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Interview with Francesco Bandarin by Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture

Chang Qing and Plácido González

In March 2018, Professor Francesco Bandarin visited the UNESCO World Heritage Institute for Training in the Asia Pacific Region (WHITRAP) at Tongji University, which hosted the Experts Meeting for the Implementation of the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) Recommendation, gathering international scholars and practitioners to discuss about the future of urban heritage conservation.


With a full life devoted to culture from an academic, institutional and political perspective, Francesco Bandarin is one of the most relevant voices in the elaboration of a global heritage discourse. Professor of Urban Planning and Conservation at the University IUAV of Venice, from 2010 to 2018 he has been Assistant Director-General for Culture of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Previously, from 2000 to 2010, he was Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Secretary of the World Heritage Convention.


From his position in UNESCO, Francesco Bandarin was responsible for the continued implementation of the UNESCO´s Global Strategy for a Representative, Balanced and Credible World Heritage List, as well as for the development of a variety of initiatives related to the conservation of built heritage, like the 2005 Vienna Memorandum for the integration of contemporary architecture in historic environments, and the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL), which constitutes an ambitious, yet evolving, theoretical and practical contribution to the field of urban conservation.


His commitment to the development of the HUL Recommendation has since then given him a fundamental role in the definition of guidelines for its implementation; a work on which he has reflected through relevant publications like The Historic Urban Landscape. Managing Change in an Urban Century (2012), and Reconnecting the City (2014), both written together with Dr. Ron Van Oers, former Vice-Director of WHITRAP.


The Editorial Teams of Built Heritage and Heritage Architecture had the opportunity to interview Professor Francesco Bandarin in order to discuss about the current challenges of heritage conservation, both globally and particularly in China, as well as the possibilities that the HUL Recommendation offers for the future of heritage in a context of accelerated social and technological change. Bandarin´s reflections about issues such as the implementation of HUL and its hypothetical effect on gentrification point to open questions, to which a new idea of management applied to heritage might offer an adequate response.

Shanghai, March 27, 2018


[Plácido González]: 


The Experts Meeting on the Historic Urban Landscape (HUL) Recommendation in WHITRAP is taking place 13 years after the 2005 Vienna Convention raised attention for the integration of contemporary architecture in heritage environments. What have been, in your opinion, the main successes and the main challenges in the intercourse that started since then between heritage conservation and urban development?


[Francesco Bandarin]:


We have been able to establish the HUL approach at an international level in the past fifteen years, concreting an idea about which we don't have any ownership, and maturing it in a variety of different environments. The concept of HUL basically derives from the experiences of planners, architects, conservators around the world, which we were able to put first on the table and then have the UNESCO member states adopt it in the form of a Recommendation in 2011. This is an important institutional passage: there are many different ideas in the World, but the real difference is made when they become official texts of the United Nations. This is the most important characteristic of this operation: now it is not a professional charter in the terms of ICOMOS charters, but a very important text that has been long prepared, and then longer matured, discussed and amended. So in terms of establishing the principles and a common language, my evaluation is we have found one very good toolbox.


[Chang Qing]: 


There are four types of heritage from the definition of UNESCO: natural; cultural; mixed cultural-natural; and Cultural Landscape. What is the difference between Cultural Landscape and HUL? Does HUL refer to Cultural Landscape in urban places?


[Francesco Bandarin]:


The Cultural Landscape is essentially a heritage category. It is a type of heritage. It is the heritage that results from the encounter of a human action on nature, which is typically in the landscape. The HUL is not a category, nor a type of heritage. It is an approach, a methodology to interpret, to read, to see heritage as a part of a context, to analyse its layering, its process. It’s a management tool. It is a way to deal with heritage and preserve it.

So it’s a very simple answer to a very difficult question, because for many years, people have been saying that the HUL is also a category. And no, it is not a category, it is a way of dealing with urban contexts.


[Plácido González]: 


One of the most active topics of discussion in the field of urban conservation is the implementation of the HUL Recommendation. What is your evaluation at a global level? Do you think there is consensus on its definition?


[Francesco Bandarin]:


Now the problem is to carry on, and clearly the issue is how the Recommendation can become a practical tool for planners and practitioners around the world. What we have here in the WHITRAP at Tongji University these days is a meeting with experts from all over the world to assess the situation, to look forward and see how we can better develop a technical material that is needed to make the HUL Recommendation something operational. In terms of how HUL is being received; I think that of course, the fact of having been adopted by the member states does not necessarily mean that the HUL can became a tool instantly.


[Plácido González]: 


Yes, this could apply especially, for example, to China. What are the main challenges that the HUL Recommendation still faces in China?


[Francesco Bandarin]:


China is a good exception, the UNESCO is present in the country through its Centers in Shanghai and Beijing, and in general, China is quite open and interested in this kind of new ideas. I am more worried about other developing countries where the Recommendation has never been heard. For this reason, what we are doing today is a first assessment of how the HUL Recommendation has been implemented by different countries. There is an ongoing survey, a questionnaire we sent in February 2018 to the different member countries for which we are waiting for the replies. It is something that UNESCO routinely does all the time, and we will know more about the end of this year. In the next year we will present a report to the board of UNESCO on how the countries have interpreted and followed this Recommendation.


My impression from this is that we are just at the beginning of the evolution of HUL as a tool. For many countries this has become an interesting reference to use; they study it to practice it, but I would say that the majority of places and countries in the world have not yet entered into this matter. So there is a lot of work to do to make it more global. We don't want to impose any preconceived model; there's no printed format, but we would like the principles of HUL to be incorporated in planning activities and in the management of heritage conservation.


These principles call for a much broader public role and the participation of people in the identification and conservation of their own heritage. In this sense, this is not very distant from the same principles that have been adopted by the New Urban Agenda of the United Nations, where a great prominence has been given to public participation and the role of the citizens. And although the HUL Recommendation came out in 2011 and the New Urban Agenda in 2016, this shows how HUL is aligned with international policy directives that have been matured and then elaborated and discussed at UN level in the past decade.


You know that heritage has a very peculiar and important role in China. It is a country that always has put heritage in the middle, and you will find it everywhere, whether in the literature, the arts and the painting. Maybe a little less in terms of physical space and tangible heritage, and this is a reason for which urban heritage in particular has suffered quite a lot. But heritage is everywhere, and it is hard to find other places in the World where heritage is mentioned as much as in China. How this translates into urban preservation is a different story because the forces at play in this country, driving the process of economic change, are so powerful and fast, that it has been very difficult to maintain a balance. What has happened in the past thirty years is that essentially, the urban environment has been shaped by an industrialized process where heritage has become either residual or has been literally suppressed in large parts of the country.

The New Urban Agenda in 2016. Source: United Nations.

I have the feeling that now all these processes have reached a peak and probably we have a much higher consideration for heritage. I see it is happening in cities and in the country especially, where villages are praised for their cultural values, their natural environment and so on. So I would say there is a change, which I have seen happening in the past ten or fifteen years. The HUL has become an interesting tool now to address some of these issues, because it is very flexible. Its bottom-up approach to urban conservation does not impose any particular principle, but invites to look at heritage in a very comprehensive way which includes tangible and intangible elements; the natural context, the setting and so on. So there is a lot of space in HUL that also meets and crosses some of the great traditions of feng shui and the landscape tradition of China, which as you know are very important in the literature and in the arts. For these reasons, I think many Chinese cities have now a possibility to discover in HUL new ways to deal with their heritage.


[Plácido González]: 


You mention an important aspect. You say that the situation has reached a peak offering a new consideration to more possibilities due to disruptive changes, for example, in technology. How issues like public participation, for example, can become in your opinion also part of the process due to their technological enablement?


[Francesco Bandarin]:


China is far more advanced than many Western countries in this sense. I can see people have facilities to use the digital technology that we don't (have). It starts with paying your bills with your phone which we don't do in the West, but it is much more than that: it is social media; they are all these exchanges enabled by them, and so on.


I must admit that the planners of the old generations have not yet fully understood them, nor cooperated with them, in our own professional processes. If you look at any of the discussions we are having today, very little of them mention about social media and communication via digital technologies in the dimension of conservation. I think this is a clear limitation of us as planners. What is happening on the ground, on the contrary, invites to think of a much higher importance for these new technologies, and this is just the beginning; let's see what is going to happen in the future.


We need to make an effort to really understand and study how digital technologies in all dimensions and in all senses influence urban conservation. There is a great connection between them because urban conservation is a social expression; it is not something that comes from the skies; it is a social desire; a social need; a social construction. And this social construction is deeply influenced by the digital technology. So we must try to understand, but we do not know yet how: HUL has this limitation, that we see very clearly now, which is the fact that it doesn't incorporate this concept. As you know, it was prepared ten, fifteen years ago and at that time the development of social media was still on its infancy.


[Plácido González]: 


Another important issue which is how heritage is becoming a vector of a global projection for China. This refers to the role that the new initiative of One Belt One Road can have also in heritage terms and in broader cultural terms.


[Francesco Bandarin]:


Well, the One Belt One Road is the modern description of the old Chinese connection with the World. This is a new way to propose it; a very complex concept because it has economic and political dimension, but there is also a very strong culture connection. And in terms of culture, clearly heritage has a very important the role.

The One Belt One Road.

Source: China Britain Business Council: One Belt One Road.

The Silk Road has been there for a couple of thousands of years and it is on the ground, it is part of the narratives; of the imaginations, of the oral history and also part of the sites. UNESCO has been working on the Silk Road for at least fifty years: I was not still there, but I have seen and remember the reports of missions that were done in the 1970s to revisit the Silk Road as an itinerary of dialogue between civilizations.


Later on, the Silk Road became World Heritage: we created a working group to identify sites that needed to be inscribed. This working group produced reports and now all the countries of the Silk Road, especially central Asian countries, are presenting their sites according to these reports. This has become almost a yearly appointment, with sites from the Silk Road being presented at the World Heritage Committee. So I see this is almost a natural dimension and a natural component of the One Belt One Road, because the concept has been there even before somebody invented this term.


[Plácido González]: 


You have frequently raised the question of gentrification in urban heritage conservation. It is a fact that most commonly, urban regeneration usually leads to changes in the social composition of cities and neighbourhoods. What is, in your opinion, the kind of gentrification that is compatible with urban heritage conservation?


[Francesco Bandarin]:


You may have seen this in many of the presentations today [at the Experts Meeting at WHITRAP], for example in the case of Pingyao in China. This is a global phenomenon: when I go around different countries I see that is really happening everywhere. If a site has values because of its quality, aesthetics, its architecture, its natural heritage and its history for any reasons, then it becomes an object of desire of the fastest growing industry in the World, which is tourism. And tourism, in its different forms, has had a very dramatic impact on the social structure of historic cities. This is really very serious, because the inner city is not just its monuments and its fabric, but also its people. And if people are ejected, then we have to wonder what is the historic city anymore. It may become something else; a touristic village or an amusement park or anything else, but it is no longer the historic city.


We have these phenomena in Europe, and we have them too in America and North America and in the Arab world: whenever there is a site that has a certain values and qualities, then the rich come and the poor go; and then tourism does the rest. I think this is a big issue. Now, is there a way to contain this? I must say that I have not seen very many good answers. Because it is true that this is a market process, and it is very hard to control. You can regulate up to a certain point, but you cannot go against the entire market, because no government, at any level, has all the necessary resources for that.


Pingyao, China. Source: Dong Yang.

You cannot regulate the things from the top; this is not possible anymore, so you have to find ways. And as long as you cannot stop the process, we would have to look for a reasonable compromise. What does it mean by reasonable? It means that the city does not lose completely its inhabitants, does not lose completely its productive functions, and does not lose its commerce. It doesn't become a tourist village, but remains being a city. I have seen how some countries have done it better than others: for instance, establishing limitations on the number of housing units that can be rented to foreigners; on the number of days that you can rent your house, etc. But the regulation requires enforcement, and very often this is not possible.

[Plácido González]: 


This can be the case of your hometown…


[Francesco Bandarin]:


My hometown Venice is one of them definitely. And also other cases in China as Lijiang in Yunnan, or Hangzhou: wherever there is an interest, a tourist attraction, we find the same phenomena happening. So definitely it is not just the West, I think it's actually quite a global thing: if you go to Latin America, or the Arab countries, you will find the same phenomena.


[Plácido González]: 


Gustavo Araoz from ICOMOS has repeatedly warned against the risks of the heritage consideration towards the architecture and urbanism of the 20th Century. You have also questioned the heritage character of Post-war housing schemes in Europe and the West. May the HUL Recommendation give a ‘heritage opportunity’ for those urban areas of the recent past?


Sydney Opera House. Source: Xia Xiao.

[Francesco Bandarin]:


First of all, let me say very clearly that we don't think the 20th century does not belong to heritage. On the contrary, I think 20th century is like every century of human history; it produces heritage, and heritage again is a social construction so is not something that can begin nor stop. It also doesn’t work like saying, ‘before 1950 is heritage, while after is not’. The proof is that even the World Heritage Convention, which is the most conservative system, is full of modern heritages, and some of them are quite recent like for instance, the Sydney Opera House or the work of Le Corbusier. Therefore, I do not think there is any prejudice against the 20th century per se: it is just that it took a while to adjust to the idea that heritage is not just Baroque churches, or the Forbidden City, or archaeology sites.

We have included many industrial archaeology and many modern heritages in the World Heritage List; not very big in terms of numbers but it is there. I think that the HUL Recommendation is very clear on this, not only recognizes the possibility of modern heritage because it is obviously a social product, but it also stimulates an integration of modern contemporary creativity, including the architectural production, into the historic environment. It is therefore very clearly expressed, there's nothing against. But at the same time this means that the new architecture has to understand the context; it is not that anything goes with architecture: it needs to improve and enhance the values of the historic contexts.

[Plácido González]:

There are also mass housing projects, which definitely create new ways of life…

[Francesco Bandarin]:

This depends sometimes. Among them there is also a quality that allows them to pursue the World Heritage status. In Berlin we have all the mass housing of the 1930s, and they're on the World Heritage List. What is important is to see the values and the quality of the thing, rather than the time or the period, which in current heritage terms, are not so relevant.

(Transcript by Feiran Huang,proofread by Placido Gonzalez.)

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