Thoughts & Insights
Can you love a building?
Ever since our species first became sedentary, the creation and construction of stone monuments and purpose-built buildings has formed part of every culture. Many testimonials to human prowess in architecture from antiquity are still standing today and remind us of the astonishing achievements of our ancestors across the whole world – from the pyramids of Egypt and the temples of the Babylonians, Greeks and Romans to the gigantic statues on Easter Island and the ring of standing stones at Stonehenge.
The Roman colonization of Central Europe led to a first period of constructing huge buildings and left as their architectonic legacy a series of three late Romanesque cathedrals along the river Rhine. Later on it was the foundation of cities in the Middle Ages that prompted a new heyday in architecture. The great number of gothic cathedrals erected in the centres of increasingly wealthy cities still remain as monuments of human ingenuity and creativity.
Something that has taken over 200 years to build can be turned by a fire into a heap of smoking rubble within hours. In times of war, over the course of countless centuries, people have continually seen such hideous destruction and are still seeing it today. The Emperor´s Cathedral of Speyer for example has been destroyed and burnt down several times, but each time resurrected in a new way and still exists and stands there in its powerful beauty. And now such a blow has struck the great cathedral of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité in Paris like a bolt from the blue.
People across the whole world could follow the live streaming of the fire and watch as the flames engulfed the roof of the cathedral, moving forward at frightening speed towards the two main towers like a gigantic wave of fire.
Notre Dame engulfed by flames. “A difficult fire, hard to put out” says the fire brigade who with remarkable dedication and at great risk of life managed to get the blaze under control after five hours, avoiding the very worst. During this time they were stretched to their limits – just as were all those many people who doggedly toiled to build this cathedral over the course of 200 years. It is these generations of people, and them alone, that we have to thank, for without them this building would never have existed.
And it is our firefighters we now have to thank for preventing the edifice these builders erected from collapsing to a pile of rubble. Thanks to them the structure of the building has survived so the cathedral can be rebuilt; its main nave is left standing, its two front towers are left standing. This is certainly great news compared to the total destruction of the building which is what I expected when I saw the first photos of the blazing inferno that had engulfed it.
Five hours later came the first photos of the interior. The vault high above was on fire, only more smouldering than burning. Far below stood the cross and it was shining. The windows were shattered but the walls were still standing. These were pictures of hope and relief for me.
This magnificent building has been badly hit and wounded. But it’s still erect. It hasn’t collapsed into a smouldering pile of rubble. Thanks to the people who once built it, it has now survived the hardest ordeal it’s ever had to face and at some point will rise again in new glory. Whether I will be around to see this I don’t know but it’s still a pleasing prospect to me. Because such a building is more than mortar, stones and architecture.
Like all cultural monuments in the entire world, – it’s a symbol of the endeavour of our species to create structures that point to something much bigger than ourselves. In this sense it’s a symbol of what it means to be fully human just as it’s an expression of our own humility. And it’s simply beautiful. Perfectly proportioned, soaringly high and light on the inside, where it´s hosting one of the world’s most magnificent organs. And its beauty on the outside is stunning because its two towers are not the typical kind of pointed gothic tower rising upwards to heaven but rather flat-roofed marvels of straight-lined simplicity. This is why I love all those buildings that have a similar quality wherever in the world they may stand and from whatever kind of culture they come from. This is also why OUBEY loved such buildings too. And this is why the destruction of such buildings and cultural sites breaks my heart as does to see them gradually decay through lack of proper maintenance.
Yet respect for the cultural achievements of our forebears is something we’ve increasingly lost in western cultures over the past one hundred and fifty years. And such a lack of respect goes hand in hand with loss of respect for the cultures of other peoples whom we seem to consider inferior to ourselves, and whom we then enslave, oppress or at the very least despise. We are gradually succumbing to an ever more grossly inflated sense of our own worth and value. We think we’re the best thing that’s ever happened in all the history of evolution. We conquer, rule and travel the world and by doing so we degrade the monuments of stupendous creativity built by our ancestors to mere tourist attractions which we collect like new types of trophies. They are backdrops for selfies posted on the social web to get a maximum number of Likes. We place the cultural achievements of our ancestors on the same level as Disneyland, trendy restaurants and other must-see spots. We consume our Earth as though it were our natural right to do so.
I would like to think that the images of Notre Dame going up in flames make a modest contribution to restoring respect for the achievements of those people who lived long before we did, people who neither became nor will become rich and famous through what they did and what they created. Nameless people who have vanished in the huge vortex of history just as every one of us living today is destined to do. Through what they did and created they have handed something great and precious to other people living in times far beyond their own, something they can enjoy, and from which they can derive mental and spiritual strength and power.
Without love and respect for what our ancestors created with comparatively primitive tools hundreds and thousands of years ago, we shall capsize and smash on the challenges and developments of the future like a boat tossed on a stormy ocean that runs aground on rocks. This is why – and especially given the break-neck speed of development of artificial intelligence – we as a society need a discourse on the historical and ethical foundations and on the global and cosmic implications of what we think and what we do.
Taxiarchos228 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] – via Wikimedia Commons