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Willowbank defines cultural landscapes as the places that create a sense of place and sense of identity for cultural groups of all kinds, through the combination of artifact and ritual.

Julian Smith Editorial No. 6

Welcome, reader. This is the sixth in a series of musings about the state of the heritage conservation field in Canada and internationally.

I have just returned from the annual meeting of the ICOMOS Theory and Philosophy Committee.  The meeting was held in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the subject was ‘Heritage Under Pressure: Perspectives of Historic Urban Landscapes’. The focus of the meeting was the recently adopted UNESCO Recommendation on Historic Urban Landscapes, more familiarly referred to as the HUL Recommendation. As one of the co-authors of the Recommendation, I felt a certain need to defend its theoretical orientation. 

The meeting revealed, once again, the fairly deep philosophical debates currently gripping the heritage conservation field. This was perhaps most evident in the final presentation, by Boguslaw Szmygin of Poland, Secretary General of the committee. His presentation, entitled ‘HUL Recommendation as Element of Paradigm Shift in Heritage Protection’ was a pessimistic view on the potential impact of the Recommendation. He pointed out that it introduced at least three dangerous elements – a view that historic urban landscapes are dynamic rather than static, an acceptance that the opinions of heritage experts might be qualified by the opinions of the general public, and an interpretation of the historic urban landscape as having social, cultural and economic components of value in addition to, and potentially in competition with, material values.  These views were reinforced by a number of presentations by the Europeans at the conference, who see the greatest danger to the historic urban landscape being the intrusion of contemporary architecture, particularly high-rise buildings.  

In a sense the title of Boguslaw’s paper is a reference to Gustavo Araoz and his Malta paper, which had suggested that there is a paradigm shift, whether we like it or not. There is a strong view that even the acknowledgement of a paradigm shift endangers the credibility of a carefully-constructed conservation field built on assumptions that should not be toyed with – views that privilege a material-based, more static and visual understanding of value. My own view is that not only is there a paradigm shift, but that the shift is necessary, and healthy, to ensure the sustainability of historic urban landscapes around the world. 

One of the ways of viewing the difference between the two views is the emphasis in the HUL recommendation on a layered view of the historic urban landscape. The definition in the UNESCO document reads as follows: “The historic urban landscape is the urban area understood as the result of a historic layering of cultural and natural values and attributes, extending beyond the notion of “historic centre” or “ensemble” to include the broader urban context and its geographical setting.”  The acceptance of historic layering introduces an attitude that may, by extension, accept the introduction of contemporary layers. In my view, this is appropriate, with the question then being the need to develop the tools for ensuring the development of contemporary layers that protect and enhance the historic values of the place. The HUL Recommendation provides a framework for developing such tools, insisting that contemporary interventions be harmoniously integrated, and respect regional context. This seems to me a pretty good starting point for considering specific contexts. 

A strong but poignant example of the complexity of historical layering was provided by Ms. Amra Hadzimuhamedovic, Commissioner of National Historic Monuments for Bosnia-Herzog.  Her presentation, entitled “Viva la Memoria: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape” sketched out the complex history of urban landscapes with successive religious and ethnic associations, now compounded by efforts to create new and false histories in support of current political objectives. Similar complex layerings were discussed by those involved in territories disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia. Memory is a key component of the relationship between tangible and intangible components of urban landscapes, and an aspect that must be understood as a profound modulator of value and as an impetus for intervention. In the Bosnian case, the proposed contemporary intervention – a parody of history – was neither integrated nor respectful of context. 

The development of a more dynamic view of the historic urban landscape is of course more complex and more risky than a static approach focused on protection. So too is a shift to an ecological view of the urban setting as an interplay of social, cultural, and physical forces – rituals as well as artifacts – rather than simply an emphasis on the material and visual understanding of place. But the insistence on what I would term the aesthetic bias – driven by architects and art historians and with the photograph as its primary analytical tool – is applicable primarily to those places constructed with an overarching aesthetic intent. Other than Versailles and Brasilia and Chandigarh and a few other architectural and urban design utopias, this approach may miss the components that create the memories that make historic urban landscapes so rich and so full of cultural memory.  

The meeting in Baku did not resolve the issues, and a subcommittee has been established to capture at least some of the key discussions and debates. It will then be up to ICOMOS to decide whether to produce its own document, as a companion to the UNESCO Recommendation. The Recommendation itself is not a tightly-constructed document – it has the weakness of being the product of an international committee further edited by the member states – and it may indeed be useful for ICOMOS to develop something intermediate between theory and practice. There will be an enormous challenge in developing a language that brings together the widely diverging views of its members, but the Nara Document is proof that the possibility is always there. 

Herb Stovel, one of the key architects of the Nara Document, might have been the very best choice at this point to take responsibility for a companion ICOMOS document. His recent death has left a void that was never more evident than in the context of the Baku meeting.  

Three presentations at the meeting did provide wonderful promise for moving ahead – all were intellectually provocative and carefully constructed. The presenters were Michael Turner of Israel, who spoke on ‘HUL: The Way Forward’; Vassilis Ganiatsas of Greece, who spoke on ‘The Historic Urban Landscape as Finite Attributes and Infinite Wholes’; and Silvio Mendez Zancheti of Brazil, who spoke about the concept of dynamic integrity. Together with people like Amra Hadzimuhamedovic they provide the promise of strong intellectual debate and renewal within ICOMOS and the conservation field more generally. 

Julian Smith