Why do we find cathedral fires so disturbing?

The toppling spire of Notre Dame de Paris. Image: Getty.

The inferno that destroyed the roof of Notre-Dame du Paris has stunned people across the world. In part, that’s because cathedrals, and other symbolic religious buildings, are supposed to survive us.

From the outside, these places are massive, solid, stone structures that imprint themselves on their cities and on the people that live there. They are often at the heart of a city, and among their oldest structures. Yet the history of these buildings is the history of a perpetual battle with entropy and fire.

In 1984 lightning struck York Minster, the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, which lies at the heart of the medieval English city. The resulting fire consumed the roof of the south transept and shattered the rose window.

After the fire, the Minster was rebuilt. This was, however, not the first fire at York. The 1820s and 1840s fire had left large parts of it a roofless shell. In the 1960s, huge structural repairs were needed to stop the central tower crashing into the nave.

The central steeple of Notre-Dame was a modern addition, in cathedral terms, having been added during the 19th century renovations. Those had been prompted by Victor Hugo's passionate arguments to save the building after damage caused in the French Revolution. A few years ago, modern-day Hugos were highlighting the decaying fabric of the building again. Acid rain was eating into the limestone buttresses; the stone was crumbling.


That same weather damage happens to all cathedrals. In the 1980s, on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Britain, I picked up a fallen shard of limestone from a flying buttress. On the roof of St Pauls one time we took a shortcut, and I realised we were walking between the two domes of the cathedral, and the huge beams were what stopped gravity bringing the stone down. Flying buttresses, which we now see as part of the design, were originally a medieval fix to stop gravity taking effect.

You will almost never visit a cathedral that does not have some scaffolding on it, because someone is always working to keep the edifice up. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is not technically a cathedral but a basilica, meaning it has been granted special privileges by the Pope, and the reason we visit it is in part to see its continuing construction. Though construction started in 1882, it is not yet finished; yet the older end has already undergone reconstruction.

Despite this endless cycle of construction and repair, people often have a visceral response to a cathedral being damaged. ChristChurch Cathedral in New Zealand collapsed so severely during the 2011 earthquake that it can no longer be used. Despite its previous history of partial collapses, the church remains committed to rebuilding it, because of its symbolic value to the city.

A 1916 engraving of Old St Paul's as it appeared before the fire of 1561 in which the spire was destroyed. Image: Francis Bond/Wikimedia Commons.

If you think of symbols of London, you'll think of that dome of St Paul's. That dome rose over the firestorms of the blitz, captured in a photograph. But Wren's dome is not the first St Paul's: it was built to replace the one destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666. The old St Paul's was medieval gothic, with a huge central spire, which had been built to replace an even earlier one that had been destroyed by another fire, in 1087.

Other cities are also defined by their most iconic religious building. The Hagia Sofia in Istambul was built in the 500s as a Byzantine cathedral for the Eastern Orthodox church under Emperor Constantine. It’s also been a Roman Catholic church and a mosque. From the time it was completed to now, it has dominated the skyline of the city that surrounds it. The churches that stood on the site before the Hagia Sofia was built were – you’ve guessed it – destroyed by fire.

Whilst many fires are accidental, some of them are deliberate. At least one of the earlier fires at York was definitely arson. The Dresden Frauenkirche was destroyed in the Allied firebombing of the city in 1945. It has been completely rebuilt as part of rebuilding a city that had been almost flattened. Like the Sagrada Familia, it is not technically a cathedral; but it is still a symbol.

It’s the same symbolism that makes us respond to Notre-Dame, regardless of faith. As the spire burnt, we reacted with horror because stone shouldn't burn, and because we understand how iconic buildings are at the heart of cities. Modern Paris grew up on Île de la Cité, with Notre-Dame at its heart, just as St Pauls is in the heart of the City of London.

Notre-Dame will be rebuilt, because it always is. Despite entropy, gravity and the tendency for cathedrals to burn, we continue to rebuild them.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”