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Category: Archeology and monuments (Page 1 of 6)

Pyramids of waste

“What can be said of a culture whose legacies to the future are mounds of hazardous materials and a poisoned water supply? Will America’s pyramids be pyramids of waste?”

–Giles Slade, Made to Break (2006)

I think that Giles Slade meant for this comment to be ironic, not taken literally. In the opening of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, Slade compares the landfills of modern America with the pyramids of ancient Egypt. As Slade would have it, it is an indication of our societal decadence that the great mounds that we raise are not tombs for our god-kings but final resting places for our junked PCs, outmoded cell phones, and plastic pop bottles.

Of course, ordinary domestic landfills don’t really look like pyramids. Sometimes they have rectangular ground-plans; often they don’t. But there is at least one waste-containment mound that actually resembles a pyramid. It is in Missouri. And I’ve been there.

Weldon Spring Site is 30 miles west of St. Louis. During World War II, it was home to a munitions plant, which was converted to a uranium-processing facility in the Cold War. Like so many other Cold War industrial sites, Weldon Spring had plenty of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste lying around when it was abandoned in the 1960s. The Department of Energy took over the site twenty years later and began cleaning it up. All the untreatable chemical and radioactive waste from the site was entombed in an enormous mound. With its sloping sides and flat top, the mound looks a bit like a Mesoamerican pyramid, not so much an Egyptian one. (It is also a little reminiscent of the Cahokia Mounds nearby in Illinois, built by the Mississippian mound-builders.)

I should hope that some of modern America’s more inspiring monuments prove as durable as our pyramids of waste. At least what the Weldon Spring pyramid says about us is that we cared enough to clean up the mess we created (albeit twenty years late).

The Weldon Spring waste mound from across the visitor center parking lot.

The Weldon Spring waste mound viewed from the visitor center parking lot.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The sloping flank of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The stairway to the top of the waste pyramid.

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotiuhuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The broad crest of the Weldon Spring waste pyramid. (Where the builders of Teotihuacán would have erected a temple for sacrifices, the Department of Energy has placed benches and interpretive plaques.)

The spirit of Gothic and Notre Dame of Paris

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Notre Dame on fire. (Source: Wandrille de Préville on Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0)

On Monday this week, the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris caught on fire. In what appears to have been a freak accident related to restoration work going on at the time, the cathedral’s medieval wooden roof caught fire and was totally destroyed. Initial news reports indicated that the entire church would be destroyed, but the bell towers were spared and the stone vaults over the nave remain mostly intact.

With this much of the structure remaining, it is obvious that the great church can and should be rebuilt. While the structure was still smoldering, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed that the people of France would rebuild the beloved cathedral.

How to go about the reconstruction is another question. It will clearly be an expensive undertaking that will entail many difficult technical and aesthetic questions. What materials and techniques should be used for the reconstruction? And what should it look like?

Some articles and editorials I have read assert that the church should be rebuilt exactly as it was before, even using the very same techniques used in the 12th and 13th centuries, such as erecting giant wooden frames in the nave for reconstructing the damaged sections of the vaults. I do not see the point of this. The High Middle Ages, when Notre Dame of Paris was built, was an era of technological innovation, with extensive use of machinery and even fossil fuels. If they could know, the master builders of Notre Dame would understand if we used steel scaffolding to rebuild their church.

In the same way, I feel that it is important that the rebuilt roof of Notre Dame should not be a slavish copy of the original. The spirit of Gothic architecture is one of creativity and inventiveness. President Macron expressed this spirit well when he declared that Notre Dame would be rebuilt more beautiful than before. Doing otherwise would be contrary to the spirit of Gothic and the High Middle Ages.

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexanre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Nineteenth-century engraving of Notre Dame Cathedral by Alfred-Alexandre Delauney. (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

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The ex-churches of Quebec

Quebec was colonized in the 17th century by France, a country that remained largely Catholic even as England, northern Germany, and other parts of Europe were turning Protestant. Like the mother-country, Quebec became Catholic. Protestants were not even allowed to settle there. Only after the British takeover of Canada in the mid-18th century was Protestantism even tolerated in Quebec.

In much more recent times, Catholic Church membership and attendance have dropped off sharply in Quebec, and many congregations have had to close their doors. The availability of deconsecrated church buildings has given rise to some intriguing examples of adaptive reuse. On a recent visit to Quebec, I saw one church that had been converted into a restaurant and another that was a fitness center. Neither use really makes sense to me, because they do not take advantage of the single large, enclosed space that is a hallmark of churches.

Decline in church membership is only one reason why churches might be converted to other uses or torn down. Another is urban redevelopment, which is carried out with particular ferocity on the land-hungry island of Montreal. Churches—along with many other buildings of historic value—disappear and are replaced by new construction.

But they don’t all disappear without a trace. On the corner of Viger and St. Denis streets, there stands a lonely church tower without a church. This is the tower of Trinity Anglican Church, built in 1865 and demolished in 2011 to make room for a giant new hospital, University of Montreal Health Centre. The tower was rebuilt in 2016, using the original stones. Even as the city is redeveloped, this memento of the past has been retained.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The Gothic church tower has been integrated into the glassy facade of the hospital.

The Gothic church tower reflected in the glassy facade of the hospital.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church (in French) is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

Vanishing Montreal blog has pictures of Trinity Anglican Church shortly before and during its demolition.

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