Why the Notre Dame Fire Is a Loss of Collective Memory

An art historian and theorist explains how places become invested with cultural meaning and memory, and what happens when we lose them.
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Debris is seen inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 16th, 2019, a day after a fire that devastated the building in the center of the French capital.

Debris is seen inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 16th, 2019, a day after a fire that devastated the building in the center of the French capital.

On Monday evening in France, the spire that graced the Parisian skyline for some 800 years collapsed into the burning wreckage of the Notre Dame Cathedral. People across the world have viewed video of the catastrophic fire, which French officials are treating as an accident. Although the structure still stands, the damage to the roof will take five years to rebuild, President Emmanuel Macron told the New York Times. The medieval cathedral drew millions of tourists a year, housed precious relics, and gave life to iconic Disney ballads.

On social media, there was an immediate outpouring of horror and grief. Some people posted personal stories of their summer vacations to Paris; some questioned why viewers expended so much energy over this one Euro-centric Catholic icon, compared to other recent tragedies, such as the leveling of mosques in China, or the burning of three historically black churches in Louisiana, for which the suspect has been charged with a hate crime.

To understand these reactions, Pacific Standard spoke with Shelley Hornstein, a professor of architectural history and theory at York University in Toronto, and the author of Losing Site: Architecture, Memory and Place.

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Why are we so invested in historically or culturally important buildings like this one?

The way in which people connect with one another is often through the stories that link them, related to the history of their own city. And particularly in Paris, where there's such a rich history—not to say that any other city doesn't have a rich history, but certainly, the stories of the Notre Dame Cathedral, all of that brings an investment into the meaning of that place.

The site itself has, of course, a Catholic history. But I really believe that, in addition to all of that, perhaps even more so, the site is invested with meaning because of its monumentality, its scale, its [location] on the site of a Roman temple. Everything has driven up the ante so greatly that there's a meaning of that place that goes well beyond the whole notion of religion. That building holds a huge amount of memory for everybody—tourists, citizens of the place, citizens of France, generally, who don't even live in Paris—to have a connection to that place that in essence reads "France."

From a social standpoint, what does the loss of that place mean for the public, after it's been built up with these kinds of stories?

When a place is no more—or, as we've seen, chunks of that physical site have been destroyed—it becomes a kind of anthropomorphic feeling, as though we lost that part of ourselves: a loss of body parts, to put it bluntly. It's almost as though we're losing part of who we are, if we see ourselves as the French people, primarily. Then, move from that to all the people of the world who have seen that place or know of that place through images or through stories. A loss of something physical relates to how we understand the world.

That connection is really an eternal question: What is it that that physical object does to us that is so powerful? It's much more elaborate when something is destroyed. We do feel a sense of loss, a loss for the physical thing, but more importantly a loss of the symbol that it represents and the part of ourselves in which our memories have been invested. That thing no longer exists. And so, where are our memories?

When you talk about memory, do you mean the idea of collective memory, studied in social psychology?

Yes, that's exactly what's going on here, when you saw images of people standing by the Seine River, overlooking the site, or taking Instagram shots or video of what was actually taking place. All of that is part of the collective notion of how we share a feeling about a place. Even the stories that are told about this place, or the few in history books, are aggrandized by the collective nature of how we view memory.

Some people have drawn parallels to 9/11, which is of course a very different circumstance—terrorism, not an accidental fire—that involved the loss of a monument captured on film, later linked to mass trauma in the United States. Do you see any parallels to the way people are being affected by the video of this fire?

When we see the buildings in the 9/11 attack destroyed before our eyes, it is incomprehensible—visually, architecturally, and structurally. Today, we assume that everything built in our cities is solid, and that nothing changes. But in fact, it can change in a second. Architecture is not solid. Yes, we've seen earthquakes destroy the Parthenon, for example, so we know that this can happen, and that architecture can essentially fall apart. Thousands and thousands of buildings have been destroyed by fire over centuries. But when we see our built environment around us every day, we never really consider these things. So to see the towers just fall, to see the spire disappear into embers, is incomprehensible.

What would you say to someone who observes this event and says, "it's just a building"?

We invest sites with memory, so it's impossible to disturb that memory from the actual physical site. They come together in some sort of broth that's happening in the building, that we attach to the building, and that the building triggers for us at the same time. It's kind of a reciprocal arrangement. It's never just a building.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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