Let us bring to life in our imaginations this joyful spectacle. Let us stop a moment to read these lines and put clearly before our eyes the white cathedrals against the blue or gray background of the sky. We must get that image into our hearts. And then we shall be able to continue our reflections […] Eyes that see, persons with knowledge, they must be allowed to construct the new world. When the first white cathedrals of the new world are standing, it will be seen and known that they are something true, that something has really begun. With what enthusiasm, what fervor, what relief, the about-face will be made! The proof will be there. Fearful, the world first wants proof.
— Le Corbusier, When the Cathedrals Were White
La Grotte des Demoiselles can be found near Saint Bauzille de Putois in the Languedoc region of France. It is a testament to the passage of time and gradual transformation. A place of erosion, as water has hollowed out sections of limestone, collapse and growth. The Grotte is a living museum of stalactites and stalagmites that have developed over a period of 9-10 million years. It is estimated that some of the enormous stalactites, for example, have gained 10cm in length every one hundred years. That is incremental growth in action over an incredible expanse of time.
The result, especially in the central cavern known as the Cathédrale des Abîmes, is breathtaking. The Cathédrale is filled with columns and pillars, as well as structures that look like stone forests and shoals of jellyfish. There is even a stalagmite towards the bottom of the Cathédrale that could be a man-made statue of the Virgin and Child. The chamber is a natural wonder, so magnificent and surreal in structure and artistry, that it seems unreal, not of this world. It resembles a set lifted from cinematic fantasy, straight from the mind of a film magician like George Méliès.
Whatever we aspire to, whatever we hope to innovate or create, nature has anticipated us. It either supplies us with a template to copy – the vines of trees, and the structures they support, teaching us how to design suspension bridges, for example – or it provides us with the raw materials and sources of energy that we harness in our endeavours. It provides succour and education, supporting the fragile vessels of our lives and illustrating, constantly, that everything is subject to change, evolution, transformation and growth.
Many of the structures contained in the cavernous depths of the Grotte can also be seen replicated in man-made structures that reach for the heavens. Medieval places of worship, as well as the Gothic reworkings of later centuries, echo and mirror the ornamentation and natural artistry of the Cathédrale. Both have required an investment of time to take on their current form. In the case of Chartres Cathedral, for example, it is thought that five different cathedrals have occupied this same location. Work on the building that stands today began in 1194 when a fire damaged the 12th-century cathedral. The new edifice was completed in 1250 some 56 years later. This was an era when life expectancy was significantly shorter than it is today. It follows, therefore, that a huge number of builders and artisans that contributed to the construction and ornamentation of the cathedral never saw the final fruits of their labour.
My own view is that effective change – societal, political, workplace, institutional – requires a similar expanse of time to take root and be fully realised. Our work as advocates of the new, the alternative, is likely to result in transformative change that we will not ourselves enjoy. But our children may. Our grandchildren almost certainly. Religion and mythology teach us that the prophets do not get to enjoy the promised land. We are sowing the seeds and cultivating the landscape. Future generations are the ones who will reap the harvest.
It falls to us to engage in a form of organic leadership, helping create the conditions in which others can flourish, helping make manifest the things of dreams. This brings into play notions relating to servant leadership and stewardship. Everything we do in our efforts to rethink and change the workplace and other aspects of our society is for the benefit of others. We have a vision of what the outcome will be many years hence but, accepting that we might not enjoy that ourselves, our focus has to shift to the process and to the activity of fostering, catalysing and realising change.
Interestingly, this echoes a school of thought in the sporting arena, where you often hear athletes and coaches talking about how they focus on the process rather than the desired goal. Get the process right, people like Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford argue, and the results will follow. This is not process in the constraining sense that we associate with corporate rulebooks, meaningless metrics and management bottlenecks. It is more an adaptive, collaborative endeavour. One that rarely stands still but is subject to continuous refinement and evolution. It is shaped by both human input and human action.
This idea of the humanisation of process is attractive to me. I have always been put off by the term ‘best practice’, probably because of its suggestion of an idealised state, a pinnacle that has been attained and upon which a flag has been planted, a camp set up. I cannot accept that the quest for improvement will have an end date. That there is anything that we cannot make better in however marginal a way. That our innate creativity and potential to innovate will have run its course. So, for me, the practices of others are educational. They are sources of learning and inspiration, scaffolding for my own work. But they are not something simply to be duplicated without constructive challenge and inquiry. You have to make them your own. Remodel and repurpose them if necessary.
Picasso said, every act of creation is first an act of destruction. In Revolutionary France of the early 1790s the people embarked on a process of de-Christianisation transforming Roman Catholic cathedrals like Notre Dame into Temples of Reason. They removed, defaced, modified and transformed artworks that represented the old hierarchy of Church and Nobility, reclaiming these great edifices, and the network of streets that led to them, for the people. For liberty, equality and fraternity. For philosophy and reason. In the Industrial Revolution that followed, people sought to build new cathedrals in the forms of factories, railway terminals, bridges and power stations. Testaments to humanity’s ingenuity and engineering capability.
Today, a more subtle form of revolution and reformation is underway. It is to be seen in how we repurpose and renovate the monuments of the industrial age. We are transforming buildings and institutions previously associated with the captains of industry. A new generation of workers are claiming lofts as art studios, power stations as galleries, railway buildings as food markets and restaurants, and factory spaces as hives of start-up business endeavour more in keeping with the era of knowledgeable networkers.
Enabled by technological advances, we are also building on the foundations laid by the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto. Our embryonic change communities span time and place, they foster diversity and recognise the potential of the individual. We have created digital Temples of Reason, inhabited by people who commune in both virtual and physical spaces. These are communities and movements that have been built through the hyperlink. The connection of people and knowledge facilitated by fluctuating networks. Our new cathedrals are digital spaces and human communities.
There is a need for us to be constantly nurturing ideas – our own and those of other people – pushing at the edges, stretching boundaries. We have a duty to help create the right conditions in which others can extend human achievement and creativity, whether in the arts, the sciences, our social institutions or the world of work. We have a responsibility to see ideas get put into action, ensuring that learning feeds in to the refinement of process, so that one day the product of transformative change can truly be enjoyed by those that follow us.
Water, minerals and time were the raw ingredients that went into the construction of the Grotte. Human endeavour and artistry were what shaped medieval structures like Chartres Cathedral. Our curiosity and thirst for knowledge continue to fuel the different ages of Enlightenment. Time is the ingredient we share. Time to experiment and learn, time to create and build. The changes we aspire to are evolutionary and do not happen overnight. We are building our own cathedrals, thinking of the future – adding a few centimetres, seeking marginal gains – as each small step leads us to a bigger goal for the benefit of future generations.