5 Years Later: Reflections on the Notre-Dame Fire & Reconstruction

5 Years Later: Reflections on the Notre-Dame Fire & Reconstruction
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, April 2024

Five years ago, on Monday April 15th, the Paris Cathedral of Notre-Dame was nearly burnt to the ground by a massive fire that started in its wood-beam filled roof, which was at that time undergoing a renovation. I was a shocked witness to this devastating catastrophe, and wrote an article to share my thoughts a few days later. I am sharing an updated version of that article below, five years later, as we near the reopening of the cathedral this December. 

The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire was a shock that has made me think about what we, as a civilization, value most, as well as what we should, perhaps, value most. There has been a huge outpouring of financial support to rebuild the cathedral, with a lot more than one billion euros raised in a matter of days after the tragedy, an unprecedented feat for this kind of event. This happened, however, against the backdrop of a divided country (similar to what the world is experiencing pretty much everywhere), and of the “gilets jaunes” (or “yellow vest”) protest movement that was launched in November 2018 all around France. 

Just five days after the Notre-Dame disaster, protesters gathered to rail against the supposed selfishness and duplicity of major donors and the government who seemed happy to give away millions to repair an old cathedral, but (it was claimed) would not do anything for tax relief or charitable causes to help feed and lodge the homeless, fix hospitals, increase funds for social services, unemployment benefits, vocational training, and education. 

This event really did provoke an incendiary debate beyond just matters of reconstruction, and indeed a necessary debate about how we structure our society and what we consider to be our priorities. While this directly concerns French society, it is a debate valuable to all, and could be a point of departure for new ideas to help mend our fractured societies. Unfortunately, the idea of constructive and respectful discourse in France, as it is also in the United States and the United Kingdom, is a challenging concept which is causing our democracies to suffer at this time in history.

Now, five years later, no one is talking about the gilets jaunes anymore. We have had other issues to worry about since then: Covid! The war in Ukraine! Elections (the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was reelected in 2022 for a second five year term)! Massive protests against the pension reform President Macron enacted and forced through parliament in 2023! The war in the Middle East! And just a few weeks ago, the farmers of France mounted a massive protest movement that nearly paralyzed and starved Paris of its food supply. We have gone from crisis to crisis, protest movement to protest movement. And now France, and all of Europe, is gearing up for European parliament elections in June which are predicted to give a victory to many pro-Russian far-right parties across the continent.

However, we get to celebrate the Olympics in Paris this Summer, and it shall hopefully be a moment of national and international unity, if for an instant.

Until the American elections in November…!

And the worsening news on climate issues, which keep getting scarier. 

So things aren’t resolved. The Notre-Dame fire did not usher in a new era of peace and understanding, of coming together to rebuild our cathedral and our society. But we will most likely be moved when we see it reopened this December.

The Cathedral on fire, April 15, 2019

Let me take a look back at my personal experience, five years ago: 

On Monday, April 15th, at 7pm, I was in the attic of a 13th century cistercian college built on Paris’ Left Bank, the “College des Bernardins”, when I looked out the windows and saw, on that beautiful Spring Monday, a gorgeous plume of fast rising smoke, altering the rays of the setting sun. At first I thought that there must be a smokestack nearby, but I could not find one in my memory of this central Paris neighborhood. It wasn’t dark smoke either. What I saw were whitish streams of yellows, reds, and blues. What a surprising feast for the eyes! But then the notifications started popping up on my smartphone, and I immediately understood where the smoke was coming from, as my heart rate sped up: Notre-Dame, the oldest symbol of our eternal Paris, was on fire. It took a while to process that, and to even believe it to be true.


How bad could it be? This was an 853 year old cathedral built of stone! 

Just an hour before, I had walked by it, admiring its famous contour on the pale blue sky. I had also noticed people walking along the recently built, impressive scaffoldings around the central steeple, la flèche, all the way up in the sky. I wanted to take some photos, because the cathedral looked different and somewhat modernist with its many-layered temporary metallic rafters, but I figured I would come back and take the time to do so another day, since I was in a hurry just then. 

This view, from the back of the monument, had always been my favorite. Slightly lesser known than it’s imposing main façade, it was, to me, the more personal, human side of the edifice, less imposing than its official front, with its two, (nonetheless) beautiful towers. I liked seeing the graceful buttresses hold the whole together. I liked seeing the rounded shapes of the arches, the curve of the nave at that end, the slant and time-colored gray-green of the lead roof. 

Notre-Dame is omni-present in Parisian life, similar to what the Eiffel Tower has become, but even more personal to every citizen here. Religion is not a necessary component to one’s appreciation for, and need for, the cathedral of Notre-Dame.

While Paris was populated by the Gaul tribe of the Parisii before the Roman occupation, and while Paris was a thriving commercial town on the Seine River for hundreds of years during the Gallo-Roman period and then the Frankish conquests of the period before and following Charlemagne’s momentous reign, the importance of Paris was sealed with the construction of the Cathedral in the 13th century. Built upon the site of what was already the largest church in France, “Saint-Etienne” (Saint-Stephen) that had replaced a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter on the central river island called Ile de la Cité naturally protected on both sides against any attack, the cathedral of Notre-Dame has been the heart of Paris.

The glory of this cathedral, its architectural splendor, its height, width, and length, and its construction cost, are all markers of the importance of Paris as a city in these late Middle-Ages. It marks a certain period of enlightenment. Hundreds of years before the Eiffel Tower rose up and steel became the driving force behind the skyscraper revolution, a cathedral was a major statement of human ingenuity and sky-high ambitions. Notre-Dame has been a constant in French and European politics, in representations of Paris, in art, literature, in film, in romance, and more. Paris today looks very little like it did when the cathedral went up, as most of the buildings that surround the cathedral today and throughout the city were built after the 17th century and mostly during the 19th century. Yet, the cathedral has stood strong as a witness to all of the changes Paris has lived through. 

When I was growing up in Paris, we could still drive right by the front of the cathedral, which was blackened by centuries of pollution. By the year 2000, it had been cleaned up and cars had been diverted. I witnessed it with yearslong scaffolding, revealing, when it came down, the facade’s incredibly, shockingly bright limestone, appearing as new as when it was first built. I occasionally stepped inside for visits, on my own for self-reflection, or with friends to whom I would show Paris. I also climbed the cathedral’s towers, saw its impressive bells, its strong wood beams under its roof, and admired its legendary gargoyles up close. I always thought it was the very best place to look out at the entire Parisian landscape.

How many times have I walked by each side of the cathedral, admiring its countless details? How many times have I been in front of it, almost all alone, in the middle of the night after the tourist rushes, lying or sitting on the ground at its feet and looking up at its three mystical doors, under the stars? It is a place of wonder, indeed, for me, as it has been for millions of people throughout history. 

Stepping out of the College des Bernardins that Monday night, and walking to the river and onto the Pont de la Tournelle, the bridge where the statue of Paris’ patron saint, Sainte-Genevieve, watches over the flowing waters welcoming visitors, I was awed by the deafening silence surrounding me despite being in the midst of thousands of people filling the sidewalks, the streets, the bridges, the rooftops. Even before I was able to see the blazing cathedral, it was the absence of the usual city sounds that struck me: no traffic, no music, no talking, none of the usual humdrum. Nothing. It felt as though I myself had lost my hearing, for an instant. I could almost hear the crackling of the burning millennial wood, as I made my way through the standstill crowd to the middle of the bridge and turned my eyes toward the Ile de la Cité. 


Flames so high, they were licking the sky. A new steeple of fire had replaced and surpassed the 93 meter high addition built by 19th century architect, Viollet-le-Duc, which had burnt and tumbled into the cathedral nave minutes before I arrived to witness the debacle myself. 

Imagine that for a moment, seeing the Cathedral of Notre-Dame burning. 

It was, until that very moment, unimaginable. 

In fact, we cannot wrap our brains around such traumatic concepts. Rome burning? Long enough ago it feels like a quaint moment in history. London burning? Well, that was the risk of building a wooden city, and a not-so-unusual 17th century occurrence. Chicago burning? A necessary step toward becoming the soaring city it is today. Paris burning? It has never happened. Indeed, Paris is one of few cities that has never been consumed by fire or bombed to oblivion. Urban planning in Paris has never been accidental.

Seeing those flames on Notre-Dame, however, knowing there was a risk the entire edifice could literally crumble to the ground under the stress of fire and heat (800 degrees celsius!), it became clear that the beauty of Paris, and its well-known skyline, were not to be taken for granted. If our timeless cathedral could burn and crumble, so could any other iconic part of Paris, or of our world for that matter. 

I had walked by the cathedral and had admired its steeple once more just an hour before it was to burn and disappear forever. Had I known it was its last hour I would definitely have taken my camera out and snapped those pictures. But I am glad I nevertheless looked with pleasure at the cathedral before tragedy struck. It was a good reminder to make the most of every moment, no matter how fleeting! 

This serves as a reminder that every aspect of this entire world is fleeting in the eyes of the universe. The conditions that make life on Earth possible will not last forever. We already know that this planet is doomed, even if it takes millions of years more before it is finally consumed. Yet, the Earth has prospered, and we humans have constantly reached far beyond our own initial capabilities, not only figuring out how to survive as a species, but feeling moved by our emotions and our surroundings to create things of beauty. 

Hence was born Art. 

Why was a cathedral made to look beautiful, when it could simply be made to be big? And while this precise debate is still raging in philosophical terms, as a people we clearly appreciate beauty, and are moved by it. We even end up finding beauty and elegance in what may at first be made to be only practical, such as Mies van der Rohe’s “skin and bones” architecture. 

The real fragility of beauty, despite what we might think of as immutable (Notre-Dame, the Twin Towers, Venice…), is a reminder that destruction is easy, but construction is hard and takes a lot longer. This idea reaches beyond the physical: great music is hard to compose, great novels are hard to write, great paintings are hard to paint, complex science is hard to conceive of, philosophies are hard to envision, and good political systems are hard to construct. 

The Notre-Dame Cathedral fire, and our emotional response to it, is a stark reminder that there are a lot more cathedrals in our hearts than we realize. It is also a reminder that we must care for our heritage, but also for each other. A cathedral like this, with its history in the heart of Paris, known from representations by most people around the world, is meant to bring people together. Its construction by thousands of artisans, its religious purpose, but also its value as a great work of art and as a comforting presence for all actually transcends religion. 

It has been my hope that the efforts that have been deployed to save and preserve it for future centuries will not only impact the physical cathedral for the better, but will also be an opportunity to help heal divisions within our society, by bringing to the fore the idea that major joint efforts can benefit us all. This is what politics should be about: a meaningful construction for the common good, where all debate, however raging it may be at times, never loses sight of its purpose to do the most good for the most people, and the least harm to the fewest people.

Notre-Dame was nearly slated for destruction in the 1820s, as it was in a terrible state of disrepair already then, after centuries of neglect and the violence perpetrated upon it during the French Revolution when it was, at one point, renamed the “Temple of Reason”. Victor Hugo, who greatly admired the cathedral, decided to write his now-famous novel, “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” (Notre-Dame de Paris in French, published in 1831), to help renew interest in the cathedral. It went a long way to swaying public and political opinion in supporting a long and costly renovation of the edifice, which helped it reach our century. Indeed, “when there is a will, there is a way.”

The young Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to oversee the restoration of Notre-Dame in 1844, in a project which lasted twenty-five years. The original medieval spire which had graced the transept had been taken down in 1786 due to its fragility and risk of demise. Viollet-le-Duc decided to replace it with a new, taller spire during his restoration in the mid-19th century: this is the one which burned and crashed on April 15th, 2019. 

The decision was made, after much debate, to replace Viollet-le-Duc’s spire with an exact replica (at some point, the French president had argued that a contemporary piece of architecture should replace the gothic spire to leave an imprint of our time). This newly crafted replica was just installed last month atop the transept, marking a return to the outer form of the cathedral as it gets close to its reopening deadline of December 8th, 2024.

Just a week ago, the 17th century Copenhagen stock exchange in Denmark, which also had a gothic spire gracing its roof, burnt and crumbled, also during a complete restoration of the building. It is a sad reminder that we are lucky to have the European heritage we still have! Between the many wars, the fires, and the accidents, things could always be worse.

These masterwork monuments, whatever shape they take, are more fragile than we think. We must all work together to preserve, adapt, and renew our cultural heritage, as much as we must work toward a better world and build new “monuments” whose positive impact will outlive us across all fields, from the arts to the sciences, to politics and institutions. 

We decided to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in the 19th century, and we made that choice again in the 21st century. It is costly, but by doing so, we also learn to see the greater purpose of these projects. We come to see the importance of taking care of our creations, of our built environment, which is a reflection of the inner work we must all do to grow as human beings so that we can live side by side in outer and inner peace.

Despite the costs of rebuilding this cathedral and generally of taking care of our historical, and natural, environment, it pales in comparison to the cost and effort required to organize our societies around peace and harmonious coexistence. Yet, organizing humanity in such a way that it can stand gracefully together for centuries, or even eternity, is the lesson the old cathedral builders can still teach us: cooperation and vision leads to spectacular, nearly timeless structures, and even when something goes wrong, we still join forces to fix what can be fixed, or to replace what needs to be replaced. 

I'll give you a last update on the Cathedral when it reopens in December.

Thank you for reading.