“Civilisation is just so fragile ... It’s the very soul of Paris, but it’s not just for French people. For all humanity, it’s one of the great monuments to the best of civilisation.”
Barbara Drake Boehm’s voice shook as she tried to explain the importance of Notre-Dame Cathedral to an Associated Press reporter.
There are perhaps not many buildings that would produce such emotions in a museum curator half a world away – in Drake Boehm’s case at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – but that is a measure of its importance as she eloquently described.
Begun in 1163 and completed in 1345, Notre-Dame is a masterpiece of medieval architecture, a building that, for all the advances in materials and building techniques that have enabled the construction of gleaming skyscrapers as tall as mountains, still has the capacity to take our breath away, with an estimated 13 million visitors a year.
The reaction of Parisians to the devastating fire that destroyed the roof and toppled its spire was spontaneous and heartfelt as people took to the streets, many singing hymns as they watched the inferno.
Inside the cathedral, firefighters risked life and limb to save much of the building – crucially including the vaulted stone ceiling and the two iconic bell towers. Photographs showed the altar with its gold cross, the pulpit and even pews below the roof had all survived.
The fire drew comparisons with the devastating blazes that hit Glasgow School of Art in 2014 and then again last year.
Liz Davidson, who is leading the restoration of that Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed building, spoke of how some people had been through ”almost the stages of grief” over the damage that had been caused.
All great art has the capacity to move us, but those rare buildings that manage to achieve the status of greatness are particularly important to us. They are the places where we gather and the beating heart of communities, providing continuity even in times of the greatest crises and hope of a return to more normal times. No wonder tears flowed in Paris – and millions have flowed in pledges of money to fund the restoration.
If there is a bright side of this fire, it is that it teaches us not to take such iconic buildings for granted, to look after them and make every effort to ensure they are preserved for generations to come.