​Francesco Bandarin: Don’t think we are old-fashioned

Assistant Director-General of UNESCO for Culture comments on building a Monument to Vladimir the Great and on cities forsaking their historical identity for tourists’ sake.

Photo: Ivan Gushchin / Strelka Institute

The Strelka Institute has been selected by UNESCO as a partner for the implementation of a survey on “Culture and Sustainable Urban Development” as part of the UNESCO Global Report. Strelka’s task will be to carry out research concerning the post-Soviet space, which covers 11 countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Assistant Director-General of UNESCO for Culture Francesco Bandarin has come to Moscow to discuss the survey and express skepticism over  building a Monument to Vladimir the Great on Borovitskaya Square.

In his Strelka Magazine interview Francesco Bandarin talks about his favourite CIS countries, the controversial legacy of the 1960 and how ISIS (recognized in Russia as a terrorist organization - Ed.) actions have changed international attitudes towards cultural heritage.

— The research will comprise 11 countries of Eastern Europe. Do you have any preferences among them? Any cities you especially enjoy visiting?

First of all, I have to say that I do not know all of the countries equally well, although I’ve been to Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. It’s hard to even imagine how big the geographical and cultural differences between these countries are. Some of them come from Byzantine culture like Kiev, a city of great historical interest. Despite the fact that the city had been damaged during World War II, its monuments are still of enormous cultural value. Take the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, one of the world’s most important centres of Orthodox Christianity. Hundreds of monks, medieval churches and most sacred Christian relics make Kiev a highly spiritual place which has influenced Europe’s entire history. You can totally feel all that in Kiev, which is truly impressive.

After that, as you travel to Russia, you see a completely different thing. Saint Petersburg, a neoclassicist masterpiece, is still intact. I keep saying it’s one of the few European capitals that manage to maintain their urban landscape. Many cities have changed due to the war and real estate boom and lost their identity. For instance, think of how dramatically London has changed. Saint Petersburg, however, remains the very city it used to be 150 years ago.

Putorana Plateau / photo: istockphoto.com
Historic and Architectural Complex "Bulgar" / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Lena pillars / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Putorana Plateau / photo: istockphoto.com

— Why do you think it’s so important?

Every city consists of numerous historical layers, which at some point become heritage. Many people fail to understand that heritage itself is not a concept of the past, but a concept of today. When we declare something heritage, it’s the most modern cultural gesture to make. What we choose to preserve is of value to us here and now. At UNESCO we believe that the urban landscape should be considered a common asset. It belongs to everybody because what you see when you look out your window is the city. And the view from the window is a value each and every citizen has a right to.

— So is what happened to London a crime?

The locals have in fact sacrificed their common asset to private interests. When someone gets a permission to build a tower in the middle of a town’s historical center, the citizens obviously lose something. I have nothing against towers and, in fact, love what Herzog & de Meuron and Renzo Piano do. I just want the modern towers to be built according to common sense and good reason. La Défense in Paris is a good example of how towers grouped in one place accomplish certain functions for the city. Same with Canary Park and Canary Wharf. But building towers here and there to suit the interests of real estate investors contradicts the public interest.

Fortunately, this didn’t happen to Saint Petersburg. We were able to convince the developers not to build the Gazprom tower. I think it’s a good example of consulting citizens’ interests and a great inspiration to UNESCO. Not that we are old-fashioned or dwell on the past, we just want to preserve cultural assets. It’s not like this everywhere, though, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. Moscow, for instance, doesn’t have such a problem at all as the city’s fabric is different.

As for my favourites, I find the cities in Uzbekistan especially interesting: Samarkand and Bukhara are fantastic. It’s really hard to talk about the places I love the most, though, as they are all quite different. But the heritage of the abovementioned cities, especially Samarkand, is one of the most impressive in Central Asia, incredible examples of Iranian architecture in terms of size and ambition. However, these cities don’t seem to fully understand the modern concept of heritage. For them, heritage is not the city as a whole but only certain landmarks.

— How do you define the part of the city that should be preserved? Should it be limited to the city centre or are there any other ways of demarcation?

I think it’s important to keep a balance and use an integrated approach. If a city becomes heritage in the modern sense, not only its distinctive landmarks but also the fabric of the city itself should be preserved. It’s also important to pay attention to the citizens and not only the tourists, as usually happens in towns with many places of interest.

— Do you mean Venice?

My hometown Venice is no exception, but there are many more cities like that all over Western Europe. And I suppose, all over Eastern Europe as well. Take Prague. The market breeds monsters, shopping centers disguised as historic places, devoid of any authenticity. They are nothing but empty shells now. This is unacceptable. Heritage is not only stones or precincts. I very often come across districts which have been for some reason declared heritage, and what’s inside them is considered historical while everything on the outside is not. There live people in these cities now who took no part in creating and building them, but now try to transform them according to personal needs. Any adaptation or evolution has to make sense. There should be a balance between the residential, tourist and commercial functions of the urban landscape. If there’s no such balance, there’s no heritage, only an empty shell.

Ancient Villages of Northern Syria / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Cultural Landscape of Maymand / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Ancient Villages of Northern Syria / photo: ru.wikipedia.org

As for your region (CIS countries – ed.), there are various historical facilities and models, and it's hard to say where the situation is better. There's a lot of work to do in terms of pushing the idea that cities are complex systems requiring a complex approach, not just preserving certain landmarks.

As I have already said, all the cities greatly differ from one another but are all involved in the process called gentrification, which means that one population group leaves and another moves in. It may be the poor displaced by the rich or the permanent residents displaced by the tourists, but changes happen quite systematically because here, too, policies applied to heritage often turn it into a commercial product. Some cities deal better with that but maybe it’s due to less pressure. Gentrification is unstoppable because it’s impossible to stop market development, but it can be modified and regulated. The point is to maintain a well-balanced society, otherwise only the rich and the tourists remain.

Consulting collective interest should be the government’s concern. The market per se doesn’t have to protect any interests but its own while the government should be responsible for such things. So, at which level should the decisions be made? The Moscow government can hardly decide what’s best for Novosibirsk, so the problems should be obviously solved at the local level. However, there should be a common vision spread from the central government down to the local ones. The two tools any government can use are regulation and investment. For example, in Austria and Switzerland there’s a limit to the percentage of non-residents a mountain city can have, and it’s no more than 20 %.

— And is that what is called democracy?

It is democracy because it’s actually the decision of the majority made not to exclude someone from society but to protect society itself. And if you think of it, 20% of foreigners in the city is quite a lot. I’m not saying it’s a cure-all, it’s hard to even imagine the locals to try to do such a thing in Moscow. But you can still use investment to control gentrification and support, for example, public housing.

— One of the problems outlined in the UNESCO report is that most of the countries do not recognize their heritage as something that can bring income. Is there anything to be done with this problem and is it even a matter of international responsibility?

Of course, no one can force governments to deal with this problem, but for the last 50 years questions of heritage policies have become quite important. Shortly after World War II, only 50 countries framed their legislation after the principles of the World Heritage Convention, but now there are 200 of them. On the other hand, we have little power: we have no troops to send in to defend the heritage. We can only give advice, suggest models and hand out awards. Our work is based on moral, not physical power, but we still have achieved a lot. I think that international heritage policies have significantly changed the world over the last 50 years.

— In what way?

We’ve managed to establish some universally embraced principles like, for example, recognizing cultural heritage as a collective responsibility and value for the entire society and part of the educational process as well. And this was not the case 50 years ago.

— The period between constructing a building and recognizing it as a piece of heritage has reduced to about a year by now. Shouldn’t we be afraid that the entire world will soon become heritage with no place for new buildings?

I think we’ll have to multiply heritage as societies become more and more urban and millions of cities don’t have any heritage now. So the main question is how to produce heritage. And there exist several ways of doing this. First of all, we identify heritage and include it into various classifications. Second, we look for heritage in places where it’s not normally found, we recognize something brand new, something that differs from what we are used to as heritage. There’s so much to the world apart from monuments and cities. For example, the infrastructure has become very important recently. Railways and canals are worth considering.

— Can a double-decker become heritage?

I suppose not. Heritage has to be fixed, like canals. As for historical infrastructure, we should probably turn to the intangible dimension of heritage. There are lots of places that have spiritual and thus heritage value to people even if they don’t look exactly like a cathedral or church. And we can’t help mentioning modern architecture. Brasília is already on the World Heritage list and it’s only 50 years old! And there are many more examples.

So I think the protection of cultural heritage has a great future: the demand for heritage is very high and the supply is rather small. There are plenty of opportunities to expand what we are used to consider heritage, and it’s something good for the architects to look forward to. But all that should clearly be done with great caution, otherwise we will create amusement parks, not heritage.

— Speaking of intangible heritage, what's the right way to preserve it?

As you can see, for intangible heritage even the concept of preservation itself has to be adjusted. It's the community that decides what should be recognized as intangible heritage, but if such community ceases to exist, so does its heritage. So, basically, it’s about not even preserving intangible heritage, but protecting the community that recognizes this heritage. Look at Syria. Eight million people out of a population of 21 million have left the country – it’s almost half the population. Their community is destroyed and completely lost, scattered around Turkey and Germany. The damage that has been done to the fabric of their society is irreparable because it’s almost impossible to bring people back and reconstruct the community. That is why we have to think about their intangible heritage and how to preserve it in these tragic circumstances. When people lose everything they’ve got: their houses, jobs, children and families, they lose their heritage too. So there’s a lot of work to do to safeguard what’s left, but it’s still possible.

Temple of Bel / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Temple of Baalshamin / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Arch of Triumph / photo: istockphoto.com
Lion of Al-lāt / photo: ru.wikipedia.org
Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque / photo: Beshr Abdulhadi / Flickr.com
Mosul Museum / photo: panoramio.com
Temple of Bel / photo: ru.wikipedia.org

— And what about heritage which is not yet recognized as such? Take Soviet architecture, for example.

Soviet architecture is amazing. I’m actually staying at the Ukraine Radisson Hotel, which is Soviet, but I think my room looks nothing like it used to back in Soviet times. However, speaking about this type of architecture, I think its value is quite interesting: the buildings themselves are relatively simple but they actually form the urban structure itself. There are really important examples of modern architecture in Russia, but they are at serious risk now. In the 1920s and 1930s Russia used to be an enormous laboratory of world architecture. You should pay more attention to your heritage indeed as it has contributed to the global architecture tremendously.

— You’re speaking about the Russian avant-garde, but there’s also the post-war architecture of the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the 1960s were not a particularly fruitful time in the history of architecture. Same for the 1970s. After the war there was a huge demand of new housing and what came out of it was the system of prefabrication that filled all the European countries with enormous compounds of very poor quality, so there’s no way they can be considered heritage. Maybe some buildings were lucky enough to look better than the majority, but I’ve seen too many dull and dead buildings all over Europe as well as here. The 1950s and 1960s were really challenging for the old world because of poverty, migration and so on, so the governments had to react fast and the only thing they came up with was building these terrible compounds. And now they have become a problem themselves.

— What are the monuments you are personally most unhappy to have lost and most proud to have saved?

I can’t help remembering Palmyra after all the bombings. I’ve been to Palmyra several times in my life and I really consider it one of the most impressive archeological areas. Watching these criminals destroy it was painful indeed. I suffered when I saw it on the news and I couldn’t believe it was happening. Why does the war have to be so bad? Destruction, unfortunately, happens all the time, and at these moments we feel quite impotent as there’s almost nothing we can do to stop it. So what we do now is try to get ready to intervene and to secure every monument and every museum, to do our best to prevent damages.

I have dozens of favourite landmarks I’ve been working on saving and with which I succeeded. But I think preserving heritage is a collective effort. UNESCO is just one of the actors here, although an important one. It’s the locals who really matter. It’s up to them to decide whether something is of value to their livelihood and identity and to start interacting with the local authorities and central government.

Anyway, I believe that the issue of preserving cultural heritage has become a crucial global problem. When Palmyra was bombed, the world stopped because it was something that mattered to all of us. It was an inflicting manage to humanity as we conceive it. [это я не очень понимаю без русского или итальянского оригинала. Может, The way we see it, it was damage inflicted to humanity?]

— So have these tragic events somehow changed the importance of heritage?

They surely have. It was a threat to the values we recognize. Palmyra is very far away and could be of value only to the Syrians, but the entire world sees it as a value for humanity. And this is a big achievement for international policy to have people realize it’s part of their own heritage.

— What is the most crucial problem for you now?

The one that occupies most of my time for now is the search for heritage in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. There's so much work to do that it's nearly scary.

— You've come here to convince the Government of Moscow not to build the monument to Vladimir the Great. Why?

No, I’ve come here to discuss the thing with them. I hope they take my arguments into consideration. Again, if the Russian or Moscow society wants to build a statue here, it’s their choice. There’s no tribunal. But what I want is the value of the Kremlin as a landmark to be taken into account. I had an impression that the place is treated like a free spot to put a new monument on. In this particular case architects and urban designers could have done a much better job to try and find ways in which the area around the monument could become its integral part. If you want the statue so bad – build it, but do it thoughtfully. 

Interview: Marina Antsiperova