Build it and they will Come

Following the outpouring of grief over the Notre-Dame fire, our correspondent wonders why some buildings become part of the emotional fabric of our lives

By Harry Mount

July 25 2019

Certain buildings really tug at the heartstrings. And Notre-Dame is one of them.

I first heard the news of the fire on a self-indulgent press trip in Jamaica, and all four hardened hacks on the jolly were stunned into silence for an hour.

It was a feeling shared by the world, and by those French billionaires, castigated – wrongly – by the gilets jaunes for instantly pledging hundreds of millions of euros to restore the cathedral.

Why do some buildings tear our emotions apart when they are damaged or destroyed? The deep tragedy of September 11 was the thousands of innocents killed; the minimalist Twin Towers themselves stirred few emotions, except for those who visited the World Trade Center and had a nice time there – or for those New Yorkers who had the towers as the backdrop to their lives.

At Notre-Dame – even though, thank heavens, no one died – the feeling of bereavement was for a building that combined religion, beauty and history in overwhelming measure.

There are only a handful of buildings in the world that can evoke that feeling – and summon it internationally. St Paul’s Cathedral and its miraculous survival during the Second World War were crucial to the nation’s morale. The destruction of St Paul’s then – or now – would deliver the same hammer blow to the pit of the stomach as the Notre-Dame fire. But would a St Paul’s disaster have that stomach-churning effect beyond British shores in the way that Notre-Dame tolled a mourning bell across the world?

I’m not so sure.

Why do some buildings tear our emotions apart when they are damaged or destroyed?
Why do some buildings tear our emotions apart when they are damaged or destroyed?

The fire at Windsor Castle had that international effect in 1992 – the Queen’s “annus horribilis”. (And there’s a cheering note for Notre-Dame – Windsor Castle has been rebuilt as good as new.)

For a building’s loss to have such a stirring effect on the mind, its importance must be repeatedly emphasised while it is standing – ideally in your childhood and youth. Images of Windsor Castle, and royal palaces generally, are constantly presented to us when we’re young; and their shadow stays in our minds for ever. The same is true of Notre-Dame. Victor Hugo’s novel of 1831, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, lodged the cathedral in French hearts from that moment onwards.

The 1939 film version with Charles Laughton has locked it in hearts across the world ever since. But, as people said at the time of the fire, Notre-Dame was also where you went when you were young – with your parents or your first girlfriend.

I did both: Once as a shy 15-year-old with my parents; again as a hungover, exhausted 43-year-old with a girlfriend. In neither case was I in particularly receptive mode. But both visits are forged on my mind for ever because I’ve seen Notre-Dame “in the flesh”. Even if I didn’t realise it at the time, those two visits stamped themselves somewhere deep in my heart.

Buildings, once lost, can’t have the same effect on those born after their destruction. Few people under 60 mourn the great tragedy of the dozens of Christopher Wren churches in the City of London destroyed by the Blitz and the 1960s planning thugs.

The 1961 demolition of Euston Arch – the splendid Doric entry to Euston Station – was the last great loss of a crucial national building. There’s a suggestion it might be rebuilt alongside the new HS2 station at Euston.
That would be a good thing, but it will never be the same as retaining the original. Buildings do have a soul; once demolished, they can never recapture it fully, however well they are rebuilt.

Some come close, though, as long as enough of the original stones survive – like the great 18th century church in Dresden, the Frauenkirche, destroyed by Allied bombing in 1945. Today, it looks immaculate, its power increased by the blackened original stones, studded, as dark reminders of the bombing, among the creamy, golden, new stones.

Notre-Dame lingers in the mind and the soul, not just because so many of us have been there, but because there is some indefinable immanence to the building.
Perhaps what you might call a religious feeling. I’m an agnostic Anglican, but, still, I felt something stir deeply within me at the torching of an ancient Catholic cathedral. One can feel religious without being religious, as I was once persuaded by a trainee monk. “Do you feel different in religious buildings than secular buildings?” he asked me. “Yes,” I said, “I adore great country houses but I feel different inside a church.” “Then you’re religious.” “No. I’m an agnostic.” “How would you describe that feeling you feel inside a church?” “Sombre. Quiet. Respectful. Reverent.” “Religious, then,” he said.

It was a “Gotcha!” moment. He was right. And when that peculiar religious feeling for a building is attacked by its destruction, one experiences a terrible heartbreak at the sacrilege.
Philip Larkin, an atheist, best captured the essence of church in his sublime poem from 1955,
“Church Going”:

A serious house on serious earth it is
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet
Are recognised and robed as destinies
And that much never can be obsolete
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious.

In our increasingly frivolous, atheist, world, Notre-Dame was a symbol of the serious religion that dominated our ancestors’ lives. Some distant, muffled bell echoes within us, chiming faintly, whispering that our ancestors’ faith might not have been entirely misguided, not least when they channelled it into one of the most sublime buildings on the planet.