Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Lessons from The Notre Dame fire

As our thoughts turn from yesterday's tragic fire at Notre Dame to today's soccer matches, then to how much snow has melted around here, followed by a consideration of lunch, then on to my need for a Kleenex, and finally to some ruminations on what sort of coat I should wear on my walk up river to work, it behooves us to stop. It behooves us to take stock. It behooves us to consider what we have learned.

Mostly I just like saying "behooves".

Things looked bad there with the legendary Notre Dame Cathedral burning wildly in the heart of Paris while the sun set and our president offered helpful firefighting tips. But a new day dawns. There are still multiple live feeds of the disaster, but instead of showing one of the great buildings of the human endeavor engulfed in flames, we can instead watch a bunch of construction guys on a crane by a stone statue in the sky that did not fall. 

And that's just the thing. While the damage is devastating, and the fire was huge, the main building seems to be intact. Stone man, stone. Plus construction workers! I always so admire standing around.

In another hour I'm off to work at my own local cultural institution, the library. And like The Notre Dame Cathedral it is a very flammable place. Ideally we would convert all those flammable books to stone tablets, but at some point we library workers have to ask "Will we really need these Jodi Picoult books for more than 800 years?"

And then we'll have to stand around for awhile.


  1. I am reminded of a story I heard some time ago, perhaps apocryphal but I like it anyway. One of the older buildings in England, oh, about 400 years, I think, was found to have dry rot in its timbers. HUGE timbers. How on earth would they replace such big timbers? Someone asked the Royal Forester what they could do, and he led them to a grove of old, large trees. They had been planted 400 years before, at the time the building was constructed, because someone had the foresight to realize they would eventually be needed.

    And I'm reminded of a book I've read a couple of times, How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand, 1994. "Buildings have often been studies whole in space, but never before have they been studied whole in time. How Buildings Learn is a masterful new synthesis that proposes that buildings adapt best when constantly refined and reshaped by their occupants, and that architects can mature from being artists of space to becoming artists of time.
    From the connected farmhouses of New England to I.M. Pei's Media Lab, from "satisficing" to "form follows funding," from the evolution of bungalows to the invention of Santa Fe Style, from Low Road military surplus buildings to a High Road English classic like Chatsworth--this is a far-ranging survey of unexplored essential territory.

    More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time--if they're allowed to. How Buildings Learn shows how to work with time rather than against it."

    I know I have a copy around here somewhere, I just saw it the other day. Now I want it!

    1. That's an appealing story about the old trees, and that book sounds interesting too. I read today that the design of Notre Dame was kind of about fireproofing, and it worked- this being a delayed proof of concept. For myself I hope they go ahead and take some chances aesthetically on the repairs, but the French seem pretty good at that- that I. M. Pei thing at the Louvre is just great.


If you were wondering, yes, you should comment. Not only does it remind me that I must write in intelligible English because someone is actually reading what I write, but it is also a pleasure for me since I am interested in anything you have to say.

I respond to pretty much every comment. It's like a free personalized blog post!

One last detail: If you are commenting on a post more than two weeks old I have to go in and approve it. It's sort of a spam protection device. Also, rarely, a comment will go to spam on its own. Give either of those a day or two and your comment will show up on the blog.