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Notre-Dame and Al-Aqsa: why was the response so different?

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Mohit Buch, Harsha Gore, Jasmine Lawrence, Flora Jing Lin Ng

The architecture world’s reaction to the damage to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2021 was very different to that of the Notre-Dame fire in Paris two years earlier

As the holy month of Ramadan concluded in May this year, an unprovoked raid by Israeli forces on Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem triggered escalations that resulted in severe damage. While the international media documented these attacks, the architecture world remained uncharacteristically silent as a prominent place of worship turned into a site of chaos that left many seriously injured. 

The symbolic Al-Aqsa compound hosts Islam’s third holiest site – the Mosque itself, and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

It has long been a site of conflict and has physically endured damage for decades yet the scarring on the compound from the raids was severely underreported by the architecture community. This perceived lack of awareness is further heightened when the responses toward the damage to Al-Aqsa are placed alongside the rightful grief following the fire at the Notre-Dame in 2019. In stark contrast, Notre-Dame attracted the collective regret of the discipline, and it is hard to pin this on much apart from architecture’s bias towards Western incidents.

At first, it may seem as though the comparisons of the two events are without overlap, however, upon investigation these concerns are proved untrue. Some may think that the attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque are too political and volatile for architects to wade into, which begs the simple question: since when were architects afraid of politics? 

In recent memory we have seen everything from competitions to reimagine the US-Mexico border wall to an examination of the design of Paris’s Place de la République for protests. In fact, as the US Capitol was ransacked in January 2021, architecture media platforms covered the atrocities from beginning to end as it lay besieged. Such enthusiasm should come as no surprise as the discipline is intertwined with our lives and decisions. 

So how do the responses compare? 

A filtered search can reveal that in the first week after the fire at Notre-Dame, five major architecture media platforms had posted 29 articles directly related to the blaze; yet the Al-Aqsa Mosque received zero within the same time. Within weeks, Notre-Dame was the subject of multiple design competitions, over 200 reinvention proposals and received more than $800m in donations to continue its legacy. The Al-Aqsa received no such interest, and repair efforts relied on grassroots movements.

The Notre-Dame redesigns have not only been the focus of a documentary titled Saving Notre-Dame, but they have also become an opportunity to display cutting-edge technology with hopes of creating its ‘digital twin’. In contrast, the damage to the Al-Aqsa was inflicted during a reported ongoing restoration effort yet coverage was non-existent. Notre-Dame’s recovery continues to be the focus of ‘check in’ pieces that provide details on its journey to completion. 

Attesting to the indifference are headlines at the time of the Notre-Dame blaze when a much smaller fire had broken out at the Al-Aqsa mosque: ‘Another religious landmark was on fire at the same time as Notre Dame’. Where the mosque holds such high standing in the culture of so many, using its name should be the simplest available courtesy yet even this was not offered.

While there is no question that Notre-Dame suffered much greater material damage, should there really be such flagrant disparities in response? If we are curating the intangible qualities of our spaces when designing, this must mean that they too can be destroyed. Acknowledging this damage offers a more complete understanding of the situation.

There is an urgent need to empathise with the emotions attached to architectural models from environments unlike our own. Recognising that they deserve equal attention – regardless of the circumstances of their location – grants them the respect they are worth and encourages efforts to support them. Understanding architecture’s impact on diverse communities would help us become more empathetic as designers. What we require is a balance in enthusiasm and willingness to explore untaught topics.

Many of us have come through a heavily Europe and North America-centric education system, one in desperate need of recalibration. It is our responsibility to remedy this – by appreciating stories of architecture around the world. Exposure to more diverse movements and cultures is one of the first steps we can take in dissolving the implicit biases of the profession and its education.

By no means is architecture the missing link in today’s crises – saying so would be to trivialise such conflicts. However, when its key elements such as public space and historic buildings are the flashpoints, the connection cannot be ignored. It is important to realise our approaches to problems do not need to be identical in execution. An open call to redesign the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound is not the answer but when space becomes the setting for such hurt, the least we can do is give it our time.  

Mohit Buch, Harsha Gore, Jasmine Lawrence, Flora Jing Lin Ng are writing as representatives and on behalf of Decolonise Architecture

Image above: The Al-Aqsa compound hosts Islam’s third holiest site – the Mosque itself as well as the Dome of the Rock (pictured). Istock


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