When reports first started circulating in offices and classrooms that Notre-Dame de Paris was in flames, people around the world seemed to recognize together the sad significance of this calamity.
A lot of tragic news passes through the culture these days. Perhaps the overarching tragedy is that the disasters, death, and mayhem that make the evening news are often met with little more reaction than a passing shrug. Maybe it’s our access to 24 hour news providing coverage of the calamity-du-jour that numbed us. Or maybe we have enough entertainment and distraction to keep us from feeling societal pain.
But on April 15, 2019, the world stopped fiddling when Notre Dame burned.
For those of us working in the themed entertainment industry, the reaction had a unique nuance. The creatives who design beautiful and unique places are particularly sensitive when a place so unique and beautiful is destroyed. They mourn Notre Dame as though it were an ancestor to their own work, an architectural forebear to placemaking and experiential design.
The first reaction I saw was from former Disney Imagineer Eddie Sotto. He wrote on his blog, “The world was stunned to see fire consume the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral, marked by it’s 300 foot spire, falling like a sequoia wrapped in flame. No matter how you feel about it, it’s a sight we will not soon forget.”
Eddie’s post (read it here) inspired me to reach out to some other experiential design experts (who also happen to have been Disney Imagineers) and ask how the news of Notre-Dame’s fire impacted them. Their work designing for Disney theme parks (as well as many other destinations) provide a unique perspective on the audacious beauty and tragic loss of such an important location.
Tom K. Morris, the former Creative Executive at WDI who led the design of Disney’s most beautiful castle at Disneyland Paris, responded by sharing how he felt when he saw the spire fall.
“It was of course shocking to see as the news broke but somehow I felt that “our lady” was going to come out of it mostly okay—so much stone vs. wood,” said Tom. “I knew that the pitched zinc roof and spire were 19th century “modern renovations” and vaguely recalled seeing the presence of heavy timber beams up in the attic, and so estimated the fire would be confined to that area. However, I always assumed the spire was made of bronze and to see it light up like a torch was horrifying and, of course, to watch it fall was eerily reminiscent of another iconic symbol that fell–and was not supposed to–18 years earlier.” (Read Tom Morris’ full response here.)
Eddie Sotto’s post went on to give a history lesson on French architect and gothic revivalist, Eugene Viollet-Le-Duc, who designed the beautiful spire as part of the cathedral’s 19th century restoration. He described Viollet-LeDuc as a “Walt Disney of French culture” who created “characters”, vis the Chimera and Gargoyles, to infuse a sense of fantasy into the stateliness of Notre-Dame.
He wrote, “As Walt Disney took fairy tales or American history and romanticized them in his theme parks, Eugene brought “story” to these places and used architecture to bring emotion to the lifeless ruins and monuments.”
“The first time I had the chance to visit Paris, I stopped at Notre Dame Cathedral as a tourist,” said Ron Miziker. Ron was with Disney in the 1970s and 80s producing entertainment shows and spectaculars, including the Main Street Electrical Parade. His company now creates amazing guest experiences in parks around the world.
“What I experienced was profound and unexpected,” said Ron. “I saw the work of so many talented artists… architects, sculptors, craftsmen and painters. Their work was a testament to the depth and power of human imagination. Notre Dame showed me the beauty that people are capable of creating together. “
Josh Steadman is a WDI alum who is now the Director of Show Design and Production at Evermore Park, a medieval/fantasy-themed experience park in Utah. Josh’s thoughts of Notre-Dame turned toward the building’s “voice.”
He said, “Julia Morgan once said, “Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves. Notre Dame is one such building, even through the damage caused by the recent fire, and the tragedy surrounding the devastation caused by this event, this work of art, still stands, resilient. It still continues to speak for itself.”
Eddie Sotto’s article also mentioned the similarity of Notre-Dame’s fallen spire to the one on Walt’s original castle. He said, “To make the connection between the two an even closer “six degrees of ornamentation,” the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland lends its own tiny nod to the French master with a gilded version of the famous spire. As they say, borrow from the best!”
Tom Morris also noted that interesting connection. “Ray Bradbury told a tale that has now been repeated on the internet over the last week,” said Tom, “about Walt placing the Notre-Dame spire on his castle because he loved it.”
“It may or may not be true that Walt specifically requested it (probably not true), but the larger truth about the spire is how difficult it can be to defend a thing of sheer beauty that doesn’t necessarily go along with everything else or have a definitive function. After all, Notre Dame lived without the spire for some 600 years. Bradbury draws a parallel between Walt and the city of Paris: “The secret of Disney is doing things you don’t need, and doing them well… and then you realize you needed them all along.”
In the themed entertainment industry we come to accept the reality that market forces may one day force the closure or replacement of our built environments or attractions, but we never imagine they may one day burn to the ground. In 2018, nearly a year before Notre-Dame burned, one of Europa-Park’s most popular attractions, “The Pirates of Batavia,” was destroyed by fire. Although it’s far away and unfamiliar for some, a shudder rippled through the industry as we all recognized the reality that none of our creations are guaranteed a tragedy-free future.
For many, Notre-Dame’s destruction sparked a passion to see it rise again. Architects and designers from all over the world offered their services, vying for the opportunity to restore it. Disney too pledged $5 million toward the cathedral’s restoration.
“Why do we care so much that the cathedral burned,” asked Mel McGowan, former Imagineer and current Chief Creative Officer at Storyland Studios. “Perhaps it’s because Notre-Dame is a no longer a physical landmark. It is a human landmark. It belongs to humanity as a symbol of creation, community, and connection. The artists and craftsmen who began its construction and continued adding to it over the ensuing nine centuries have granted its story to us as a gift that we all innately recognize as valuable to our own existence.”
“I find a kind of visual poetry in (Notre-Dame’s) resilience,” said Josh Steadman, “and to me still testifies of the art therein and the artists that believed in it’s build and creation. That to me, adds to its longevity and beauty.”
|The edited header image of the spire in flames taken by Antoninnnnn is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.|