UNESCO’s World Heritage Information kit describes heritage – both natural and cultural, as the legacy left behind for future generations.[1] It serves as a reminder of what has passed and reveals models that endured the test of time. It defines cultural heritage as “Monuments, groups of buildings, and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value.” [2] This definition focused primarily upon the tangible facets of culture and persisted for most of the 20th century. 

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Dadivank Monastery ©Joel Carillet

Later, UNESCO’s ‘Intangible Heritage Convention’ built upon previous legislation and formalised the distinction between the tangible and intangible dimensions of heritage.[3] Tangible cultural heritage was split into three categories by the World Heritage Convention in 1972, [4] whose precepts are still employed today:

  • Monuments including architectural works, works of monumental sculpture and painting, elements or structures of an archaeological nature, inscriptions, and cave dwellings
  • Groups of buildings
  • Sites such as the works of man or the combined works of nature and man, and archaeological sites

The sizable niche occupied by architecture within this realm overlaps all three of these categories to varying degrees. The perceived importance of built heritage is primarily gauged based upon age and cultural significance. Designations of heritage sites and subsequent conservation efforts often focus on the importance of authenticity, integrity, and longevity. 

The preservation of built heritage hinges on its ability to continue fulfilling intended functions or be repurposed for tourism and events—where human use is vital to conservation efforts that seek to prevent structures from falling into ruin through obsolescence.[5] Hence attachments to these sites are preserved through rituals, pilgrimages, storytelling, and tourism. 

Historic monuments are the most conspicuous and generally the most financially lucrative to conserve due to their ability to attract tourists and embody local or national cultural identities. The term ‘groups of buildings’, is generally used to describe historically significant quarters in urban areas that have shaped the character of their larger context, where such designations raise land values and open them up for gentrification. Finally, spaces such as urban parks, gardens, and archaeological sites constitute most of the third category. [6]

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Cologne Cathedral ©Dmitry Sakharov

Tangible and intangible dimensions of cultural heritage possess a synchronized and symbiotic relationship reflected in the ties between built spaces and regional urban planning. Both aspects attain value through their relation to the present and future, depicted in the enduring ability to resonate with people despite changing times.[7]

Elements such as privacy, visibility, accessibility, spatial organization, character, and ornamentation in public and private spaces, are moulded by cultural practices, ethical values, beliefs and socio-economic hierarchies. [8] [9] Furthermore, the tectonics of construction within a region were determined by locally available materials, topography, and skills of indigenous craftsmen. 

All this subsequently influences the ubiquity of certain building typologies, with the most prominent examples among them becoming ‘leading types’ that act as models for builders. This is observed in the floor plans of medieval catholic churches being shaped like a Latin cross or spaces open to the sky within vernacular South-East Asian houses that facilitate natural ventilation and act as congregation sites. [10]

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Mosque Cathedral Of Cordoba  ©Mohammad Al-Asad MIT Libraries, Aga Khan Visual Archive

Relationships between architecture and culture are usually elucidated through contrasting viewpoints that lend themselves to different needs. In one way, architecture can be seen as an epiphenomenon [11] that embodies and dignifies its parent culture, preserves its endurance, and asserts dominance or hegemony—particularly evident in cases where one cultural group subjugates another through institutions, force, or conquest. This is exemplified in religious structures such as the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi—supposedly built on the ruins of a Hindu temple [12], or in the conversion of the Great Mosque of Cordoba to a Christian cathedral.[13] However, such evaluations are made within a purely retrospective framework and offer great potential for misinterpretation, as evidenced in present controversies surrounding both monuments. 

Alternatively, architecture could be viewed as the manifestation of moments in space and time that are wholly open to interpretation. [14] Form, ornamentation, planning, and spatial character could be judged from a theoretical or technical lens, without solely focusing on the circumstances surrounding their conception. The issue here lies in the fact that no formal method of interpretation (Eurocentric or otherwise) is free from bias in being products of specific cultures themselves.[15]

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Entrance To Auschwitz ©Licensed Under CC BY-SA Tulio Bertorini

Opinions on examples of built heritage and their cultural influence may morph considerably over the years, as seen in the current designations of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and Robben Island in South Africa as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.[16] Places that were once settings for some of the darkest events in recorded history are now landmarks, tourist destinations, and symbols of humanity’s fortitude. 

Additionally, the famed Pompidou Centre in Paris—now one of the city’s emblems, was initially an object of revulsion among locals for its machine aesthetic which contrasted the older buildings surrounding it.[17] From these examples, we can conclude that the evaluation of built heritage is never complete, with more nuances in meaning revealed over time. [18]

The conservation or destruction of built heritage also serves political agendas where one group seeks to safeguard sites of importance to their community while damaging or desecrating those belonging to rival ones. The 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid—one of the earliest Indian specimens of Mughal architecture, over a dispute fuelled by Hindu nationalist forces, is seen as a pivotal moment in the rise of right-wing elements within the nation’s political sphere. 

Instances of cultural erasure through the destruction of built heritage include the targeting of Armenian and Azeri religious sites for destruction and vandalism by both factions as a means of staking claims to disputed land during the decades-long Nagorno-Karabakh conflict [20] or the razing of mosques by the Chinese government in Xinjiang as part of their ethnic cleansing of the region. [21]

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Babri Masjid ©Subir Roy

Every building is part of a chapter in the history of mankind, and the destruction of historically significant structures or sites erases the legacy of their original users. Built heritage symbolizes much more than just architectural history. It reflects the desires, needs, and challenges of its users, shaped by cultural identities, and a particular way of life built over centuries of refined technical achievements. 

All symbols, motifs, and decorative elements have metaphorical meanings embodying the cultural identity that shaped them.[22] Architecture plays an indispensable role in defining cultural heritage, bridging the material and immaterial aspects that mould its effects on human lives.

References

  1. UNESCO (2008) World Heritage Information Kit [1] [2]
  2. D. Fairchild Ruggles and Helaine Silverman (2009) From Tangible to Intangible Heritage  Intangible Heritage Embodied (pp.1-14) [3] [5] [7][19]
  3.  Yahaya Ahmad (2006) The Scope and Definitions of Heritage: From Tangible to Intangible International Journal of Heritage Studies Vol. 12, No. 3,pp. 292–300 [4] [6]
  4. Mounir Bouchenaki (2003) The Interdependency Of The Tangible And Intangible Cultural Heritage ICOMOS 14th General Assembly and Scientific Symposium [8] [16] [22]
  5. Özlem Karakul ( 2011) An Integrated Approach To Conservation Based On The Interrelations Of Tangible And Intangible Cultural Properties METU Journal Of The Faculty Of Architecture, Vol. 28, Issue 2 [9]
  6. Charles Correa (1996) the Blessings Of The Sky [10]
  7. K. Michael Hays (1984) Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form Perspecta, Vol. 21, pp. 14-29 [11] [14] [15] [18]
  8. Ziya Us Salam (2018) The New Flashpoint, Frontline, The Hindu [12]
  9. Malia Politzer (2015) The Battle Over The Córdoba Mosque-Cathedral and Spanish Identity Institute Of Current World Affairs, Web [13]
  10. Rowan Moore (2017) Pompidou Centre: A 70s French Radical That’s Never Gone Out Of Fashion, The Guardian, Web [17] 
  11. Hugh Eakin (2020) When an Enemy’s Cultural Heritage Becomes One’s Own, The New York Times, Web [20]
  12. Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy (2020) China Is Erasing Mosques and Precious Shrines in Xinjiang, The New York Times, Web [21]
Author

Jerry recently became an architect, but is still exploring what the title means to him. He arrived at architectural journalism as it seemed to be the most logical medium to combine his education and interests. Additionally, his healthy obsessions with music, sketching, binge watching and reading keep him fairly occupied for the majority of his waking hours

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