“We Shape Our Buildings. . .”

Like Paul I’m overwhelmed by the sight of Notre Dame in flames. I don’t know how many times I have visited, but one of my favorite things to do in Paris is to linger outside the Shakespeare & Company bookstore right across the Seine and gaze at the cathedral especially in the changing afternoon and early evening light, much as Cezanne and Monet must have done to inspire some of their impressionist studies.

I have sat Sunday Mass at Notre Dame on a few occasions, but my own most vivid memory goes back over 35 years, to one extended European trip when I was becoming something of photography nut. I dragged along to Europe a (then) fancy film camera, multiple lenses, and a tripod so I could shoot my own photos of stained glass windows (especially the rose windows) and other church architecture. I’ve never digitized these, and may try to find them in a box somewhere this weekend when I return from my current road trip. I spent hours sitting in Chartres (which has the most intact medieval stained glass I believe), Notre Dame, and the smaller Sainte Chapelle, located on Ile de la Cite not far from Notre Dame, which has some of the most spectacular stained glass around. (See below.) That was back in my pipe-smoking tweed jacket and beret-wearing graduate school days (perhaps it was the trip when the photo above was taken in London), and sitting around I was sometimes mistaken for a native, as I had tourists come up to me and try to ask me a question in broken French. As my French isn’t even of the broken variety, my very American disclaimers often evoked considerable surprise.

One late September day at Notre Dame I managed to climb the interior stairs to and get out to the highest outside locations in the towers open to the public, where I shot a lot of closeups of gargoyles in black and white, which is the best way to render those pickets against evil spirits. A receding late afternoon rain shower had left a broken cloud cover allowing in beams of light onto the cityscape. I ended up taking more photos of the Parisian panorama that unfolded than the gargoyles, but gargoyles we have in abundance.

Some of our living gargoyles turned up on Twitter yesterday, unable to contain their hatred and contempt for Western Civilization:

Stay classy, liberals. (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure that Roman Catholicism is a majority-minority faith, so that whole “white people” thing is more than merely repulsive—it’s also ignorant.)

For now I’ll leave to others like Rod Dreher to speculate on the theological meaning and significance of this. There is no question that the cathedral will be restored, though I suspect there will be a fair bit of difficulty with this, and not just technical difficulty. No doubt there will be recommendations to install a fire-prevention system in the restored roof, and other “modernizations.” Maybe these will be good ideas, but I wouldn’t count on it. My mind runs back to Churchill’s argument on why England should restore the bombed out House of Commons in 1944 rather than build a more functional “modern” parliamentary chamber. It was this speech where Churchill offered his frequently recalled line, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is never more true than with a cathedral like Notre Dame.

Here’s an extended portion of Churchill’s speech:

I beg to move, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon plans for the rebuilding of the House of Commons and upon such alterations as may be considered desirable while preserving all its essential features. On the night of 10th May, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. I believe that will be the opinion of the great majority of its Members. It is certainly the opinion of His Majesty’s Government and we propose to support this resolution to the best of our ability.

There are two main characteristics of the House of Commons which will command the approval and the support of reflective and experienced Members. They will, I have no doubt, sound odd to foreign ears. The first is that its shape should be oblong and not semi-circular. Here is a very potent factor in our political life. The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. I have seen many earnest and ardent Parliaments destroyed by the group system. The party system is much favoured by the oblong form of Chamber. It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible gradations from Left to Right but the act of crossing the Floor is one which requires serious consideration. I am well informed on this matter, for I have accomplished that difficult process, not only once but twice. Logic is a poor guide compared with custom. Logic which has created in so many countries semi-circular assemblies which have buildings which give to every Member, not only a seat to sit in but often a desk to write at, with a lid to bang, has proved fatal to Parliamentary Government as we know it here in its home and in the land of its birth. . .

The First Commissioner of Works has submitted a scheme which would enable the old House of Commons to be reconstructed with certain desirable improvements-and modernisations affecting the ventilation, lavatories, accommodation for the Press, the ladies’ gallery and other prominent features. This scheme would take only 18 months, but it would be prudent—and those concerned with building houses would, I think, feel that it would be prudent—to count on double that period, because everything must be fitted in with war needs and also because it is the habit of architects and builders usually to be more sanguine when putting forward their plans than is subsequently found to be justified by the actual facts. The last House of Commons, the one which was set up after the fire in 1834, was promised in six years and actually took 27 years. . .

I think if the authorities can determine that the walls and stone ceiling of Notre Dame are not in imminent danger of collapse, Notre Dame should celebrate Sunday mass this week as usual.

Sainte Chapelle

P.S. “Some architects did something. . .”

JOHN adds: Not sure what colonies France had in the 12th century, either, but history was never the strong suit of leftists.

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