Rethinking history: democratizing architectural heritage


Rethinking history: democratizing architectural heritage

The built environment in which we all live is an integral part of interconnected global systems and processes. When we assess the historically significant architecture of our cities, the structural integrity and aesthetics of a building deserve equal consideration with such factors as the working conditions of its builders to the existing electrical structures of its time. Examples of Italian modernism in Eritrea, for example, might be worthy of aesthetic praise – but the sobering fact that they were built to advance an imperial project is closely linked to the legacy of these buildings hailed as modernist icons. In the complex areas of architectural conservation, preservation and cultural heritage, democratization must always remain a top priority.

Isolation cell.  Image © Museum of British ColonialismCasco Viejo - Panama City, Panama.  Image © Wikimedia User Editorpana under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.Cinema Impero - Asmara, Eritrea.  Image © Licensed Flickr user David Stanley (CC BY 2.0).+ 9

This democratization must not only relate to access to research undertaken, but also to who buildings are considered worthy of preserving and challenging the power disparities that may underlie architectural conservation. A look at the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, to take an example, exposes these inequalities that can subtly influence what constitutes an architectural site of “outstanding universal value” in the eyes of the general public.

Less than 9% of UNESCO World Heritage sites are located in Africa, and the cultural heritage of ancient European empires appears to be disproportionately revered. Of the 77 cultural World Heritage sites in Latin America, almost half date from the Spanish colonial era – this Eurocentric accent is a common thread among cultural heritage sites in countries of the South.


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Cinema Impero - Asmara, Eritrea.  Image © Licensed Flickr user David Stanley (CC BY 2.0).
Cinema Impero – Asmara, Eritrea. Image © Licensed Flickr user David Stanley (CC BY 2.0).

The democratization of architectural heritage requires a retreat from Western conceptions of heritage which have now become the status quo. These designs can often leave historically significant buildings “stuck in time” in a sense, leaving them little room for maneuver in contemporary contexts. The 1997 UNESCO World Heritage listing of the Casco Viejo region in Panama City resulted in the eviction of the poorest people while the surrounding neighborhood was restored and gentrified. The legacy of this list is that today the area is largely inhabited by foreigners who buy the best colonial buildings and then resell them. The colonial buildings of Casco Viejo are now perfectly preserved and the tourists are numerous, but it is dismaying that this architectural restoration and this conservation have required the displacement of the inhabitants of the district.

Casco Viejo - Panama City, Panama.  Image © Ignacio Hernandez via Unsplash
Casco Viejo – Panama City, Panama. Image © Ignacio Hernandez via Unsplash
Casco Viejo - Panama City, Panama.  Image © Wikimedia user Garcia.dennis under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Casco Viejo – Panama City, Panama. Image © Wikimedia user Garcia.dennis under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Architectural heritage should not be seen as a fixed and universal label either, but rather as a continuous movement, subject to political forces. Conversations about architectural heritage often leave no room for temporary settlements, with disproportionate attention being given to permanent structures. The rapidly deployed and ever-changing structures of nomadic peoples such as the Tuaregs in North Africa and the Sarakatsani in Greece, for example, figure very little in mainstream discussions of architectural heritage.

A recent project by the DAAR collective is a necessary provocation of the “heritage” label, featuring an attempt to nominate the Dheisheh refugee camp in Palestine as a UNESCO heritage site. The camp dates back to 1949 – the year Palestinians were displaced by the founding of the State of Israel. This reorientation towards the collective memory of architectural heritage is a useful tool for gaining a more holistic understanding of historical spatial interventions around the world.

Dheisheh refugee camp.  Image © Luca Capuano with Carlo Favero
Dheisheh refugee camp. Image © Luca Capuano with Carlo Favero

Finally, although it may initially seem counterproductive in an area such as architectural heritage, there are multiple methods of recording history that are valid, beyond old architectural drawings and the ruins of old structures. In Kenya, the full story of colonialism is still unknown, with the British colonial government destroying documents believed to contain sensitive information. In an effort to document the full extent of the detention camps built by the British during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s, the Museum of British Colonialism platform gave priority to oral histories. This oral testimony platform was crucial, enabling valuable first-hand testimony that could then be used to create detailed digital reconstructions of the camps. The 3D models themselves are also open access – an additional layer of accessibility to what is an important – albeit sad – slice of architectural heritage.

Old camp cell blocks that function as classes.  Image © Museum of British Colonialism
Old camp cell blocks that function as classes. Image © Museum of British Colonialism

The future conservation and preservation of our architectural histories is undeniably important. This, however, should be finely balanced. It makes good sense to rely on the advanced digital tools and methods available today, but there should be even more use of non-traditional architectural heritage archives – in order to truly democratize the way people discover their past.


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