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When Buildings Trump People

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A fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Photo: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images

Before we even get into this, we’ll start by saying that the fire that has damaged Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, is a terrible shame. It’s a beautiful and historic building, full or priceless artifacts which would be irreplaceable if destroyed. It’s also a stunning building from an architectural point of view, and having been constructed over eight centuries ago, it would have been a loss to the world if it had been completely destroyed. It could have been rebuilt in the same image, but it wouldn’t be the same building.

The good news is that it wasn’t lost. The spire may have fallen, but the rose window and the towers are still intact, and the majority of the building has suffered little more than superficial damage. Restoring the Cathedral to its former glory may take time, but it’s achievable without any significant loss. Most crucially of all, nobody died. The worst injuries sustained were to fire service officers who bravely tackled the blaze.

With all that said, the amount of money that has now been pledged to its restoration is both obscene and offensive; especially when contrasted with what happened in London’s Grenfell Tower in June 2017.

The Scars Of Grenfell

For those who don’t know the story, Grenfell Tower was a tower apartment building which served as home to 350 people – mostly poor and immigrants – which caught fire in June 2017, resulting in significant loss of life. A faulty refrigerator in an apartment sparked a fire, which broke through the apartment’s window and ignited faulty cladding which was attached to the exterior walls of the building. A later investigation revealed that the cladding wasn’t fit for purpose, should never have been used on a building of Grenfell’s size or height, and was only installed because it represented a saving of less than $10,000 for the local authority in London who paid for it to be fitted. Had they parted with the comparatively small sum of money to fit the correct cladding, it’s likely deaths would have been averted. The fire would certainly have spread less quickly.

Nearly two years on, families who lost everything in the fire but escaped with their lives are still waiting to be re-homed. Criminal investigations into how much liability local authorities should bear are ongoing, but there’s been a significant shortfall in funding when it comes to providing the people who lost their homes with somewhere else to live. Eighteen months after the disaster, British Chancellor Philip Hammond announced the release of £28m (approximately $40m), which was clearly inadequate in the context of the £1bn ($1.6bn) of rehousing, rehabilitation and restitution costs which need to be covered.

$1.6bn is, even for a country with the size and economic power of the United Kingdom, a lot of money. It is not, however, an insurmountable amount of money; especially given that the UK’s foreign aid budget is in excess of $18bn and that it’s already indicated that it intends to send financial support for the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Bottomless Pits Of Wealth

At the time of writing, the amount of money that has so far been pledged to the restoration of Notre Dame has exceeded $700bn. That includes donations worth millions of dollars from Disney, Apple, and L’Oreal. French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault has donated $140m. Fellow French billionaire Bernard Arnault has pledged more than $300m. Pinault’s closest adviser has subsequently suggested that such large donations should be tax deductible – which would effectively pass the cost on to the French public.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of donating to the restoration of the Cathedral in this way – and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of rich French patriots who want to help one of their country’s most famous landmarks in its recovery – the money was never likely to be necessary. Saving Notre Dame was never a matter of cost; it was a matter of battling the flames. Once it became evident that battle had been won, the cost was always going to be covered. Notre Dame is a Catholic Cathedral; one of the most important Catholic sites in the entire world outside of the Vatican. And if there’s one thing the Vatican isn’t short of, it’s money.

Anybody who’s ever seen the Vatican in person can testify that it’s as rich as it is beautiful. There’s gold and marble everywhere. The Vatican is a center of power as much as it is a focus of worship. If the Pope and his church decided that Notre Dame must be rebuilt, then it would be rebuilt without question or concern for the price. The Catholic church is the richest financial institution in the world. In metaphorical terms, a Cathedral is a temple. More specifically, the Notre Dame Cathedral – or any valuable Catholic asset – is like the Temple of Treasure slot game at Rose Slots. When you spin the reels in that temple-themed slot the symbols in the game collapse and come tumbling down, with more symbols coming rolling in from above. Often, they bring more riches with them. The more things fall down, the more scope there is for money to be made. In the same way, when you knock down the walls of any building that the church cares about, you’ll find plenty of money rushing in to fill the space. There’s always credit in the Church’s account for another spin of the reels, and the odds are always stacked in their favor.

The people donating to Notre Dame haven’t saved the building; they’ve just picked up the tab for a repair bill that someone else was going to pay anyway.

Unholy Ironies

In the process, we all seem to have forgotten one of the church’s central teachings; that one human life is worth more than all the gold in the world. Rarely has there been so stark a reminder of that than the rush of the super-rich to be seen donating vast sums of money to Notre Dame in the past week, compared to the complete lack of anybody willing to do the same to support the people of Grenfell, and their lost tower.

Depressingly, it seems that bricks and mortar are still valued far more highly than human lives, and symbols of wealth and opulence carry more weight than the bodies of the poor. Very soon, hundreds of millions of dollars will pour into the accounts of the French authorities, earmarked for an ambitious restoration project.

In Grenfell, their pockets are still empty.


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