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As Notre-Dame burned, the power of buildings to touch us was manifest

Emily Booth
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Buildings that have always been with us are a vital connection to our past and to our shared future, says Emily Booth

The shock of Notre-Dame burning was that an 850-year-old place of sanctuary was so vulnerable. Ancient buildings such as cathedrals seem to have always been with us: they reach so far beyond the span of a human life and are a vital connection to our past and to our shared future. Their destruction leaves us feeling bereft and threatened; and seems to signify something more: the general shoddy state of the world perhaps, and of the environment, and of politics, and of us. How could we let this happen on our watch?

We might consider: how can there be such a global outpouring of grief for a building? Why is there such a determination and drive to rebuild? Perhaps it is because places like Notre-Dame hold our hopes. They were built for future generations. They make us feel better.

Everyone has their incomparable place, and for a few hours in the minds of an entire nation and beyond, that place was Notre-Dame  

Selfishly, after that spire toppled, my thoughts turned to my own local cathedral, St Albans Abbey. What if that burnt down? How would I feel? With nothing like the purity of form of Notre-Dame (St Albans is a hotch-potch of styles, with an ugly Victorian front and a glorious Norman tower and much else in between) it is so very beautiful to me. I often pop into the abbey to sit for a moment, to listen to evensong; or I’ll take a detour to pass by those looming flint walls. William Whitfield, who passed away in March, designed the chapter house. He added his mark to those stones; others will, too.

Everyone has their incomparable place, and for a few hours in the minds of an entire nation and beyond, that place was Notre-Dame. The power of architecture to calm, and to lift the spirits, and to help heal, should not be underestimated. In the rush for revenue and profit, we can miss the strength in spaces. That contemplative power can arise in the most unlikely places. Dow Jones’ new Maggie’s Centre in Cardiff – in a car park, of all places – has a ‘cwtch’: Welsh for both a ‘cubbyhole’ and a ‘cuddle’. In it there’s a comfortable chair, and a couch to rest on, and a soaring blue ceiling and a window looking out on to green. In that space, healing can happen. Without it, something would be lost in that place of healing and solace. 

Notre dame

Notre dame

Source: The public domain review 

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Good words Emily about the archetypal European Cathedral, very regular compared to say Chartres. Those masons were the rocket scientists of their day. And a common Catholic culture that we departed from to satisfy Henry VIII’s desire for a new wife and male hier. The first Brexit, with remainer Mary and victorious Elizabeth, Anne and the ultimate Victoria. That worked out well?!

    And to Maggies perform a very consolatory role in this Cancer world. The vital feature is the big table, where people come and go, talking of Michaelangelo, and perhaps David Hockney? The resident accountants are great too, as cancer is a financial burden too, especially in this new world of online scams and rogues. The Maggies at Charing Cross Hospital by Richard and team is wonderful. All light, colour, and modern architecture.

    So let’s rebuild Notre Dame with a modern crossing a la Gaudi, where the Sagrada has a lift to the upper parts, and is flooded with light and colour. A 21st century Cathedral?

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