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Churchill on rebuilding the traditional: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”

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According to news reports, already over US$ 1 billion has been pledged towards rebuilding Notre Dame:

Notre Dam after April 15, 2019 (Fair use, HT AP et al)

BTW: after the fire, a video tour:

In today’s ever so polarised age [currently awaiting the infamous redacted Mueller Report on a two-year investigation into US President Trump], it is unsurprising that we see for example in Rolling Stone:


. . . for some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

Despite politicians on both sides of the French political spectrum discouraging people from trying to politicize the Notre Dame fire, it would be a mistake to view the building as little more than a Paris tourist attraction, says John Harwood, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s literally a political monument. All cathedrals are,” he says. For centuries, the cathedral was the seat of the bishop of the Catholic Church at a time when there was virtually no distinction between church and state. “It was the center and seat of political power not just in Paris, but in France,” he says. “And that remained the case even after the French Revolution and through successive revolutions and political power and regimes.”


How Should France Rebuild Notre Dame?
Much of the structure survived the blaze — but as rebuilding efforts move forward, the country will be left with a big question: What does the cathedral mean to 21st-century France?, by by E J Dickson

As though, there are any human institutions that are other than deeply flawed, and as though there is not a deep resentment of the historic fact that our Civilisation is the product of the synthesis of the heritage of Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, pioneered by Gamaliel’s student, Paul of Tarsus as main C1 Christian Missionary to the gentile peoples. Of course with onward major infusion from the Germans (including the Angles, Jutes and Saxons who invaded post-Roman Britain and the Franks who went to Gaul etc) and then addition of a cosmopolitan flavour.

We have got too used to the notion — fallacy, rather — that one tells the truth and the right by the clock. Pardon, but the clock and calendar can only tell the time, truth comes from what is sound, and it is what is right that makes the right, pointing to a moral foundaiton to the world. Likewise, though we find in history and even today’s headlines, great evils and errors, we also find great reformers, enduring principles, reformations and monuments that reflect and even help to shape such reformation.

Which is where perhaps the last great western statesman to be shaped by the spirit of history speaks to us. The captioned remarks were made to open a debate on rebuilding the House of Commons after it had been destroyed by German bombs (and that is itself a reminder that the perpetual clamour for “year zero” restarts and radical changes itself can go tragically wrong).

Let us listen again to the voice of a man steeped in history and tradition, the last of the British Lions:

HC Deb 28 October 1943 vol 393 cc403-73
403 § The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill)
I beg to move, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon plans for the rebuilding of the House of Commons and upon such alterations as may be considered desirable while preserving all its essential features. On the night of 10th May, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. I believe that will be the opinion of the great majority of its Members. It is certainly the opinion of His Majesty’s Government and we propose to support this resolution to the best of our ability.

There are two main characteristics of the House of Commons which will command the approval and the support of reflective and experienced Members. They will, I have no doubt, sound odd to foreign ears. The first is that its shape should be oblong and not semi-circular. Here is a very potent factor in our political life. The semi-circular assembly, which appeals to political theorists, enables every individual or every group to move round the centre, adopting various shades of pink according as the weather changes. I am a convinced supporter of the party system in preference to the group system. I have sewn many earnest and ardent Parliaments destroyed by the group system. The party system is much favoured by the oblong form of Chamber. It is easy for an individual to move through those insensible gradations from Left to Right but the act of crossing the Floor is one 404 which requires serious consideration. I am well informed on this matter, for I have accomplished that difficult process, not only once but twice. Logic is a poor guide compared with custom. Logic which has created in so many countries semi-circular assemblies which have buildings which give to every Member, not only a seat to sit in but often a desk to write at, with a lid to bang, has proved fatal to Parliamentary Government as we know it here in its home and in the land of its birth.

The second characteristic of a Chamber formed on the lines of the House of Commons is that it should not be big enough to contain all its Members at once without over-crowding and that there should be no question of every Member having a separate seat reserved for him. The reason for this has long been a puzzle to uninstructed outsiders and has frequently excited the curiosity and even the criticism of new Members. Yet it is not so difficult to understand if you look at it from a practical point of view. If the House is big enough to contain all its Members, nine-tenths of its Debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half-empty Chamber. The essence of good House of Commons speaking is the conversational style, the facility for quick, informal interruptions and interchanges. Harangues from a rostrum would be a bad substitute for the conversational style in which so much of our business is done. But the conversational style requires a fairly small space, and there should be on great occasions a sense of crowd and urgency. There should be a sense of the importance of much that is said and a sense that great matters are being decided, there and then, by the House.

We attach immense importance to the survival of Parliamentary democracy. In this country this is one of our war aims. We wish to see our Parliament a strong, easy, flexible instrument of free Debate. For this purpose a small Chamber and a sense of intimacy are indispensable. It is notable that the Parliaments of the British Commonwealth have to a very large extent reproduced our Parliamentary institutions in their form as well as in their spirit, even to the Chair in which the Speakers of the different Assemblies sit. We do not seek to impose our ideas on others; we make no invidious criticisms of other nations. All the same we hold, none the less, 405 tenaciously to them ourselves. The vitality and the authority of the House of Commons and its hold upon an electorate, based upon universal suffrage, depends to no small extent upon its episodes and great moments, even upon its scenes and rows, which, as everyone will agree, are better conducted at close quarters. Destroy that hold which Parliament has upon the public mind and has preserved through all these changing, turbulent times and the living organism of the House of Commons would be greatly impaired. You may have a machine, but the House of. Commons is much more than a machine; it has earned and captured and held through long generations the imagination and respect of the British nation. It is not free from shortcomings; they mark all human institutions. Nevertheless, I submit to what is probably not an unfriendly audience on that subject that our House has proved itself capable of adapting itself to every change which the swift pace of modern life has brought upon us. It has a collective personality which enjoys the regard of the public and which imposes itself upon the conduct not only of individual Members but of parties. It has a code of its own which everyone knows, and it has means of its own of enforcing those manners and habits which have grown up and have been found to be an essential part of our Parliamentary life.

The House of Commons has lifted our affairs above the mechanical sphere into the human sphere. It thrives on criticism, it is perfectly impervious to newspaper abuse or taunts from any quarter, and it is capable of digesting almost anything or almost any body of gentlemen, whatever be the views with which they arrive. There is no situation to which it cannot address itself with vigour and ingenuity. It is the citadel of British liberty; it is the foundation of our laws; its traditions and its privileges are as lively to-day as when it broke the arbitrary power of the Crown and substituted that Constitutional Monarchy under which we have enjoyed so many blessings. In this war the House of Commons has proved itself to be a rock upon which an Administration, without losing the confidence of the House, has been able to confront the most terrible emergencies . . .

Food for thought, on a day when a reflective spirit will be of help, even on this Holy Thursday, April 18th 2019 in the year of our Lord. END

7 Replies to “Churchill on rebuilding the traditional: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    Churchill on rebuilding the traditional: “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us”

  2. 2
    EDTA says:

    The attitude at the start of the article is half what I expected from all the French: “Tear it down and build some ugly postmodern thing in its place.” I was slightly cheered to hear that they intend to rebuild it, even though I know they don’t love it for the reason it was built originally…

  3. 3
    Marfin says:

    If you are Irish or Indian you may feel different about what Churchill was steeped in,things like hatred ,racism,and bigotry ,
    come to mind.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:

    EDTA, the Gothic churches are a classical milepost that must be recognised and respected in its own right as a style locked into history. A history that shaped the soul of France and frankly that of any member of Western Civilisation, even in cosmopolitan form. Building in stone so that light (“very light of very light, out-raying of the Father’s glory . . .”) may shape the atmosphere of worship, light admitted through the stories and testimonies/ witnesses of the scripture, especially through those Rose Windows, is not only various canons of beauty in action but it is also verisimilitude, allowing a view of profound truth tied to life and reality. Where, Notre Dame is in fact a living church to this very day, not a museum, never mind 30,000 visitors per day. I gather, that in international masses tourists with guides are there describing the live action even as other visitors participate in the liturgy. And, the people of Paris bearing witness, pain in their faces, many praying and some singing the Ave Maria (I am not a Roman Catholic but recognise what was there) speak to a continued living tradition, despite all its problems and troubles. A measure of the complexity is the recent Archbishop of Paris who was Jewish as well as Christian and apparently regularly went to Synagogues to say Kaddish of mourning for his mother — murdered at Auschwitz. (Cf here.) There is a plaque in the Cathedral that honours him. KF

  5. 5
    kairosfocus says:

    Marfin, while I appreciate the pain reflected in your comment, I think another side is also needed. Pardon, it is relevant to note that I am an Afro-Caribbean person with Indian ancestry also. My first name through Irish-Scottish family tradition in the paternal line is that of a martyr and national hero in my family, judicially murdered by hand of an English Governor. I know the sins of the English up to and including Churchill, the last Lion. That runs in my veins. But also, I know of the redemptive element, whereby reformation and liberation are also embedded in that past, so if we are to have hope for the future, we must learn to look through the lens of the four R’s of reformation: Repentance, Renewal (which includes reconciliation thus forgiveness and forbearance), Revival as seasons of refreshing fall from on High, Reformation as revival attains critical mass. The lens of cultural marxism, which seeks to discredit, disqualify and dismiss the targetted, only serves to lock us away from hard bought lessons of sound history bought with blood and tears. If we do not learn or disregard such, we will pay the same coin over and over and over again. So, pardon that I can see beyond Churchill’s clay feet to the greatness he attained, as well as to lessons he has passed to us that we would do well to heed. Here, about how the built environment sets a shaping stage for Parliamentary Democracy. Where, we must recall, it was in Britain that the key lessons of self-government through elected representatives forming a legislature in partnership with the executive and an independent judiciary were first hammered out over centuries. There is a reason why Westminster is the mother of parliaments and why Erskine May is still a key codification of the law of parliaments. Through that lens, we can take a look at the rebuilding of Notre Dame and at what we are doing today. KF

  6. 6
    Marfin says:

    Kairosfocus – I feel no pain as I am too far removed from the things he did I just never like excusing a persons appalling behaviour and actions , based on the fact he did good elsewhere. As for learning from the past well learning from Jesus is far more beneficial for this life and the next , anyone can seem great to their countrymen and allies when they are doing great things to benefit themselves , their countrymen and allies, but these are just the acts of selfishly ambitious people ,who are some of the most dangerous people in the world.
    Also some what disappointing is the billion euros pledged by various people to re build Notre Dame but why was there not a billion euros pledged to rebuild the shattered lives after the bataclan massacre, maybe symbols are more important than people after all

  7. 7
    kairosfocus says:

    Marfin, no one was “excusing” anyone; I cited a renowned expert on parliamentary government on how the built environment shapes how such functions, with the onward application that such can also be conducive to the focus on God which is part of worship. In that context, there are relevant sensitivities in the rebuilding exercises. As for the further comparison, I do believe it is fair to comment that there was considerable reaching out to people. There is a place for reaching out to the vulnerable, and there is a place for rebuilding an icon of our civilisation; the two do not stand in contradiction and competition as though a Euro spent on the one was robbed from the other. KF

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