Like many people, I was shocked when I first heard the news that the Cathedral of Notre Dame was on fire and saw the photos of smoke pouring out of the iconic structure. Though I’ve never been to Paris, I can imagine something of what was lost, since I have visited other architectural wonders in Europe including St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City and the Duomo di Siracusa in Sicily, which incorporates columns from the fifth-century BC, Greek doric temple that it replaced on the same site.
Such places undeniably have a power when experienced in person. They are at once both monumental, with their soaring roofs and larger-than-life scale; and intricate, in their detailed ornamentation in stone, glass and wood. A palpable sense of history also inhabits these spaces. Certainly, damage to them is a real thing. But how real? And compared to what? In a world on the brink of multiple planetary-scale disasters, it is fair to ask such questions.