Saturday, March 24, 2007

UNESCO don't like the Walkie Talkie Tower

They have intervened by proxy - the International Council on Monuments and Sites - and in their own right into the 20 Fenchurch Street inquiry. They are also deciding 'whether to put Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and Liverpool’s docklands onto its World Heritage Danger List this summer.'

There are only 31 sites in the entire world on this list, only one of which is an architectural site in the western world. If we could get 4 then this would be quite a coup. I for one am willing to permanently ruin the view around the Tower of London in order to get one over on the Germans in the 'number of areas which are too precious (to the world) to ruin' stakes.

Seriously though, Westminster Abbey is hardly a cathedral of global note. Westminster Palace, though striking, is only a pastiche of gothic architecture. The Tower of London is far from being a unique architectural piece (plenty of other well preserved castles around) and it's heritage is surely mainly of value to Britain, not the world. Liverpool docks on the other hand are a place of great significance for global history, but the buildings and the docks are not the important thing - it's tracing the fates of all those people who left there for America and other places that matters.

Why are these places even being considered for the list? The criteria for putting a site on the danger list talk about there needing to be a risk of destruction, but the only thing in danger of destruction in London is the view, something which is not considered in the criteria for putting something on the world heritage list (or at least, not those criteria which the London buildings were put on the list for). And, lest we all forget, St Paul's - the building always at the centre of the hoo-ha - isn't even a world heritage site. There really isn't much coherence to the heritage argument against constructing tall buildings.

The trouble is that UNESCO has this worthy aim of preserving heritage, but in truth, in this age of tourism and photography, most of the rest of us only really care about the view. Some of the UNESCO's criteria for world heritage relate to outstanding architecture and 'superlative natural phenomena', but such is the clamour for protecting nice (though not globally significant) sights that they, I suppose, feel compelled to make the case for preserving the view for all heritage sites which people like looking at, even if it's not in their remit for a particular case.

To sum up - the view is worth preserving, but it's not UNESCO's place to say so.

What the hell is world heritage anyway? I do find the concept a strange one. UNESCO's criteria I imagine identify some pretty worthy things to protect (North Wales' castles, for instance), but are the North Wales castles of world heritage importance? Would world history be impoverished if they were gone? Would it be impoverished if any of the things on the list were gone? If all of them were gone? It's difficult to know what we can expect the world population to make of any of these sites other than their being beautiful and fascinating. I doubt those words are what the people at UNESCO would like heritage to be reduced to, but it's good enough for me.

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