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The Notre Dame fire: How precious should we be about things we’ve made?

Photo: Thierry Mallet, AP

The great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright called architecture ‘the mother art… without an architecture of our own, we have no soul of our own civilization’. As humans we naturally feel a connection with things we have built – not just personally, but collectively. We even travel around the world to marvel at the greatest achievements of our species, from pyramids and castles, to temples and skyscrapers – seeing these great structures as testaments to our collective ability and ambition, imbuing their walls and towers with our own memories, our own hopes, our own ownership.

It is something marvellous that buildings can hold multitudes of our individually precious moments, or that one architectural achievement can be called ‘mine’ or ‘ours’ by so many through the decades and centuries. Like all good artists and designers, those who make our greatest skylines and landmarks don’t think merely functionally, but create vessels for our wildest imaginations and our most personal experiences.

A world in two minds

Yet the world seems split in its attitude towards architectural art – and I think one recent event brought this out in stark relief. Watching the spires of Notre Dame engulfed in deep orange flame, as smoke poured into the twilight Parisian skies, it was unsurprising to see the international outpouring of grief. The personal connection to its presence could be seen just scrolling through our own social media feed – people we knew shared their heartbreak at the loss (or even partial loss) of such an undeniably beautiful, historic, creatively artistic building: memories of first kisses, of treasured trips, of meeting old and new friends under the shadows of its bell towers. Its place in the cultural canon of French literature – or maybe better yet, in Disney films – as well as its place in the heart of an island in the heart of a river in the heart of the city, means we understand what it means to Parisians, and admirers from further afield, and join with the sadness in its loss.

Then, almost as soon as the news had broken, we saw something like a backlash. Were bricks and mortar and timber worth having songs of worship and prayer sung over them? There were justifiable complaints about grieving a casualty-less accident in a Western, city-centre landmark as opposed to the entirely avoidable loss of life in an inferno in a West London suburb, or even the countless treasures and buildings raised to the ground in Mosul or Palmyra as ISIS destroyed lives and cities. As the rebuild project for Notre Dame raised unbelievable sums of money in mere days, the inevitable questions followed about where those funds might be better used.

What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

Considering the disparity of privilege, opportunity, and diversity between Parisian arrondissements, and in wider France, they’re crucial questions to ask; and they raise alarming, broader issues about the world’s rich – Carl Kinsella’s honest and challenging response on this is worth reading in full. But beneath the questions of wealth, there’s a different tension that artists will recognise: what kind of luxury is art, anyway? What kind of privilege is it to invest our time and our money in objects and structures that may have some limited functional use, but are more often pursuits of a more intangible, dare I say spiritual, purpose?

The split in the world’s opinion says that either we should move mountains and millions to ensure that the best of our artistic endeavours or architectural wonders remain as pristine as possible for generations to come, or instead they should be treated as the bonus at the end of the list once we have sufficiently and rightfully ensured mouths are fed and families given shelter.

As artists, as much as we value art, we can surely see the argument from both sides. Most of us will have felt the pang of guilt at some point when sitting next to doctors, nurses and fire fighters, trying to describe what our next album sounds like after their stories of lives saved and hearts kept beating. How do we constantly and consistently decide to press on and to know for sure the value of what we do, when what surrounds us are situations that often make what we do or what we have feel like at best small drops in the ocean, or at worst frivolous pursuits?

Does what we build matter to God?

Like so many of these questions, the answer that we can find in the Bible may not be one extreme reaction or another, but something more delicate in the middle. As a starting place, we know that God himself time and time again plans to have a building or a structure that is to be used by His people to glory Him both in its appearance and in its function. Through the tabernacle and the temple and then finally in the new city described in Revelation, we know God recognises the need for a place and the sense of home that provides, but also that God loves good interior design and excellent architectural planning and desires the skill of all the best craftspeople to make it happen.

I think that God understands our very human connection to places too, that goes beyond just spaces built for or consecrated to Him; taking care to put us in specific places at specific times that He knows will be to our good. We even know that the people of God wept when they remembered the home they had and the buildings that they thought were unshakeable that now laid in rubble and ashes – and in fact, Jews still mourn the temple on a specific day now, thousands of years after its destruction.

A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; maybe what is more beautiful still are the meetings and memories that were shared about the place.

Yet God also seems to have a forward thinking nature about these things, not wanting us to sit in mourning or become too precious about the way things were. The physical spaces and places are certainly important to Him, but perhaps more important is what they represent or what they give the opportunity to do. A church like Notre Dame is inherently beautiful; its flying buttresses and stained glass are undoubtedly works of immeasurable skill; but maybe what is more beautiful still are the aforementioned meetings and memories that were shared about the place over the last week. Each time a choir lifted their voices in worship, or each time the familiarity of home’s landmarks made someone feel more settled, or each time it became the focal point for friends or lovers or families or fellowships to meet and share.

Hold on to artistry, hold loosely to artwork

In the Bible, each time God’s own house is taken down, or destroyed, or goes up in flames, or even goes up on a cross, it is rebuilt in a way more glorious that the last and more unexpected. Jesus himself seemed to have a pretty clear idea on what would be left of the temple, and God repeatedly brings down structures that are put up out of either self-ambition or become too precious.

From tent, to temple, to Christ to new Creation, God constantly remakes anew rather than rebuilds the old, and with each remaking the people that are invited in gets wider and wider and the focus becomes more on intimacy and relationship than it does on recapturing any former glories. We get closer to Him, and in doing so get closer and more understanding and more welcoming of each other.

Battersea Arts Centre by Morley Von Sternberg

In 2015, I was privileged enough to have a job in one of my favourite venues – Battersea Arts Centre – when a fire took hold in the roof. Much like Notre Dame, the rest of the structure was saved through the skill and quick response of firefighters. Within hours the community had mobilised; and 24 hours after the fire, BAC was continuing its normal programme through the assistance and help of those who had come to see it as ‘theirs’. For years the building had been at the centre of community life, as well as having run groups for families, young people, those in need, those without money, and those who wanted to work in the arts but didn’t know how. The community decided in those hours after the fire that this was too much to lose, and sprang into action, paving the way for a rebuild project that was completed earlier this year.

Yet to walk through the building now you will find the scars and marks of the fire; scorched walls still blackened and sooty, melted glass and twisted metal, all brought together and held together by a brand new imagining of what the space and the building could be. They didn’t seek to rebuild as was; they sought to think what they needed now, how best to serve their community. For future generations, seeing each mark of the fire upon the Great Hall tells a story of the passion and importance it had for a group who decided not to give up on it. Even other great cathedrals have shown a precedent for creating a new space out of adversity: Coventry’s integration of its war-torn edifices is a living story of history, for example, or Barcelona’s decision to hand parts of its sublime Sagrada Familia over to new artists and architects – meaning it is an amalgamation of styles and perspectives that remains unfinished almost a century after breaking ground.

So can we hold on to the artistry, but hold loosely to the artwork? Can we prioritise what our work is there to do, and not what it means to us – and in doing so, widen up the doorway to invite in different communities and groups who we usually wouldn’t commune with? Can we be less precious about the physical thing itself (how it is experienced, how it is perceived, how it comes across, or even if it gets destroyed) and instead find joy in if it points anyone to the true, noble, right, pure, lovely, excellent, praiseworthy things of the world? If so, then I think our art is a discipline worth defending and pursuing even in the most pressing times.