Many of us watching the inferno at Notre Dame de Paris felt that 9/11 dread. This week, as nearly 18 years ago, the news channels kept looping the same horrific video of towers collapsing. At the end, the medieval cathedral remained mostly standing while the twin towers at New York’s World Trade Center vanished into a pile of smoking rubble. The outcomes may have been different, but both calamities showed that what we think most permanent may not be.
In human terms, the calamity on Sept. 11, 2001, was of an entirely different scale. Thousands died. The conflagration in Paris miraculously cost no lives.
As an architectural disaster, however, there’s no comparison. Notre Dame is a Gothic masterpiece embodying the spiritual. The twin towers, bland buildings famous mainly for being tall, were dedicated to commerce.
The late historian Lewis Mumford denounced the World Trade Center as an “example of the purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.”
That terrorists had unleashed the massacre at the twin towers made the tragedy especially gruesome. Parisians are relieved that the fire at Notre Dame appears to have accidentally started – but the 2015 terror attack was often mentioned during the fire as a related reason for insecurity. The scars from terrorism and devastation of an iconic structure make Paris and New York sisters in pain.
Medieval cathedrals are no strangers to destruction. Over the centuries, fire and humans have caused enormous damage at cathedrals throughout Europe, and they have been rebuilt. French President Emmanuel Macron said Notre Dame will be brought back as well – though his five-year timetable sounds optimistic.
It took almost 200 years to build the original Notre Dame. Reconstruction on a work dating back to the 12th century would be quite a challenge.
Where the twin towers stood, a 104-story replacement skyscraper has risen. The Freedom Tower took only eight years to build.
Movies and TV offer insight into how a world-famous structure characterizes its city. Notre Dame represents the enduring soul of France. A very good French TV series called “Chef” flashes scenes of Notre Dame, seemingly in every episode. The chef is a Parisian perfectionist trying to defend traditional French cooking against waves of culinary fads.
The catastrophic loss of life at the World Trade Center transformed pictures of the towers into sacred imagery. Before 9/11, movies such as “Wall Street” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities” portrayed the twin towers as cauldrons of corporate greed. After 9/11, “The Simpsons” and other shows deleted episodes showing them out of respect for the fallen.
The post-9/11 TV series “Blue Bloods” frequently uses New York’s ornate century-old bridges as backdrops for the Reagans. They seem fit for a multigenerational Irish American family largely employed in law enforcement.
Older structures, be they homely or majestic, also serve as warming reminders of place. About 14 years ago, wealthy residents of Santa Monica Canyon stopped the demolition of a beaten-up gas station dating back to 1924. A tiny business with three vintage pumps, the Canyon Service Station was no cathedral, but the millionaires who passed it every day loved it for always being there.
“On a cold, rainy night, when you’re driving up the canyon and you see the glow of the gas pumps,” one neighbor said poetically, “it literally welcomes you home with open arms. It’s like a lighthouse.”
That is exactly what lighthouses do for sailors coming into harbor. Now imagine the trauma of losing a cathedral that has anchored your town for almost 700 years. Parisians were spared the worst this week, but like New Yorkers, they’ve seen that the unthinkable is possible.
Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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