the Chauvet Cave replica in the Ardèche and, more recently, the archangel of Mont Saint-Michel, among others. Over time, this company of master craftsmen, in the noblest sense of the word, has combined its know-how with new technologies and extended its field of expertise and scope to include mosaics and tiling, stone and metal work. “La Samaritaine’s restoration is an extraordinary operation,” says Jean-François Buytaert. “Our next challenge is to work with the companies making the new components, and to integrate them with the historical elements.



A woman at the helm

The relentless digging and excavating the “hole” of the Rivoli section has been going on for weeks now, in order to create the foundations of the future building and the three levels of infrastructure. Behind the hoarding, the huge metal tubes (“bracings” in technical language) that litter the space to support the retaining wall under construction along the Rue de Rivoli, hint at the sheer size of the job. It is a complicated project, conducted with the utmost vigilance to minimise disturbance to the neighbourhood.
Among the 30 skilled construction workers on the site (digging, drilling and iron workers, carpenters, safety managers and more), a young woman keeps an eye on the proceedings. Lively and with sparkling eyes, Frédérique Le Cousturier leads and coordinates the teams with the aim of “oiling the wheels to ensure the work gets done on time, in tandem with the need for quality and safety.” However it’s  not always easy to ensure the different trades and companies work together smoothly. “It takes a lot of energy and diplomacy!” states the site engineer, who has worked for Vinci for the last eight years.

The day starts early. At 7.30am, wearing helmet, gloves and safety shoes, the first team meeting of the day starts at the site entrance on Rue Baillet – the “daily update” where, for 15 minutes, marker in hand, she runs through the day’s tasks with her team mates. “It’s an essential briefing, giving everyone an overview of what’s happening and the information they need,” says Frédérique.  Then the tasks pile up, one after another – meetings, planning, budget, coordination and administrative work, not to mention at least four hours on site. “On rainy days like today, it’s especially important to show the teams that you’re not just sitting in your nice warm office!”
Briefly tempted by architecture due to her love of building, Frédérique chose this profession because it was tangible – “at night, you can actually see what you’ve achieved.” She does not regret her choice, even if she recognises that “as this job requires you to be outdoors a lot, it can be quite harsh in winter and requires a lot of commitment.” Is being a woman – and young, to boot – a handicap? “It almost makes the job easier, and it limits the ranting,” she says. “But in return, I can’t allow myself any beginners’ mistakes.”  Frédérique certainly exercises authority, and wields it her own way, with “respect and listening” – two golden rules that she wholeheartedly shares with the young trainees who surround her.