The Fire At Notre Dame, A Firsthand Account

3 minute read:

On April 15, 2019 at 6:58pm I was lying on the couch in boxer briefs trying to motivate myself to go grocery shopping when my phone started buzzing non-stop. I looked at one of my journalism group chats and saw this:

The photo was taken by Justine Guerin, then sent to Andrei Popoviciu, who posted it in the group chat at 6:58pm.

Beneath the photo I saw the messages: “Notre Dame” then “Fucking hell.”

My girlfriend was giving a seminar at La Sorbonne, right near Notre Dame, so I immediately texted her and ran to the metro. We met outside the Maubert – Mutualité stop, embraced, and threaded our way through the crowds to the Seine to get a better view of Notre Dame. My first view of the fire was this (Instagram video):

On my phone I wasn’t able to verify the cause of the fire, I only saw more pictures of smoke on group chats and on twitter. 


Construction of Notre Dame began 856 years ago, in 1163, and was finished in 1354, so everyone who began the project were dead before they saw the results of their labor. During the early 1800s Notre Dame was neglected and falling apart, until Victor Hugo published “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame/Notre-Dame de Paris,” in 1831, revitalizing interest in the structure. Some great quotes from the book:

“Life without love is only a dry wheel, creaking and grating as it revolves.”

“The consciousness of having spent the other hours to good purpose is an excellent sauce on the table.”

“I would rather be the head of a fly than the tail of a lion.” 

“I am a poet. Men of my profession are addicted to walking the streets at night.”            

Upon reaching the Seine, the first photo I took of the fire up close was this, at 7:42pm:

The fire was becoming worse and worse, and six minutes later it nearly covered the entire roof:

Police had roped off the street. There was a feeling of awe and shock throughout the crowds, murmuring voices, and raised phones. Most of the faces were either solemn or in tears:

J.W. Kash All Rights Reserved

At one point there was someone pushing behind us, and I felt someone open the front pocket of my backpack. When I turned around to confront the thief, the man was already moving quickly through the crowds. Luckily, I had nothing in the pocket besides exploded pens, contacts, and dental floss. Mental note: be careful of your belongings when distracted by disasters.

The fire was spreading from north-west and to south-east and destroying the roof. The gothic spire crumbled and fell. The falling spire would be the cover of numerous newspapers the next day.

Someone nearby mentioned that the cause was being attributed to a renovation accident. But I was suspicious of this…

In 2017, the New York Times wrote an article claiming that the Notre Dame cathedral was in desperate need of renovation. The renovation was expected to cost nearly $180 million. While I was initially suspicious that a renovation accident could cause such a massive and wild fire, subsequent research revealed to me that Notre Dame is quite flammable, and even a tossed cigarette or a spark from a faulty machine could have been the cause. 

The fire officially broke out at 6:45pm (13 minutes before I saw it on my phone, the power of social media) at the base of the 93 meter spire, which was constructed out of lead and wood in the 19th century. The fire rapidly spread to the cathedral’s roof that is made up of hundreds of oak beams, some as old as the 1200s. This area is known as La forêt, or the forest. For more details of the potential cause, go here.

At one point a man (probably drunk) started screaming at the police men that it was all their fault. They ignored him.

In the distance I saw the outline of a gargoyle completely engulfed in flames, as if at the gateway to hell. Another part of the roof collapsed, sending up a plume of yellow and blue smoke, that I couldn’t help think looked beautiful:

J.W. Kash All Rights Reserved

I saw one of my classmates, Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, in the crowd with some camera equipment and waved him over. He was in intense-photographer-work-mode, and is one of the best photographers at my journalism school, SciencesPo. Here are some of the photos he took, which he has given me permission to post:

Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved
Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved
Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved
Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved
Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved
Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved

My girlfriend said, “The air smells like ash, it’s hard to breathe.” But when we turned around we realized that it was just a teenage boy smoking a cigarette right behind us. The air did have a hint of ash because of the fire, but it wasn’t that bad. Paris often smells like smoke. 

We left when the roof was gone. I saw a helicopter in the sky, a firefighter at the end of a ladder near the south-east side, and measly streams of water spraying against the north-west parts of the building. Occasionally, you’d hear crashes of debris falling and hitting other parts of the cathedral.

Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved

At 20h00/8pm French president Emmanuel Macron postponed his nation-wide speech called Le bilan du grand débat (debate), and he tweeted (translated into English):

Notre-Dame de Paris is in flames. Emotion of an entire nation. Thought for all Catholics and for all Catholics and for all French people. Like all our compatriots, I am sad tonight to see this part of us burn.

As usual, Trump shared his point of view: 

So horrible to watch the massive fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Perhaps flying water tankers could be used to put it out. Must act quickly!

On social media people shared their pictures and memories of Notre Dame. French friends of mine expressed deep sadness, calling it “absolutely horrendous,” “a sense of loss as if I had lost a piece of my identity,” and “heartbreaking.” But a consolation is that through the work of 400 firefighters, 15 hours after the fire started it was extinguished. They were able to save two Belfry towers, the stained-glass rose windows, the grand organ, and many historical relics. A priest helped rescue treasures from the Cathedral. Parisians came together and sang hymns as they watched Notre Dame burning.

Trygve Ulriksen Skogseth, All Rights Reserved

The French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault and his family have pledged 100 million euros to rebuild the cathedral. Another French billionaire Bernard Arnault, announced he would donated 200 million euros. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, announced that the city would make 50 million euros available. The church will be rebuilt. No deaths were reported.


While wandering around Paris after leaving the fire I saw people reading novels on the metro and people laughing and drinking outside cafés. There were two men tossing trash into the back of a garbage truck. In a window, somebody was hunched over a desk, consumed by a task. Churches, art, and emotions burn … life keeps moving.             

Later that night I received a message from my friend, Martin Goillandeau, who considers “Notre-Dame de Paris” one of his favorite novels. The message contained the prologue to Notre-Dame de Paris, (translated from French to English):

A few years ago, while visiting and wandering through Notre-Dame, the author of this book found, in an obscure corner of one of the towers, this word, engraved by hand on the wall:


These Greek capitals were black with age and carved deeply into the stone. I do not know which signs proper to Gothic calligraphy imprinted in their forms and attitudes, as if to reveal that it was a medieval hand that had written them there, especially the gloomy and fatal meaning they contain, strongly struck the author.

He wondered, he tried to guess what could be the grieving soul who had not wanted to leave this world without leaving this stigma of crime or misfortune on the front of the old church.

Since then, the wall has been brushed or scratched (I don’t know which one), and the inscription has disappeared. For this is how it has gone for the past two hundred years with one of the most wonderful churches of the Middle Ages. Mutilations come to them from all sides, from within and without. The priest brushes them, the architect scratches them, then the people come along, who demolish them.

Thus, apart from the fragile memory dedicated to him here by the author of this book, there is nothing left today of the mysterious word engraved in the dark tower of Notre-Dame, nothing of the unknown destiny that he summed up so melancholy. The man who wrote this word on this wall erased himself, several centuries ago, from the middle of generations, the word in turn erased himself from the church wall, the church itself may soon erase itself from the earth. That’s the word that this book is about. February 1831.

When I read this to my girlfriend, she thought of another quote, by Charles Baudelaire (from le Cygne, The Swan), which perhaps captures the feeling even more simply and eloquently: 

            Le vieux Paris n’est plus

            (La forme d’une ville change plus vite, hélas ! que le coeur d’un mortel).


Old Paris is no more.

            The shape of the city changes faster, alas, than the heart of a mortal.


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Falling Water: A Dream House and A Rising Career

“I believe in god, only I spell it Nature.”

-Frank Lloyd Wright

In 1932, it appeared that Frank Lloyd Wrights’s career as one of America’s greatest architects was over/had gradually gone down the drain. At the age of an 65 he hadn’t completed a major project since the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1923:

FLW Imperial

Final Perspective Drawing below (700+ drawings were created for this project):

FLW Final perspective drawing

Even though the Imperial Hotel seemed to solidify Wright’s fame at the time, especially as it survived an earthquake three months after completion, nine ensuing years of small projects significantly diminished his reputation. Colleagues thought he was dead. Critics considered his work anachronistic. The Great Depression was strangling possibilities for architectural projects, so in 1932 Wright did two things outside of his field with would open the door for a career-revitalization:

1.) He wrote an autobiography. (“Early in my career…I had to choose between an honest arrogance and a hypercritical humility…I deliberately choose an honest arrogance, and I’ve never been sorry.”)

2.) He became involved in pseudo-education at his home to help pay the bills (i.e. clean my bathroom and I’ll show you how to stabilize a roof with a buttress). He founded the Taliesin Fellowship:

Who here knows the Pythagorean Theorem?

Meanwhile, a young man named Edward Kaufmann Jr. was studying painting in Italy and sipping cappuccinos. He was the only child of Edward J. Kaufmann, the owner and president of Kaufmann’s department stores:

So big.
So big.

Eddie Jr. read Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography and became enamored with the man and his philosophy (ah, yes, the power of books). He moved back to America and enrolled in the Taliesin Fellowship. While working under Wright, Eddie Jr. arranged for his father to meet the great architect. The Kaufmann’s summer cottages outside of Pittsburgh were deteriorating, and Edward Sr. was considering constructing a summer home. Eddie Sr. met Wright and according to students at Taliespin there was “an immediate rapport”:

Frank and Ed chillen
“Yo Frankie, can I play the harp?” “Don’t touch my fucking harp.”

Edward Sr. commissioned Wright to build his summer home, to be located on Bear Run stream and looking at the waterfalls (picture below), 43 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, where the Kaufmanns liked to frolic and bathe:

waterfall bear run
Preferable to Pittsburgh smog

After Wright visited the site, he wrote to Kaufmann, “The visit to the waterfall in the woods stays with me and a domicile has taken vague shape in my mind to the music of the stream.” But Wright would go against Kaufmann’s initial desire for a location away from the cascade. Wright would build the house on top of the waterfalls: “No, not simply to look at the waterfalls but to live with them…making living space over and above the stream upon several terraces upon which a man who loved the place sincerely, one who liked to listen to the waterfall, might well live.”


Towards the end of 1934 and the beginning of 1935, Wright visited Bear Run stream numerous times. But he never drew a single sketch of his plan. According to his students at Taliesin, Wright received a call from Kaufmann nine months after their first meeting. Kaufmann would be arriving in two hours to check up on the plans for his house. Oh, shit. Upon hanging up the phone, Wright immediately sat down and drew all of the plans for Falling Water. Yes, like all great procrastinators, he had been letting the ideas marinate and stew:

A Final FLW FW Sketch One

A FLW Sketch 3

Construction would start in April of 1936 and be completed in 1938. Throughout construction, there were constant conflicts between Kaufmann Sr. and Wright. Local engineers informed Kaufmann that the “daring cantilevers” would collapse. When Kaufmann confronted Wright about this potential issue, Wright took offense and said: “You are not worthy to have a house of mine if you believe in that junk!” Wright requested Kaufmann return his drawings and that the project be terminated. Kaufmann gave in to the threat, and the engineer’s report was buried in a stone wall of the house. The cantilevers would hold. Sit down Kauf-daddy.

AAAA FLW horizontal
The staircase leads to the water for Sr.’s daily plunge.

The original cost was supposed to be $613,636 (in 2017 inflation adjusted dollars). The total cost ended up being $2.7 million (2017). Wright believed cost was of little concern when he was creating timeless art. Historians of architecture believe Falling Water was one of the first extravagant-private homes built for someone who wasn’t royalty. Wright also designed all of the interior furniture himself, often using his favorite color: Cherokee Red:

A FW interior 1
But where’s the beer pong table?

Wright’s passion for Japanese architecture was strongly reflected in the design, with an emphasis on interpenetrating exterior and interior spaces. Five years ago when I visited this house with my father, I felt the contradiction of being in a cozy, protective, bear-den-like place (especially on the main floor with the low ceilings, picture above) yet at the same time always feeling like I was outdoors, as you can hear the stream throughout the entire house, and the windows let in large bursts of sunlight. Also, the windows look out at the middle of trees, so you feel like you’re hovering in space when you look out:


Falling Water, the epitome of organic architecture, was a turning point for Wright’s career. He would go on to design the Johnson Wax headquarters, constructed 1936-1939:

John Wax Head
We are not the same I am a martian.

The Price Towner in 1956:

The Price Tower

At the age of 88, he would hold a press conference to build a mile-high skyscraper:

Mile high sky

And he would design the Guggenheim museum in New York City, which would be completed in 1959, three months after his death at 91:

van ice cream
Author’s note: not actually the building

Throughout the second half of Wright’s revitalized career, he would maintain his arrogance. Look Magazine reported that Wright once identified himself in court as, “The world’s greatest living architect.” When his wife told him he was being ridiculous Wright replied, “You forget…I was under oath.”

Moral: Even if you’re 65 and your career seems to be in the gutter, don’t lose hope, sustain your arrogant belief. There might be 26 years left in you. There might be a waterfall waiting.

A Frank at work

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Eight Simple Steps for Building a Skyscraper

1.) People learn things and pass it on:

For 3800 years of human civilization, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest structure in the world. To build taller without going wider (and to use less than 100,000 slaves and take less than 20 years) we needed new materials, more knowledge, and better technologies…


Such as…

-Steel (thanks to the Bessemer process established in 1854, which removes impurities from pig iron through oxidation, steel could now be inexpensively massed produced.)

-Steel frame construction (using vertical steel columns and “I” beams to create the skeleton of the building. Allowed architects to use curtain walls instead of load bearing walls, rather than “wall bearing” brick and mortar. The Home Insurance building, built in 1885, was the first to use this type of steel-skeleton construction):


-Cheap fossil fuel derived energy (steam locomotives transporting the materials to the site, powering machines, elevators, lighting, etc.)

-Reinforced concrete: invented in 1849 by Joseph Monier. It is concrete in which steel bars are embedded to increase its tensile strength.

-Passenger elevators: first one was built in 1857, located in the  E.V. Haughwout department store in NYC:


(Don’t fart in that thing)

2.) Some people get together and make a plan:

The plan must be economically and politically feasible. Architecturally speaking, we have many designs and capabilities to build skyscrapers taller than most of them currently are, but these plans rarely make economic sense. Questions have to be answered such as: What is the real estate market like and where is it going? Should we have both office and residential space? What are the zoning regulations? The air rights? What is the future of the surrounding neighborhood? Do the city officials approve? Can we get financing and all the necessary permits? Questions spiraling towards insanity ad infinitum. Building a skyscraper is like making a ridiculously complicated movie (with many different roles and a high level of coordination) except there are no double takes, timing is even more crucial (elevator installation can’t occur before the frame is up) and safety is even more of a serious concern. Numerous tests are performed before construction (windproof, fireproof, earthquake proof?) and different plans are frequently swapped (are the living and working spaces conveniently accessible and comfortable?)

Civil engineers are faced with a paradox: the only way to test for failure is to to test for all modes of failure. But the only way to know of all modes of failure is to learn from previous failures. This means that engineers can never be absolutely certain that the structure will resist all loadings, but can only have large enough margins of safety such that failure is acceptably unlikely.

Similarly, the financially viability is often, pun intended, up in the air. Both the Chicago spire (would have been the tallest structure in the Western Hemisphere) and the Russian tower in Moscow were canceled due to the global financial crisis of 2008. Sometimes the money runs out…

Nonetheless, despite the structural and financial uncertainties….

3.) Round up the team:

You need architects, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, electrical engineers, civil engineers, interior designers,
elevator consultants, acoustical consultants, geotechnical consultants, dancing midgets, marketers to sell the space, a construction team, including the general contractors and their sub-contractors.

4.) Dig a hole. A big hole.

The hole for the Lotte Jamsil Super Tower in Seoul. Estimated completion time: December 2016
The hole for the Lotte Jamsil Super Tower in Seoul. Estimated completion time: December 2016

Often the hole is a few stories deep. They dig until they hit bedrock. When the World Trade Center buildings were built more than a million cubic yards of soil and rock were removed and dumped into the Hudson River. There are many skyscrapers in NYC, not only because of the high cost of land, but because the bedrock is near the surface in midtown and lower Manhattan.

This Indian man shares my enthusiasm:


5) Install the footings (big pads to spread out the weight)

These pads spread out the weight of the building in the bottom of the pit. Keep in mind that in most building designs, the weight of the structure is much larger than the weight of the material that it will support. In architecture jargon, the dead load, i.e. the load of the structure, has to be larger than the live load, the weight of things in the structure (furniture, paperclips, taxidermied pandas, etc.). As such, the amount of structural material required within the lower levels of a skyscraper will be much larger than the material required within higher levels.

6.) Raise the frame:

This part usually takes less time than most people expect (sometimes only a few weeks). The frame is raised with the help of cranes. There are 3 ways for cranes to rise within a building. You can read about that here: Cranes. Cranes can build themselves.

The skyscraper must be able to withstand strong winds (the lateral wind load governs the structural design in Supertall buildings, higher up = higher wind pressure). Modern buildings are able to swing a few meters in each direction.

7.) Construct the inner elements: staircases, corridors, air conditioning, heating, electrical systems, chamber of secrets, drainage systems. Most importantly: elevators. The elevators take up a lot of valuable space…which infringes on the economic benefits of the floor space. Also, the concrete core walls must be constructed. These are made of thick concrete, typically around the elevators, and they are the primary system to resist wind and earthquakes.

8.) Party at the top of the skyscraper with vane, Russian photographers:


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Sources:      construction/