Visionary Power, Producing the Contemporary City
"The POWER of UNESCO World Heritage"
publication - contribution

International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam, Berlage Institute

NAi Publishers, Rotterdam

contribution by Paul Burgstaller and Ursula Faix:

The POWER of the UNESCO World Heritage
Macchiavelling the power of world heritage

Fake Views
A close look at postcards of Innsbruckreveals that most are montages. Themountains have been adjusted to a desirableangle, equipping the city with a morespectacular backdrop; unsightly viewshave been erased and replaced – sometimeseven with portions of outdatedphotographs. These fake postcards havebecome deep-seated idealized images ofthe city. Many contribute significantly totourists’ expectations of the city, providinga sort of preconditioned visual experience.In cities like Innsbruck, tourism’sbond to the preconditioned image of thecity is sometimes much stronger than itsconnection to the ‘physical city’ – raisingthe question of whether it is the real or themanifested image of a city that should bepreserved. How far can we go in changingthe substance of a city before it is noticed?

Personal Heritage
According to the latest research, ourbrains have the ability to store all dataacquired during our lifetimes, although inthe long term, we only consciously retainwhat has an ‘emotional tag’ on it.1 Overtime, good and bad memories become condensedand idealized montages that relateto other experiences. World Heritage siteswork in a manner similar to the emotionaltags in the human brain that contribute topersonal heritage: they retain memories,each of which has an emotional tag.Since ‘memory attaches itself to sites’2and every building has a ‘metaphoricalside’,3 sites and buildings are alwaysrelated to human memory. The differencebetween personal and cultural heritage,however, lies in the power figure declaringwhat qualifies as ‘cultural heritage’, andis therefore worthy of preservation. Is culturalheritage the lowest common denominatorof personal heritage?

The POWER of Listing
In the case of the UNESCO cultural WorldHeritage, it is the UNESCO World HeritageCommittee,4 consisting of 18 to 21 persons,with its advisory bodies,5 that hasthe power to decide which properties6 ofthe applying state parties will receive theinternational recognition of being includedon the UNESCO World Heritage List.New UNESCO World Heritage inscriptionsare announced publicly each yearafter the UNESCO World Heritage Committeemeeting. After a two-year applicationand evaluation process, to finally earna position on the list is an emotional eventfor an applying state party. This publicationleads to increased media attention,and potentially the attraction of tourists,however remote the property may be.Alternatively, a property can be relegatedto UNESCO’s Red List7 due to, forinstance, a large urban development ora dilapidated neighbourhood. Althoughplacement on the Red List has no legalconsequences per se, it humiliates a city,generating the sort of public debate thatpoliticians fear. The Red List is thus asignificant instrument of power for theUNESCO World Heritage Committee. But,could it also be used as a tool? Could acity deliberately provoke, in order to be‘punished’ with a position on the Red List,and thereby attract more tourists? If Innsbruckhad World Heritage status, wouldits new projects – ‘Hungerburgbahn’8 and‘Kaufhaus Tyrol’9 – put it on the Red List?

The POWER of Blurriness
If a UNESCO World Heritage city plans alarge urban development, the intentionis for the project to be approved by theUNESCO World Heritage Committee andits advisory bodies. The project is judgednot for its architectural qualities, but forits potential interference with the city’scultural heritage. For this evaluation,images or renderings are consulted.Although each UNESCO World Heritageproperty has a defined ‘core’ and ‘bufferzones’, architectural developments outsidethese zones are evaluated in cases wherethey obstruct the views of a site, reducingthe UNESCO heritage city to frozen imagesfrom certain viewpoints, mostly definedby ancient idealized paintings10 or (fake)postcards.Interestingly enough, the UNESCOWorld Heritage zone system is a schemeusually used for peacekeeping actions11in war zones. In contrast, preservationzones issued by the municipality in citieslike Innsbruck are defined by clear linesor borders. A building is either inside oroutside the zone. Is it possible to rethinkthe borrowed territorial zoning tool bydeveloping a different tool?

UNESCO Business
It is not money that makes the UNESCOWorld Heritage Committee powerful (itsannual budget of four million US dollarsis vanishing), but the fact that UNESCOWorld Heritage is an idealistic label withthe tourism industry as its closest parasitically. The mix of international recognitionand economic value for an applyingstate party makes fundraising forthe company UNESCO World Heritageunnecessary. With more applying stateparties than can be processed per year,the UNESCO World Heritage Committee isbooked for the coming five decades.

The Power of Withdrawal
One problem concerning the protectionof UNESCO World Heritage cities is thatevery architectural development is forcedinto a role subordinate to the manifestedimage of that city. Another is that nosolutions have been found for cities thathave been abandoned by their residents,because UNESCO’s restrictions restrainedtheir ability to grow with the actual needsof the population. A third problem is thenegative impact of tourism in once remotetowns. The Vienna Memorandum12 wasan important step in finding an adequatesolution, especially for ‘living heritages’,but has shown no impact on ICOMOS’ decisions.Imagine cities like Vienna or Graz,no longer able to stand the pressure ofWorld Heritage, seeing withdrawal as theonly way out. Would the withdrawal suddenlyprovoke a swap of hierarchies andweaken the power of the UNESCO WorldHeritage Committee?

Like emotional tags in the human memory,heritage is a fact that we need to dealwith. Is it possible to preserve a dynamicprocess like a city? Could the virtual sideof heritage, which has been neglectedin the cultural heritage debate so far,unleash the potential to introduce a differentlogic to the implementation of heritage?What can we inherit from deviceslike Google Earth, You Tube and SecondLife in order to develop urban planning?Returning to the fake postcards ofInnsbruck, we could see them not onlyas fake images producing the manifestedimage of the city, but also as the linkingof fore- and background, or of two highlyranked images of the city. The postcardsintroduce the virtual aspect of memoriesto ‘cityness’. Our project replaces the outdatedzoning tool with a newly developedranking tool in order to better respondto the needs of city dynamics. It uses thepower of the Architecture Biennale tolaunch the Innsbruck-based prototype ofHeritageRank, a dynamic notion of heritage.

Text editor: Jennifer Sigler

Paul Burgstaller, Ursula Faix