Sustaining Our Identity

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Issue 10 - Heritage


Sublime: Why does heritage have a reputation of being old-fashioned or irrelevant, especially for young people?

Francesco Badarin: Maybe we have to define ‘heritage’ better. We are in London, and if we walk through Trafalgar Square, that’s heritage! You don’t need to go too far to find heritage. The National Gallery, that’s heritage; Buckingham Palace, that’s heritage. It’s a vast concept but in reality it encapsulates most of our daily experience. We have to look at the world that surrounds us with different eyes, and realise that we can easily lose the identity and the values around us if we don’t care about heritage.


S: I suppose when I think about heritage, I think of places that you visit, not places you inhabit

FB: On the contrary, we have to look at both. There are some places that we go and see, like the monuments of Ancient Greece, places you have to take a plane or a ship to get to, but much of our heritage is not like that. In places where there is fast growth, places like Asia, for example, heritage is threatened. These places all look alike. They used to have a distinct identity, but they lost it, and this constitutes a problem.


S: You talk a great deal about the tools you have at your disposal for your heritage work, the various charters and their limitations. What changes would have to be made, or new charters drafted, for these limitations to be done away with?

FB: Charters such as the Charter of Venice [the 1964 International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites] are essentially ways of putting collective thinking down on paper, so they have the validity of a law if people follow them. If people don’t follow them they have no power; in fact, far less power than a law! In a way, they are also a piece of history and have to be seen as such. Perhaps we have to renew our system of understanding and update our tools – our charters and our documents – to deal with new phenomena.


S: When you say ‘new phenomena’, are you referring to climate change?

FB: Yes. In this decade we are witnessing the largest scale of urbanisation in the history of humanity. It’s going to be massive! We’re talking about literally billions of people moving from the countryside to the city. As we know, this affects mostly Asia – China and India. But then the shockwaves arrive here. There is migration, and so on. This is nothing new: urbanisation simply means that the communication channels with other parts of the world are open! This enormous push for urbanisation in turn requires high-density or high-rise buildings, so it affects both the built environment and the landscape.


Second, I think that global tourism as an industry will have a major impact on quality of life. I spoke to my colleagues at the UNWTO (United Nations World Tourist Organisation) and the projections are that over the next fifteen years there will be a doubling of international tourism from the present 600m tourists a year to 1.2bn. As you can imagine, the impact on heritage of all that tourism will be awful, whether it’s the pyramids of Egypt or the centre of London.


There are other factors. You mentioned climate change. This affects everybody, as well as culture and natural heritage. People think it’s only about the melting of the ice caps, but it’s not. We have a lot of cultural sites that are threatened. There are places where this is very important, like Timbuktu, for example, where heavy rains in 1999, 2001 and 2003 caused the collapse of traditional earthen buildings and mud mosques. Also, rising temperatures and lower-than-average annual rainfall will increase damage from wind-blown sand as well. Another factor is energy. Energy demand will explode in 10 to 15 years. There will be more oil wells, more gas pipelines, more ports, more ships. All this will have an impact on our natural sites, on our cities, on harbours, on traffic, on pollution – I could continue. It’s a worrying scenario.


S: Is there an inherent contradiction in the existence of your World Heritage List, in that once a site gets on the list, it garners interest and attention, but it also presumably experiences a marked increase in tourism? Isn’t it ironic that in order to save a place we need to hurt it more?

FB: We are aware that sometimes we may spark a tourist boom by putting a place on the list. On the other hand, I feel it’s better to put a place under the protection of international law because it offers more chances for its survival. And we are very careful now. We require proper regulations, proper institutional responsibilities, proper financing and proper management plans before we allow sites onto the list. We don’t let them on if there isn’t a panoply of tools in place to maintain a site.


S: You talk of the ‘sacralisation of monuments’ and monuments being taken out of context. What do you mean exactly, and is this a bad thing?

FB: ‘Sacralising’ monuments puts them in a special place. One example is the Temple of Borobudur in Indonesia, probably one of the largest Buddhist temples in the world after Angkor. The temple partially collapsed, and UNESCO came in with a big campaign in the 60s and 70s. The temple was gradually restored and now it’s a marvel. At that point it became a museum. In a way it was taken away from the Buddhist community, since they were prevented from performing rituals. It was put into a different state; now it is for the tourists. This extraction of a building, monument or site from its traditional life and connection to the community is a process whereby the system of values is diminished, if not lost.


S: But what about a city like Rome? How could the Romans make use of the ancient monuments and ruins in their city in any way that is pertinent to their daily lives?

FB: Rome is a very interesting case. In the 20s and 30s it was cleaned and sanitised under Mussolini. He took away entire neighbourhoods and then built roads around, across, over and under the city, which destroyed an important stratification of heritage going back centuries. There was no scientific purpose to this exercise. It wasn’t done as archaeological research. It was essentially ideological. Many other places have followed similar patterns.


This sanitisation, where monuments are extracted or cleaned up, is a process that sacrifices part of the heritage that has been accumulated over a long period of time. Heritage is also history; history that is built over centuries. A more modern view of heritage would probably leave the signs of the passage of time on buildings and cities.


S: Can you give me an example of a city in which this stratification of history and past eras has been respected?

FB: The case of Prague is an interesting one because of the recent policy to maintain the values of the historic centre from the last 20 years. The effort that has been made to bring the city back to its original splendour through careful restoration is really quite remarkable.


S: You speak of the problems of putting up new buildings in city centres. Does that mean you don’t like modern architecture very much?

FB: Quite the reverse, I am a fan of modern architecture! It’s one of the most important creative expressions of humanity. The point that I was making was about the formal and structural, even philosophical relationship between a new building and its context. This relationship is fundamental. You should want to respect the values of the place. It is possible to insert modern architecture in historic places, but you have to look at the place, and you have to understand its morphology, how it came about; what the values embodied in the materials of the spaces are. It’s not easy, so people prefer not to do it. If, on the other hand, the context is an airport, then you are free to do what you want, to experiment. Your only limits in this case are technological.


S: Is it better to build something striking or conceptual rather than something mediocre and bland?

FB: Take the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao by Frank Gehry. It’s an extraordinary building; for this part of the world at least, it was quite a pioneering building. It was located in the right place, outside the city and in an industrial area. But above all it is a building that has changed the face of Bilbao. It has put Bilbao on the international map. It is so good that every mayor wants a building like that. But you can’t have it everywhere. Take the Guggenheim Museum and put it in the middle of Siena, and it would be a disaster!


It’s important to look at the context. This is what architects, especially the stars, do only rarely. Of course some do, such as the Spaniard Rafael Moneo – his buildings are really integrated – or David Chipperfield. Even Renzo Piano looks at context, and Norman Foster did a very good design with the Maison Carré in Nimes. It is in front of a Roman temple, and in my view this is an exceptional way of dealing with a modern building alongside an ancient monument. First of all, it follows a certain rhythm and the volumes are compatible, but also it’s a building that doesn’t compete.


I think architecture has always been a social art; you cannot exclude the context of the place and its history, its community, its values. I believe that the modern landscape belongs to the public, not to private entrepreneurs or the owners of a lot of land. You cannot alter the urban landscape significantly unless it is a collective decision. And this is what most mayors don’t understand, including the [former] mayor of London. London doesn’t belong to the builders of skyscrapers, it belongs to its citizens.

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