When I was a child, my first fascination, before I found math and science, before I found space and rockets, was famous monuments. I grew up in a tiny town of three thousand people, and when I saw pictures of these vast constructions, I loved them. The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Pyramids of Giza, the Sydney Opera House: instantly and irrevocably, their images went straight to my heart. I cut them out of magazines and taped them on my wall. My parents got me a jumbo-sized pad of graph paper, and I drew my own creations, preparing to become an architect. I didn’t always know what these structures were for, or what their history was, and I didn’t need to. By their very appearance, they were great.
When I was in 7th grade, my teacher brought a television into the classroom, and I saw one of my favorite monuments on fire. The “twin towers”, as I had always called them, were gone over the next two hours. One student in the class had been to the top. The only thing I really understood while watching the events that day is that I never would. No one talked about how sad it was to lose a monument, and they shouldn’t have, because, of course, incomparably more was lost.
When I was around ten years old, I went into our tiny town library and checked out a thousand page tome. It was a book on Notre Dame de Paris. The librarian smiled knowingly as she handed me a book that she knew I would never read. And I didn’t get very far, but it never felt strange then or now for me to have checked out that book. Why would you not want to know all about this majesty? Who wouldn’t see that book and think, yes, this is the size of book that this monument deserves.
Since then I’ve gotten to visit a lot of the icons I had put up on my wall. The Golden Gate Bridge, the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building. I will never see the World Trade Center towers, but I have seen their successor, and I have seen the stunning memorial in their footprints.
I have never been to Paris. I have never seen the Eiffel Tower, an unparalleled monument to modernity. And today, as I watched the news, I knew that I might have lost my chance to see an ancient monument to that which is timeless in humanity.
Thankfully, the people by the Seine did not mourn the loss of life today. The president of France did not console us on the loss of economic productivity. Instead, everyone knew that what we were losing was what that child had seen; one of the greatest depictions of human exaltation that we have managed to envision. A structure built for no other purpose than to make real our sense that there is something in this world so profound, so beautiful that we cannot just describe it; we must make it.
Fate willing, the damage will be repaired, and I will one day be able to go to Paris and see that monument to the human soul.