Losing Heritage in the 21st Century

“The World Embraces Notre Dame.”

Figure 1: Quasimodo embracing the Notre Dame Cathedral, Drawing by Cristina Correa Freile.

On Monday, 15 April 2019, the sound of the fire alarm in the Notre Dame Cathedral broke out as millions around Paris and the world watched their beloved Lady catch fire.

This cathedral of 856 years that once withstood the French Revolution was no match for the engulfing flames, leading to the loss of its roof, spire, and iconic stained windows but leaving its main structure and two bell towers intact.

Figure 2: Notre Dame Cathedral in Flames.

Notre Dame de Paris is one of the world’s great religious, cultural and historic landmarks and a symbol for the city of Paris. Built on the ruins of two earlier churches, Notre Dame was converted to a single large structure. Adorned with the Gothic style, this cathedral shows the main architectural features of this period such as the typical plan consisting of a choir and nave, a high wooden pitched roof, two massive towers, spire, and flying buttresses. Notre Dame’s best-known features include rose stained windows, gargoyle statues and massive bells (Britannica, 2019).

Figure 3, 4, 5: Rose Stained Windows, Gargoyle Statues and Cathedral Tower Bells at Notre Dame, Paris.

Throughout the years, various restoration attempts have taken place to ensure the safeguarding of this architectural masterpiece. It was first restored by Emperor Napoleon after the end of the French Revolution. Later in the 19th century, after gaining popularity from the novel of Notre Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo, other major efforts were completed. However, this did not secure Notre Dame a spot on the safe zone; since 1990, it has continued to be a subject of various restoration attempts (Britannica, 2019). Even at the time, the fire broke at the cathedral, it was undergoing works of restoration.

Until this moment the cause of the fire is ruled as accidental, and French investigators are still working on determining the exact cause of it. Fire and other natural disasters have always been a threat to cultural heritage, leading sometimes to irreplaceable outcomes. As a result, fire can cause harm, damage, and destruction to a building, leaving it vulnerable. So, for Notre Dame, the next big question is:

How must we deal with heritage after a catastrophe?

So far, there has been great sympathy towards the incident; the French president Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild the cathedral and funding to help the restoration have already begun flooding. But must the cathedral be rebuilt according to modern techniques and contemporary architecture styles, or should experts resort to the traditional ways?

Figure 6: San Benedetto Basilica after Earthquake, Norcia, Perugia, Italy.

This was the case of Norcia, a medieval walled town in Perugia, Central Italy. After a massive earthquake left the city in rubble, decisions needed to be taken regarding the reconstruction. According to Cecilia Anesi, an investigative journalist, the controversy lies in how to respond after a crisis. She feared that by adopting new methods of reconstruction, the city will lose its historical center (Kirchgaessner, 2016). Eventually, after receiving generous funds and with efforts of volunteers from France, Greece, and Hungary, the basilica was restored to its original design using earthquake-resistant techniques and materials.

What Must Be Done to Protect Heritage from Natural Disaster?

According to the ICOMOS conference of “Cultural Heritage and Natural Disaster”, risk preparedness and prevention planning are crucial. Warning systems, preparation, and management programs may not prevent the occurrence, but they will lessen the effect of such disasters (ICOMOS, 2007). UNESCO also points out the need to act in order to safeguard heritage sites of cultural importance; it lists strategies for risk reduction, disaster preparedness, recovery, and reconstruction.

For more information on the UNESCO Strategy visit the following link: https://whc.unesco.org/en/disaster-risk-reduction/

Call for Action

As the world grieves the great catastrophe, there are several other heritage sites falling apart, or holding on by a thread and left at the mercy of humanity that is nowhere to be found. How much should humanity suffer? How many other Notre-Dames must fall before we realize that actions must be taken?

Figure 7: Palmyra, Syria, Before and After its Bombing.

It seems as though the world has turned its back on the rest of Heritage. Even though great sorrow over the fate of Notre Dame, an icon of the Gothic era, is definite, this empathy was not shared when the ruins of Palmyra were destroyed, when the museums of Iraq were looted and damaged and when Libya’s heritage was being shattered and plundered.

It has become certain that the Arab world’s reaction towards the issue of Heritage loss is muted; lesser attention is shown in the news and on social media, and lesser global empathy and intervention is publicized.

It is about time that we take a united stand when it comes to dealing with our heritage, or what is left of it. It is our duty to preserve, restore and safeguard all icons of world heritage equally. To do so we must pose in the face of our governments and form a pressuring entity for our global community to treat the issue of heritage preservation is a way that respects and honors people’s common history and memory.


This article has been written by Architects for Change Members: Nour Zreika and Ghina Kanawati.


List of Figures:

Figure 1: Quasimodo embracing the Notre Dame Cathedral, Drawing by Cristina Correa Freile, https://edition.cnn.com/world/live-news/notre-dame-fire/index.html

Figure 2: Notre Dame Cathedral in Flames, Photo by Thibault Camus, https://indianexpress.com/article/world/paris-notre-dame-cathedral-fire-live-updates-5677250/

Figure 3, 4, 5: Rose Stained Windows, Gargoyle Statues and Cathedral Tower Bells at Notre Dame, Paris, Taken from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/15/our-lady-of-paris-a-history-of-notre-dame-cathedral

Figure 6: San Benedetto Basilica after Earthquake, Norcia, Perugia, Italy, Photo by Matteo Guidelli, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/beer-brewing-monks-norcia-say-earthquake-destroys-st-benedict-basilica-n675536

Figure 7: Palmyra, Syria, Before and after its Bombing, Photo by Joseph Eid, https://www.boredpanda.com/before-after-isis-destroyed-monuments-palmyra/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=organic&utm_campaign=organic

Works Cited

Britannica. (2019, April 16). Notre Dame de Paris. Retrieved from Encyclopaedia Britannica: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Notre-Dame-de-Paris

ICOMOS. (2007). Cultural Heritage and Natural Disasters: Risk Preparedness and the Limits of Prevention. (H.-R. Meier, M. Petzet, & T. Will, Eds.) Heritage at Risk.

Jayaram, D. (2013, October 30). Heritage at Risk: Natural Disasters- Earthquakes. Retrieved from CYARK: http://www.cyark.org/news/heritage-at-risknatural-disasters-earthquakes

Kirchgaessner, S. (2016, October 31). Italy Earthquake: Residents Fear Historic Town Will Never Look the Same. The Guardian.