Cohost J here. I think anyone who has fallen in love with Paris is dying on the inside today. The images of Notre Dame cathedral in flames are heartbreaking. Though the worst-case scenario didn’t materialize and the firefighters were able to put out the blaze before permanent structural damage was done, this is still a punch in the gut.
I’ve been to Paris twice and went to Notre Dame both times–twice on my last trip in 2014. I took a Gothic architecture art history class in college (and almost changed my major because of it) and went gaga over the flying buttresses, the arches, the rose windows, and all the little details frozen in stone, including those famous rain spouts we call gargoyles. Despite the hordes of fellow tourists, once you step inside the doors and wander through its forest of columns, this feeling of wonder and peace settles over you–which is exactly the intention of its design. I am not into the church (lower nor upper case!) at all but the building still gives you that religious feeling, somehow. That bodily response to a cathedral is not unique to Notre Dame (I literally cried at Chartres cathedral’s blue stained glass–design nerd alert!) but ND is literally the heart of Paris. Geographically and spiritually. How far to Paris? The mileage is measured to Notre Dame’s front door. It’s kilometer zero. And as a visitor it can become the center of your memories too.
Notre Dame is so much more than a church. It is more than brick, stone, glass and wood. It is architectural history in physical form. It’s an incomprehensibly collaborative art installation (and yes, it was built using exploitative practices and unholy money and yes I’m still not down with the organized religion thing) that spans the centuries. The wood, stone, glass and brick can be rebuilt–maybe add a little steel this time?
After all, Notre Dame was not a static structure. It changed too, and the process of renovating and restoring it seem to be the likely source of this fire. The lovely super-ornate, majorly Gothic over-the-top (pun intended) spire which collapsed was a nineteenth century addition, after all. Fun fact: it’s a major blooper in Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame! Quasimodo dances around the roof and uses the spire like a stripper pole, but it would not have been there when the story was set!
Anyway. They will rebuild. They were already in the process of reconstructing and preserving it. Designers and architects will combine wood and stone to create something magical. The fire is now part of Notre Dame’s long history. Hopefully what we remember is that buildings and artworks can awaken emotions in us, and they too can be lost. No one died in the fire, thankfully, but those who love that cathedral, for whatever reason, felt like we were watching a death unfold. Through design, our public places and houses–even houses where God lives–can feel like home, and we need to recognize and celebrate them in the now. Before our own history is history.