845. Losing Notre-Dame

By Dallas Thomas | News

Apr 16

As Australian visitors living in Paris, we are enamoured by France and Paris. Watching the news last night we discovered that Notre Dame was on fire. Not quite believing the reports, we reluctantly decided to walk to the Pont de Sully to witness the fiery destruction of the roof and spire.

Inside Notre Dame, before the tragic events

The other “spectators” were incredibly silent, speaking in low voices to each other. We heard only one person, loudly speaking on his cell phone, a tourist, who appeared to not really empathise with the city and the people of what was happening before him. We were saddened at his blasé comments and lack of sympathy for the situation.

The photographs that were taken, were taken, with a reluctance to be recording such a tragic event, however, to be part of the audience was a moving experience. One we hope to never be involved in again.


Philippe adds

French poet Jacques Prévert wrote: I recognized happiness by the noise it made when it left. Here, at DS, we have railed countless times against postcard photography, and destinations that are so overrun with tourists that enjoying them is no longer possible.

But now that one of them is gone, I appreciate how appropriate Prevert’s words were and are. Plus, there are iconic pictures from the top of one of Notre-Dame’s towers that I always told myself I would try my hand at, but I never got around to it. Too much wait in line, there would be another day, the usual cr*p (no, it is not crop). And now the chance may be gone for my lifetime.

(c) Wikipedia

It is not for nothing that this Gothic cathedral, very probably the world’s most famous, was/is called Notre-Dame. “Notre” means “ours”. Now that it has been rent and savaged by flames, we know, it belonged to all of us, parisians or not, catholics or not.

And, while the building may survive and even be restored to its former glory, countless treasures are irreparably lost. Statues, paintings, stain glass, the glorious organ by Cavaillé-Coll.


It feels like Quasimodo and Esmeralda were somehow alive as long as Notre-Dame was there to protect them. And now, they are dead for good. Fromer PM Fillon said it: Notre-Dame is in flames, and parisians are in tears. And I add, the river of our tears was not enough to put out the flames.


Maybe I should have loved Notre-Dame more while I could. I know it is important to be up to date with my “I love you”s to my loved ones. I hadn’t until today included “things”, and now I shall. Be prepared to see some photographic “I love you”s coming from me. Hey, Pascal, shouldn’t that be the next DS challenge?


Pascal adds

Soo many feelings. Where is the truth?

This morning, listening to the radio felt like peace had finally fallen on earth. On the news : a piece about conversation as an art form (yes, honestly), some new tennis prodigy and the fire in Notre Dame. Apparently, humanity had suddenly cured cancer, stopped wars and famine and politicians were no longer splitting continents as a pastime. I felt bad thinking that, but the self-centered news just reminded me of those maps of the world not drawn to geographic scale but relative to some other variable such as wine consumption or number of prostitutes per square mile. Today, the island at the center of Paris occupies 98% of our globe.


Yesterday was a different story. I came home from my sport session to a distraught daughter watching the video of a burning treasure with tears in her eyes. And the shock of seeing such horrific images made my heart sink. The sense of loss was terrible. I wondered why. In my hundreds of trips to Paris, I don’t remember ever visiting it. Heck, looking for photographs to illustrate this post is actually a struggle and the only one in my possession was made a few years ago, as a test chart for a client selling a lossless image compression algorithm. Not even a shot made for myself. I love churches but, as for many other things, am far more drawn to the smaller, more intimate ones than to the grand. To me, those famous landmarks all lose their essence and become destinations, targets for Corinne Vionnet’s fabulous work on mass tourism or Thomas Struth’s interrogations. And yet, the sight of so much human inspiration, talent and work being destroyed in a few minutes punched me in the stomach much harder than I thought possible. It’s as if witnessing its destruction gave the building back its true nature.


And there are so many questions. Starting with the childish ones.

How could such a fire even be possible? Human mistake, probably. In 1972, the Nantes cathedral was seriously damaged as well when a worker forgot to turn off a blowpipe on the roof. If investigations reveal a similar incident here, it will mean that we, as a society have learned nothing from the first accident, making it far worse.

Experts on the radio are saying rebuilding the roof could take 30 years. How is that even possible? It took men with ropes 200 years to build the whole edifice. Have we evolved so little that 700 years later, we can’t do it faster ?

The Arnault family pledged 100 million euros to help finance the build. But that’s apparently not enough. How? I mean, how is 100 million euros not enough for a roof? Or is that just France? Turkey is building a new  football stadium in Bursa for 75 million euros, France’s similar project for rugby is estimated 600 (million) and will probably cost double that. Whatever the reason, 100 million could do so much to forward art in France that it pains me to see it all spent on one roof. Prodigy sure meets prodigal. But how could we leave Notre Dame without a roof?


And then, less prosaic and more important, our whole approach to heritage is fascinating. I remember my surprise in Japan when kids were allowed to run around precious wooden temples and that destruction was a part of the life of everything. When a temple or castle got destroyed by fire or earthquakes or tourist wear and tear, it just got rebuilt or was abandoned. This actually keeps a whole industry alive and craftsmen perpetuating old building traditions seem more numerous and active than elsewhere. In the Institut du Monde Arabe, a fascinating exhibition recreated in virtual reality the main monuments destroyed by war in ancient cities such as Mosul and Aleppo. In most cases, reconstruction is impossible. But more interesting is the fact that local archeologist actually don’t want to rebuild. To them, destruction is part of the life of a building. And, inspecting the ruins, they found far more ancient treasures that had been buried beneath the more recent, now defunct, churches and mosques. What can we learn from that?


So, what’s next? So far, the shock has aligned politicians of the world. It’s ironic to think that millions of rapes and killings can’t do what a burning roof can, but I can only hope the trend continues and that this fire will lead to an exemplary rebuild. One which brings together the talent of people throughout the world, using donations from around the world. I also hope it will make the (far more permanent) destruction of sooo many other monuments abroad less abstract to the French and that it will make them donate to help others in need, throughout the world. A subscription is being raised to call upon the great generosity of the French people. It ain’t generosity when you give to rebuild your heritage. Wouldn’t it be much better if Notre Dame got rebuilt thanks to foreign donations and if French gifts were sent abroad?


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  • Steve Mallett says:

    We know nothing lasts forever, all is impermanent, yet I too experienced physical loss watching the flames engulf Notre Dame. Last April I looked at the queues and said “nah”, some other day. Just as I had on my previous visit to Paris. And the one before that. As Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.” Hopefully they’ll rebuild in some form and not put up a parking lot.

  • Lorraine says:

    We grieve for the loss of 800 years of our past – by fire. Rightly so.
    But we grieve less for the loss of our future – with climate change.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aah, Lorraine, don’t get me started on this. I never could understand my teachers’ insistance to force feed me history when its lessons are so obviously constantly overlooked in the present. And, today, it baffles me why anyone would pay five hundred million dollars for a tiny pieace of cloth covered in pigments by a bloke who died 500 years ago rather than invest in the future. What can I say, humans like to live in the past. And to sanctuarise the past while they happily let the future get bleek. It’s a fear of their own death, maybe. That and the ostridge in the sand attitude. Nothing about the future is certain while the past is reassuringly palpable.

      But it doesn’t make the fire of a treasured icon less sad. I think the layering of generations of builders and artists is what makes a country rich. I would rebuild a modern roof. Give an architect the opportunity to create something new atop this gothic jewel. It won’t happen. We French like everything to be academic and museum worthy 😉

      • Pascal Ravach says:

        “a modern roof “… I couldn’t agree more!
        I mentioned in a past post that I totally believe in the “energy” of things.
        If they re-build it (the French way), it will be a *fac-simile*.
        Visually ok, but with as much “vibration” as the fake historical buildings in amusement parks…
        I too feel the mourning, but we must transform each loss in a new life….

        Japanese do this on a constant basis (and with no nails…), but mostly piece by piece; then it becomes “history” too (for Westerners).
        For the Japanese, the building is simply *alive*, like a human body… that’s perfect.

        30 years ago in Italy, I discovered a modern library, with glass and Le Corbusier seats, added to a thousand-years plus old building… at first, quite a surprise… then, gradually, I fell for the charm… it had grace!
        So much could be done to give a “new life” to Notre-Dame…
        Unfortunately, I guess nobody in charge will even consider your suggestion… for some of these people, it is simply a stupid, conservative, petrified idea of “their” past “grandeur”, not a sincere attachment to its present and future beauty…

        I agree that the only positive thing is the “awakening” of the importance of ancient skills, an the opportunity for artisans to exert their art… this is the pleasant part of the drama… it may look “off topic”, but one of the things I love the most in poorer countries where I live part of the year is the myriad of “street jobs”… often with incredible abilities.

        • Kristian Wannebo says:

          Pascal & Pascal,
          I certainly agree that a *well done* mixture of new with old always looks better than adding imitated old, I’ve seen too many examples of the latter.

          It also prevents pure nostalgia to dominate.

          The slowly grown, and stronger, timber needed for a true rebuild of the old roof is *hard* to find.

          • pascaljappy says:

            Pascal & Kristian, there are talks of letting contemporary art and architecture have its say in the reconstruction project. And, already, a lot of resistance both to the idea and to the whole budget, when so many are struggling financially. This reconstruction will be a real test of who we are as a nation. My fear is that a consensual botched reconstruction will prevail, but it has happened in the past that visionnaries have been given total liberty. Think of Beaubourg. So, we shall see, in time 🙂

            • Kristian Wannebo says:

              I heard they’re starting an international architecture competition. Sounds like a good idea, at least for finding a wider range of ideas – so long as not too many just try to show themselves off.
              And I hope the idea of getting it ready before the Paris Olympics won’t take priority!

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    I have been crying on and off since I woke early, for some reason, at 4:20am Perth time – that was 10:20pm yesterday, in Paris, and the blaze had been ripping into Notre Dame for over 5 hours, and was already reported as being “under control”. Except that the news reports were skinny and lacking detailed information. And often, conflicting.

    If asked what image springs into their minds at the mention of France, I think most people would say “the Eiffel Tower”. For me, it was, is and always will be “Notre Dame”. As a comparatively recent addition to the population within DS, I have been visiting it, loving it, admiring it, attending services in it, quite unashamedly photographing it from all over, for the past 45 years – ever since my first visit to Paris, in 1974. In some ways it has served as the pinnacle of French catholicism through most of the past millenium. In other ways, it has served to symbolise Paris, France and a population that I hold dear.

    Like Dallas, I shan’t be around long enough to see it rebuilt. Like Philippe, I shan’t be around long enough to see the view from the top of one of the towers. Sorry – can’t keep this up – the tears have started again . . . .

    • pascaljappy says:

      Dear Jean-Pierre, I hope you can take solace in knowing it will be rebuilt. In the mean time, the rest of Paris is still there for you to enjoy whenever you come to visit.

      What drives me nuts is that already conservation specialists are pointing their fingers at low budgets and laxist conditions of the renovation that had started only a few days before. What a surprise … And if you think the Eiffel Tower has been saved, look at this self-inflicted catastrophy I discovered last week :



      Walls of glass now surround the base with blokes carrying machine guns everywhere. The grand old lady has been defiled and someone has managed to turn this symbol of love and liberty into a prison (and an expensive one to get into). With friends like that, who needs enemies ?

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Yesterday was emotionally devastating for France and for all who love France, as I do. Fortunately, Notre Dame cathedral will live on in the hearts and memories of all who have ever marveled at her history and stunning beauty – that’s all we’ll have to hold onto while we wait for her resurrection to begin. It’s a miracle that the iconic rose window survived the conflagration, we should take that as a hopeful sign for her future.
    Je suis Parisienne

  • Brian says:

    Will not add to the many words morning the damage.

    Just a comment though that some ‘Destination’ Sites are meant to be just that and to avoid the human element throngs around them is in my opinion denying one of the major purposes.

    Maybe for some places a bit to secular these days but it is what it is.

  • Sean says:

    Not withstanding the mind numbing and stressful impact of what has happened to the Notre Dame Cathedral; the following is an interesting discourse on whether to repair or preserve, post the 2019 destructive fire of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

    Should Notre Dame cathedral be repaired or preserved in its damaged state?


    Kind regards

    • Many people will have many diferent ideas of what should and shouldn’t be done time will tell. Personally I would love to see it restored to its former glory.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Many people have “opinions”, Dallas. But “opinions” are incapable of being EITHER “right” OR “wrong” – they just coincide or differ. And when they differ, they never achieve anything except friction and enmity.
        I am more concerned about the cathedral. Every time those images of the flames and the wreckage float back into my mind, I start crying, all over again.
        The article Sean has referred us to says everything I could add, everything I could wish to read or hear. Particularly this section of it:

        Restore or preserve?
        Conservation philosophy provides different answers to this depending on where we look.
        The great French architect and architectural theorist, Eugene Emmanuelle Viollet-le-duc, the man most responsible for Notre Dame as we know it, would almost certainly say we should restore and rebuild.
        Viollet led a controversial restoration in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. He repaired and re-establish the building as a more coherent Gothic statement.
        As part of that project Viollet also changed the form of the famous flying buttresses along the nave. Most controversially perhaps he removed 13th century work in order to present an elevation more like what the original may have looked like.
        Rather than protect the historic fabric that was there, he chose to remake what was probably there at the very beginning.
        Viollet famously noted that “to restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time”.
        Were he alive today, he would recommend, I think, that Notre Dame be rebuilt using the best available knowledge of the building and the most advanced technology.
        For Viollet, what we call heritage, was a matter of living culture, a tribute to the past sustained and inevitably remade in the present.

        You will see that I have edited out Ruskin’s conflicting “opinion”. Ruskin was English, not French. This is a matter for France to decide.

        BBL The tears are starting again. I’m going to take the dogs for a walk. :'(

        • philberphoto says:

          Pete, Viollet-le-Duc, as you know, is a controversial figure. He believed in “improving” everything he restored, and not everyone agrees with his additions being improvements. Do you know that he was nuttier than a fruitcake? Every building he took care of was adorned with a face, either in a statue, bas-relief or haut-relief, that was that of Viollet-le-Duc himself! There is only one exception: Notre-Dame. Where he added 12 apostles at the foot of the spire, walking down towards the North, East, South and West. And all 12 share a common face. You guessed it: Viollet-le-Duc’s, no less! Those 12 statues were brought down for restoration days before the fire…

      • philberphoto says:

        Dallas, the spire that fell was far from original. It was an addition by noted architect/restorer/improver Viollet-le-Duc in the scond half of the XIXth century. Interestingly, no-one yet has mentioned the fact that, without this “improvement”, the roof might have been under less weight/stress and might have suffered less damage…
        The Louvre is a succession of additions, as is Versailles. It shows that not all modifications/additions are bad and to be shunned out of principle. But not all of them are improvements, either…

    • Sean says:

      As an informative:

      Notre Dame repairs see Paris split over whether to redesign or replicate cathedral spire and ceiling

      A billion-dollar budget, a once-in-a-generation design competition and an ancient building in need of urgent repairs. The Notre Dame rebuild sounds like a project Kevin McCloud could only dream of.


  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    A sad morning of awakening after a day of destruction.

    Hopefully the first day of the beginning of resurrection of Notre-Dame-de-Paris in faith, hope and love.

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