How to Talk With a Building

April 19, 2019

If you have seen the Disney movie, then you know Quasimodo as the spire-swinging bell-ringer of Notre Dame who is known to break out into song the minute his caretaker, Frollo, exits stage left. If you have read the original book by Victor Hugo, “Notre Dame de Paris,” you know the same character as a deaf, slightly barbaric man of the same occupation. But if you read Victor Hugo’s original book, you would also know that neither Quasimodo, Esmeralda or Phoebus are the protagonists of the work, but instead the cathedral, whose name is in the title, is the protagonist.


In light of the recent fire, I think it is important to acknowledge just how impactful a building can be. While there has been no shortage of news coverage or emotions associated with the recent burning this week, the articles coming out have missed one key thing that I think Hugo helps to illuminate for us, not only in “Notre Dame de Paris” but also in his advocacy for architecture.


To say that Notre Dame owes most of its fame and recognition to Victor Hugo would be an understatement. At the same time, I can only imagine how pleased the priests of the Middle Ages would be to know that the novel depicting their cathedral was stocked full of characters who depicted the lowliest of sins: lust, cruelty and vanity. To Hugo’s audience of modern readers, this hardly matters as we relish in vulnerable characters who have flaws that reflect the real world. Back then, it also hardly mattered, but for other reasons.


Hugo did not first write “Notre Dame de Paris” because he thought it would be the best backdrop for a colorful cast of characters. He wrote the book more or less to save the cathedral.




Revolution after revolution had ransacked the church. Atheism was spreading in France faster than enlightenment ideals. Without proper leadership in the government, never mind the Church, it was only natural that Notre Dame became a hollow cast of itself in the early 1800s. That was until Victor Hugo came along and wrote this book which made Notre Dame not some petty backdrop but a dynamic piece of a conversation for his characters’ lives, something that held true for him as well as everyone else in Paris. The book re-inspired an interest in the cathedral and renovation efforts were started shortly after.


Perhaps it is because we grow accustomed to these things: buildings. Name a day you were not inside of one. We grow tired of them. Even the magnificent ones become eyesores as we pass the Empire State Building for the thousandth time on our way to Penn Station. We do not think of the ways that buildings have had an impact on our lives, how none of this would be possible without the four walls and a roof. It does not matter if they are as opulent as Notre Dame or as basic as Tolley-Brown.


Naturally, with things that are this essential to the human experience, there come those odd times when we are forced to confront what a world would look like without them: without Notre Dame. What a world would look like without the beautiful town hall down the corner, the comfort of a welcomingly designed train station. We begin to think of what our lives would mean without these places or what would happen if they looked just the tiniest bit different. And then, we are forced to think about how these buildings that are meant to protect humans, must sometimes be protected by us.


The reconstruction of Notre Dame’s roof will go along without a hitch, but it reminds us of the steps we must take to protect what is important to us. There are these moments when we are called to action to rescue the places that mean the most to us: where we must enter into conversation with the buildings of our lives. And maybe, if we are selfless enough, make them the protagonists of our stories, if only for a few pages.


Andrew is a sophomore English major with a minor in International Relations. 

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