Notre Dame Cathedral burned as I finished the Fire Protection & Design Special Section for this month’s magazine, a tragic coincidence.
The relevance and timing can’t be lost, and it underscores the importance of the topics covered between Pages 13-28 in this edition.
For those of us lucky enough to have visited Paris, it was hard not to think of our own fond memories shared with family and friends – looking in awe at the towers, spire, graceful flying buttresses and stone carvings. The cathedral inspires in the way few creations do. It stands in testimony to our incredible capacity for beauty. We admire the building and know that no single person could have built it alone. For Catholics and Parisians, it has meaning beyond my own architectural admiration. When a beloved piece of art is damaged or destroyed, we mourn our memories attached to it, and the future opportunities for ourselves and others to experience joy.
The fire also quickly made apparent how much we take for granted. It was there before, we think, it will be there forever. I’m sure the ancient Egyptians, Mayans and Aztecs gazed upon their temples and pyramids with the same certainty, and now few remain.
Built from 1163 to 1345, Notre Dame Cathedral is older than I can grasp in many ways. For hundreds of years it withstood world wars and revolutions, and yet a suspected electrical fire during a benign renovation project was nearly its undoing. Those years are a tiny blip on Earth’s timeline, and civilization is but the last minute of mankind’s story that was generally “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” to say nothing of the fate of species that preceded us.
About 65 million years ago, the asteroid that many paleontologists believe killed the dinosaurs struck earth. In a few hours, the age of the T-Rex and friends was over, and the age of mammals, which had scurried beneath their feet in fear for millennia, began. The asteroid struck near present-day Mexico at 45,000 miles per hour, creating a crater 18 miles deep, according to a recent story in the New Yorker.
“The energy released was more than that of a billion Hiroshima bombs,” an excerpt from writer Douglas Preston’s article reads. “The initial blowout formed a ‘rooster tail,’ a gigantic jet of molten material, which exited the atmosphere, some of it fanning out over North America.”
The material set fire to everything within 1,000 miles; some of it escaped Earth’s gravitational pull and orbited around the sun, eventually settling on Mars and, likely, the moons of Jupiter. Atmosphere within 1,500 miles of impact became “red hot from the debris storm, triggering gigantic forest fires, and airborne material eventually fell and set fire to the entire Indian subcontinent,” Preston’s article continues.
Dust and soot blocked sunlight from Earth’s surface, stopping photosynthesis, and “extinguishing the phytoplankton in the oceans, and causing the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere to plummet. Earth’s two essential food chains, in the sea and on land, collapsed,” Preston writes.
About 75% of all species went extinct.
Yet here we are.
In an instant, the world was no longer home for dinosaurs. Our planet and lives can change quickly.
Notre Dame Cathedral was saved by firefighters, and a lengthy process of rebuilding lays ahead. Some events are out of human control. But for what we can change or prevent, such as structure fires, the events at Paris’s architectural marvel are a reminder how fleeting even the most permanent institutions and landmarks really are, and how vigilance is required to protect what we hold important.