Grey zinc roofs are one of the special features of Parisian architecture. Nowhere else in the world do they exist on such a large scale, covering more than 80% of the roofs of the capital city since the middle of the 19thcentury. However, it is not the roofs of Paris themselves that is subject of a hopefully successful UNESCO bid, but the know-how of the zinc roofers themselves.
Baron Haussmann, founder of modern Paris
In the 1840s, Emperor Napoleon III entrusted Baron Haussmann with the complete renovation of Paris, which at the time was awash with narrow and unhealthy streets, was poorly lit and had no water drainage. Haussmann set about the task and completely transformed Paris, which still benefits from his developments today. He wants wide, straight streets and for this reason he set about a large scale demolition project so he could rebuild the city to his standards.
With all this building work, a new, faster way to install the roofs was needed. He had the bright idea to use zinc. It is lighter than tile-covered wood frames, easier to cut, easier to install and perfectly effective in protecting against water entry. It even has the incredible ability to bend, which allows for the creation of new attic living space. This is how the attic maid’s rooms were born. They can still be found today.
Welded zinc roofs have since then overtaken the heavier and more expensive slate roofs.
The know-how of the Paris roofers at the UNESCO World Heritage site: a dossier dating from 2014
For nearly two centuries, zinc roofers have been working on the roofs of Paris. They tirelessly repair and restore the roofs of the capital, blazing the torch in summer and winter, in the middle of the sprawling grey, Parisian skies.
In 2014, an application was submitted for their work to be included on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, in a bid for the beauty of the “roofs of Paris” to be recognised. However, for political reasons, the focus was shifted from the building work to the immense knowledge of the roofers themselves by turning the focus of the application on its head. It is now a matter of having the “know-how of Parisian zinc roofers” recognised. In fact, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, did not totally support the initiative and was more than sceptical, telling AFP of “her reservations about this approach, which does not seem likely to succeed, given the criteria established by UNESCO to add something to the World Heritage List”..
In 2017, the traditional know-how of the Paris ‘Zingueurs’ was listed in the inventory of intangible cultural heritage in France. In 2018, the application on know-how was approved by the Ministry of Culture and in March 2019, the project was selected to be presented in a committee session at UNESCO.
A major challenge for the zinc roofing profession
The skill of working on welded zinc roofs is little known in France and this application represents an opportunity to share the know-how of the Parisian zinc roofers throughout the world and to also promote the profession domestically.
It is hoped that this bid will attract young workers to the profession to ensure that it continues in the future. Currently, roofers working in Paris complain that they cannot find apprentices who want to train for this job. When it comes to boilermaking, the younger generation associates it with industry and the manufacture of frameworks, but few of them are aware of the torch work carried out on rooftops, just about everywhere in France and especially in Paris.
If the know-how of the zinc roofers of Parisian roofs was finally recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a whole generation could discover the artistic and heritage dimension of welded zinc roofs. For the 17,000 roofing companies in France, the stakes are high, as it could boost learning and perpetuate a know-how that is unique in the world.