No sooner had the smoke cleared over Notre Dame last week than offers of millions in donations to pay for its restoration come flooding in from around the world. Among those delighted by such charity must have been not only the people of France but also Pope Francis, who won't have to break open the papal piggy bank to pay for repairs of one of his lavish branch offices.

If there were, as the old World War I saying had it, no atheists in foxholes, then the number of non-believers in Paris fell dramatically on April 15. As one Parisian and former New Zealand resident who lives near the cathedral described his reaction: "I surprised myself being emotional while being fundamentally atheist. ND is like a sweet, old grand grandma looking after us. On a more positive note, I guess those things bring people back together."

Well, yes – although as New Zealanders could tell him, such camaraderie can be fleeting.


The reaction to the Notre Dame fire made it clear that the world felt it owned the edifice in a special way. Like the pyramids or the Taj Mahal, it's an instantly recognisable tribute to human skill and creativity.

But our assessments of heritage value are extremely relative. Notre Dame has come close to serious damage, if not total destruction, before.

A few hundred years ago, for instance, there was a plan to replace the stained-glass windows with clear glass, that being on trend at the time. When the Revolution banned religion, the building was repurposed as a Temple of Reason, became a favourite of vandals and looters and fell into disrepair. It was Quasimodo who saved it. When Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame his aim was "to raise awareness" (as we would now call it) about the state of the building, and before long efforts began to restore it to the state with which millions of visitors are familiar.

We do things differently here. The Canterbury earthquakes wrought havoc on some of our finest buildings. European tycoons did not offer the $200 million-plus needed to restore, for instance, the magnificent Canterbury Provincial Chambers.

But we don't need a fire or earthquakes to obliterate our heritage when so many developers are willing to step up and do the job, supported by toothless legislation and public apathy. No one has ever been required to replace a building they have destroyed.

The number of valuable buildings demolished by real estate developers, sometimes under cover of darkness and in defiance of community sentiment is a long one.

One of our few acknowledged architectural masterpieces – John Scott's Wellington Chapel of Futuna – was allowed to deteriorate and came close to demolition before being saved at the last minute.

The exquisite His Majesty's Theatre and arcade in downtown Auckland was demolished stealthily and effectively replaced by a vacant lot in 1987.


Our record for Māori heritage is even worse. Numerous pa sites have been obliterated by roads and housing. And although they may be mouth-breathing racists, US Confederacy enthusiasts know where their Civil War battle sites are. Most Pākehā New Zealanders would be seriously challenged to point out a battle site from the New Zealand Wars, not just from ignorance or apathy but because they too have been "developed".

Notre Dame is venerated not just for its beauty but because of its age, and the tangible link it provides to the medieval past. We will never have to face the sort of decisions that are being debated in Paris about how to mend its broken cathedral. For that to happen we would have to let a building get to be 800 years old in the first place.