As I write this, one of the world’s most beloved symbols, monuments, and houses of worship is covered in ash.
Notre Dame wasn’t destroyed, but it will never be the same. For centuries to come, if not millennia, visitors will be told about the conflagration, and then the restoration. There will be exhibits about this. Some of our tweets may line the walls or hover over attendees.
When Notre Dame was aflame, with no end in sight and many wondering just how much of this icon would be lost, I wasn’t thinking much about my own visit there about 15 years ago. I thought mostly about the Buddhas of Bamyan. These were the Afghanistan marvels that the Taliban destroyed as a protest against idolatry.
Yes, these are wildly different types of destruction. There was all too much misinformation that called the Notre Dame fire a terrorist act when so such event occurred. But I kept thinking of the symbolism of what was lost in Afghanistan and almost lost in France.
I’ve never been to Afghanistan, yet I still can’t get over the loss of the Bamyan Buddhas. I have no direct connection to the country, and only a cursory understanding of Buddhism. The callousness of the destruction still rattles me though. Some insane act of selfishness undid a symbol that inspired countless people over so many hundreds of years, and all future generations are robbed of this.
Mercifully, Notre Dame and so many of its treasures are saved, and it will be rebuilt to inspire others. Yet what if it was lost?
As I wonder about that, I am stuck contemplating all the human losses that so few people register. Do we know the names of all who perished in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria? Do we know the personal stories of gun violence victims in our own cities in America? Do we get rattled whenever the opioid epidemic claims another soul? What international mourning will take place for the 3,200 people expected to die globally in car crashes today – and every day for the foreseeable future?
We don’t, and we can’t, process this. It’s too much for us. But we do get tormented by the loss of symbols. Why though?
The closest answer I can muster comes from my visit to Egypt in 2009. When I entered the Great Pyramid of Giza, empty and sparse as it may have been, it was, on many levels, the most deeply religious experience I felt anywhere. This monument is a testament to what humanity can envision and achieve. I felt connected to the builders and engineers. Fellow humans could do this. It doesn’t matter where or when or how or who exactly. We did it! It’s like the “we” that we experience when our favorite sports teams win. We had nothing to do with it, but we had everything to do with it.
In that sense, we built Notre Dame too. It belongs to all of us. It’s right there, in our mitochondria. And we, in some other implausible way, captured the image of a black hole, with Ms. Bouman picking up where Mr. Einstein left off. We did it – all of it.
A similar process marks the transcendent achievement of a brand. When it is no longer the property of the trademark holders but the brand’s beholders, it has achieved that rarified success that no performance indicator will ever properly quantify.
Some brands seem to unite us all, vertically and horizontally, back through the ages and ahead to distant generations. These symbols allow us to connect with something so much bigger and more enduring than ourselves, and through our connection with these symbols, we in turn endure. We achieve immortality through those symbols that connect us all with each other.
We did it. We built Notre Dame, and we will rebuild it. And our immortality remains assured.
PS: I needed an extra moment to pause and reflect here. When you have a moment, please, let me know what you are making of yourself.
LEARN. TRY. SHARE.
There is a lot more that I planned on sharing here, but most of it seemed out of place today as I publish a day early. You’ll see it all next week as we get back on schedule.
RESTORATION IN NEW DIMENSIONS
Architectural historian Andrew Tallon’s 3D scans could make it possible for a much more faithful restoration of Notre Dame. It’s a sign of how much we can capture, but also how we can never replace what we lose.
A BLACK HOLE TROLL MAGNET
It’s a great leap forward and a bruising downward spiral for giving women credit where it’s due. In decades past, Katie Bouman might not have become a celebrity at all for her astrophysics feats. Today, she’s no ‘hidden figure’ for her role in creating the first image of a black hole. But as this report from NBC shows, she is now a prime target of nasty, hateful, lying, thin-skinned, weak ‘men’s rights’ trolling clubs trying to find any way to discredit her – largely through lies. What the trolls want is the toughest thing for other Boumans to stomach: women not claiming the credit they deserve.
I try to avoid bringing up politics here, but this design toolkit from Mayor Pete is at least as engrossing as those videos of him speaking Norwegian while playing Ben Folds on his way to defusing a landmine in Kabul. Have other candidates done anything close? My favorite part is where they describe how they’re going with a rust belt palette instead of the red, white, and blue standard; it’s an instantly visible way to stand out in a very crowded field and stop fighting the opposition in trying to be the loudest one to shout how much they love the flag. Whether Mayor Pete becomes a footnote or a future president, students of design will likely study this for years.