SINGAPORE: When the 850-year old Gothic cathedral Notre-Dame of Paris caught fire on Monday (Apr 16), the world watched in horror.
Flames took hold of its oak roof and engulfed the spire, weakening it to the point of collapse.
Crowds in Paris who gathered to witness the conflagration watched in silence. The politicians and experts, when asked what they thought, could only begin by saying they had “no words”.
The widespread outpouring of grief and horror on social media confirmed that the destruction of this building was deeply and widely affecting, well beyond the confines of Paris or France.
How is it that the fate of a building in Paris can mean so much to so many?
Media reports have called Notre-Dame an “icon” and a “landmark”, as if this explains everything. We are very used to hearing about iconic architecture nowadays.
The term immediately brings to mind those instantly-arriving, starchitect-designed buildings commissioned to give a city a unique identity, in the hope of drawing in tourists or investments.
Asia has its share. There is Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands and Beijing’s CCTV Tower - two of the better known.
One of the world’s earliest versions of this kind of instant icon was Paris’s Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889 as the entrance to a new kind of global event, the World’s Fair. It fast became a universal symbol of Paris.
There is rarely a tourist to Paris who does not seek the Tower out. They go there looking not for a Parisian experience, for the place is nothing but a sea of tourists. They go to get the photograph that says “I was here”.
This is the trouble with the instant icons of today. They often arrive into a local context unannounced, with functions that face outwards to others.
Locals can find it hard to relate to them, difficult to know what to do in them, unable to afford what they offer, even challenged as to how to get into to them.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ICON
A building like Notre-Dame is an entirely different kind of icon. Although it too, was built to make a visual statement, communicate meaning and attract attention – it was all in the name of religion.
From its inception in 1160, Notre-Dame attracted the design and craft expertise needed to make it one of the finest examples of Gothic cathedral architecture in the world. The Gothic style laid down in Notre-Dame has rippled across time to new locations and other types of buildings.
Many cities in Asia, especially those with European colonial pasts, host buildings that are distant replicas of Notre-Dame’s Gothic style.
But the power of Notre-Dame to affect us goes beyond any intrinsic architectural worth.
In fact, it is hard to talk about intrinsic worth with a building like Notre-Dame. It was built over hundreds of years, with additions and renovations being done by a sequence of architects, each interpreting the Gothic style anew.
There is no single “original” Notre-Dame. For example, a spire was not in the beginning envisaged for the building.
Nor was the one we witnessed collapsing the original one. It was a restoration spire designed by Viollet-le-Duc in 1857, in the fashion of the 13th century spire that had long ago collapsed.
This is also a building that, across its 850 years, has accrued a great variety of meanings, not always at one with each other and some outrightly antagonistic to the building.
Between the 16th century and the French Revolution, Notre-Dame was very poorly maintained. Revolutionaries during the barricading of Paris attacked the Cathedral routinely, deliberately damaging sculptures and other parts of the building.
By 1841 a committee had to be established to oversee the Cathedral’s restoration. Among other forces, it was Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that galvanised public interest in the building’s dilapidated state and the need to restore it.
THE NOTRE-DAME WE MOURNED
It is this restored Notre-Dame we mourned on Monday. It is a building that has accrued its iconic status over time and in the most heterogenous, and geographically dispersed ways.
It has enjoyed repeated architectural attention, as well as the passionate violations of Revolution. It has served both the everyday and symbolic needs of religious devotees, from neighbourhood to nation.
It has had its architectural form stylised and canonised by the profession, then exported across time and space. It has entered into the popular imagination through Hollywood and Disney interpretations of Victor Hugo’s novel.
And it has, like many historic buildings in Europe, endured the relentless attention of mass tourism.
Some 13 million visitors go to Notre-Dame every year, making it the city’s most visited monument, in excess of the Eiffel Tower.
Even the most distracted of tourists to Notre-Dame will take something of it into their imagined geography of who they are, by snapping a photo or buying a souvenir, or simply ticking it off their list of destinations.
Others, may be genuinely moved by their visit, for a historic place like Notre-Dame allows visitors to feel at home in another time.
HISTORICAL MONUMENTS THAT SUFFERED DAMAGE
There are many historical monuments in the world that have suffered damage over recent years, some through accidental fires, others as a result of armed conflict.
I think of the Buddhas of Bamiyan destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, but there are more.
Many of these were as deserving of our global grief as Notre-Dame. They were denied that sympathy not because they were unworthy, but because they were not objects of mass consumption and global mediation.
In other words, they were monuments but not icons.
THE NOTRE-DAME THE WORLD NEEDS
In Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the archdeacon of Notre-Dame worries about the arrival of the printing press.
The print media promises to carry the word of God faster and further than any inscriptions or engravings that might have been made in the walls of the Cathedral building.
Yet he perceives this as a threat to religious authority, and particularly the authority of the religious building. Looking from the book to the Cathedral he laments: “Alas … this will kill that”.
It may well be that the religious iconography of Notre-Dame-the-building has been hollowed out and now communicates its messages only to a minority of devotees. In its place has risen the largely secular and popular icon that is the world’s Notre-Dame.
The global media attention given to the tragic fire of Notre-Dame further fuels that popularity.
Let us hope that our collective grief and generous donations will restore to the world the Notre-Dame it needs.
Jane M Jacobs is Professor of Social Sciences (Urban Studies) at Yale-NUS College.