Selling Venice?

Is the situation described below:

a.)  A crime against World Heritage?

b.) A clever (if presently mismanaged) way of funding architectural restorations?

c.) A cultural mold spore infection from The Venetian in Las Vegas?

c.) The inevitable surface eruption of consumer desire that has animated mass cultural tourism over the years?

From The Art News issue 217, October 2010

Ads of Sighs

The huge ads proliferating in Venice, now also lit up by night, are not bringing in huge money and stretch the application of the law to the point of illegality

By Enrico Tantucci

Since 2008, more and more huge advertisements have appeared in Venice, on palaces up and down the Grand Canal and on the façades of St Mark’s Square, the Biblioteca Marciana, and the Doge’s Palace. Now they are also lit up at night to give the advertisers a bigger bang for their bucks. The price, however, is not high; it costs about €40,000 a month for three years to cover part of Doge’s Palace overlooking the lagoon and connecting with the Bridge of Sighs—less than two pages of advertising in a daily paper. And even with this money coming in, the restoration is still €600,000 short of the €2.8m needed to finish the job.

The Doges' Palace, Venice

The city council and the superintendency of architecture for Venice, which has given permission for these ads, are adamant that this is the only way to finance the restoration of historic public buildings in the city as public funds have been very short since the special financing Venice used to get has been diverted to build the barriers between the Adriatic and the lagoon (due to be completed in 2014), and the restoration budget of the ministry of culture has been cut. Despite protests by amenity groups such as Fondo Ambiente Italiano and the Association of Private Committees for Venice, mayor Giorgio Orsoni and superintendent Renata Codello announced last month that they intended to carry on with this method of raising money. The ad spaces on the Biblioteca Marciana and in St Mark’s Square have been granted in return for €3.5m to Plakativ Media, a German company that rents out spaces to agencies and here the ads are already up yet some of the restoration has not even begun…

For entire article, click here

 

You shut up! No, YOU shut up!

The latest volley in the Caucasus Cultural Heritage War.

From News.am October 22, 2010

Historical monuments incontrovertibly prove belonging of liberated territories to Armenian statehood

 The best way to challenge Azerbaijan’s deceitful agitation campaign is to study historical monuments, Armenian archeologists say. Azerbaijan is claiming that Artsakh’s territory is a part of Western Azerbaijan, while studying historical monuments will incontrovertibly prove belonging of the liberated territories to entire Armenian cultural and historical heritage.   

Archeologists Artak Gnuni and Hakob Simonyan noted that archeological expeditions have been made in the liberated territories, as well as Syunik region sicne early 1990s. “Our excavations revealed that historical monuments located in the liberated territories belong to single Armenian cultural heritage,” they said. In particular, they spoke of unique valley of tombs discovered in Kereni, Kashatakh region of Karabakh. According to them, despite the fact the valley belongs to pre-Christian period, it was well preserved, while research proved that people residing in this territory preached Armenian heathen beliefs. “Does not it prove that the liberated territories were a part of the Armenian state in cultural and political aspect?” they wonder. Studying Kereni tomb they also traced influence of Van Kingdom civilization.

They also complained about shortage of government’s attention to historical monuments. About 800 m of Kereni tomb were damaged due to construction of roads in this territory. “We need roads but not at the expense of historical monuments,” they added. The archeologists stated that the Nagorno-Karabakh leadership expressed interest in research of the valley and have funded excavations within recent year.

Why Even Bother With the Empty Slogans?

Anyone who knows the whole story about the quixotic and ultimately unsuccessful resettlement plan of the Egyptian government for the residents of Gourna (Qurna) on Luxor’s West Bank would have to laugh at the following story if it weren’t so infuriating

 

Hassan Fathy's Plans for New Gourna (with fanciful ancient motifs), c. 1945

Certainly Hassan Fathy’s design for New Gourna was a creative modernist-orientalist design.  But its historical significance does not lie in its creativity alone.  It lies in the authoritarian social aims of demographic engineering that did not work out the way they were expected to.

Have we gotten to the stage where old buildings (however artificial and socially corrosive)–have become heritage just for being officially commemorated in a strange parallel to our celebrity culture’s tendency to make people into celebrities just for being well-known?

The references in the following article to “helping the community” are utterly empty rhetoric.  What indication is there that the second New Gourna Project will be any more successful than the first?  Would, could, should are all conditional promises, not integral parts of the plan.  There is no need to suspect that there is anything behind the slogans but bait for positive PR by credulous journalists and cover for the lucrative contracts for consultants and construction firms that this project will undoubtedly spawn.

 

New Gourna today. Photo: Chant Avedissian, Aga Khan Trust

 

Why is an utter social failure like New Gourna more worthy of preserving than the fabric of 19th-century Luxor?  Egypt is in the process of ruthlessly exploiting and stripmining its material heritage.  No opportunity for a press conference is declined.  But this doesn’t even have the advantage of a lost pharaoh or buried treasure.  It is a willful misrepresentation of a grim social reality.

Isn’t the Heritage Establishment itself the only thing being lavishly funded and celebrated and commemorated here?

*   *   *

Via Nigel Herrington

From Al-Aharam 14 October 2010

Architecture for the poor

Nevine El-Aref reports on a UNESCO scheme to conserve and revive architect Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna village on the west bank at Luxor

Although the heat makes work in Luxor over the summer difficult, a committee of international architects gathered early last week on Luxor’s west bank in order to inspect Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy’s New Gourna village, launching a comprehensive scheme to help preserve this village consisting of mud-brick domiciles for the poor.

Constructed between 1946 and 1952 by pioneering architect Fathy, New Gourna aimed to provide housing for the population of the village of Old Gourna. Villagers from the latter had lived for generations above ancient Egyptian tombs, and they were moved in order to prevent damage to the tombs and to provide a model for low-cost and sustainable housing.

[…]

However, since then time has taken its toll on the village, and some people from Old Gourna always refused to be relocated to the new setting. As a result, parts of New Gourna were sparsely populated, and the village as a whole has been subject to a lack of maintenance and environmental problems, leading to the loss of some dwellings.

Cracks have spread in the walls of some buildings, and concrete buildings commissioned by the local authorities are even being constructed just a few metres away from the magnificent mud-brick theatre designed and built by Fathy.

[…]

International efforts have been made to safeguard New Gourna, but few concrete measures have been taken. Since the village is a key reference for architects, engineers and specialists in earthen architecture worldwide, an international association was set up in 2008 in Geneva in order to try to safeguard Fathy’s architectural work.

However, little work took place until 2009, when the village was declared a protected heritage site by prime ministerial decree, and a committee from the Ministry of Culture, the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), the National Organisation for Urban Harmony and the Luxor governorate was formed to identify the perimeters of the village and the legal measures that could be taken to protect the site.

It was in this context that UNESCO set up a committee of experts in the field of sustainable and earthen architecture to help efforts to safeguard New Gourna. Last week, some two dozen international experts met in Luxor in order to make recommendations on a project aiming to safeguard New Gourna.

[…]

“We are here to begin a new adventure that fulfils the dream of a great man, Hassan Fathy, that his life did not see,” Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO assistant director-general for culture, told reporters at a press conference held to launch the $1 million rehabilitation project for New Gourna, which will last two years.

New Gourna Project Press Conference, Oct. 2, 2010

New Gourna Project Press Conference, Oct. 2, 2010

Bandarin said that Fathy had seen the future shape of architecture before others, a future that he had made concrete at New Gourna. “We are here to make this project a flagship for Luxor, Egypt and the world as a whole,” Bandarin said, explaining that the planned International Centre for Sustainable Architecture (ICSA) aimed to provide training and research facilities for Egyptian and international students in order to promote Fathy’s humanistic vision.

The project would have shorter and longer-term components, Bandarin said. The short-term component would last for a year and would include a geotechnical and infrastructural assessment of the site, its sewage system and road network, as well as documentation of the village’s history. A project master plan would be drawn up, and this would include a management map and details of the architectural task force.

The shorter-term activity would also seek urgently to consolidate the most-threatened buildings and restore the empty houses in order to set an example for later interventions.

“We are here to help the local community,” Bandarin added, explaining that buildings built in concrete in the village would be demolished under the plan and replaced by new ones similar to those in Fathy’s original design. The inhabitants of the demolished houses would be given new ones under the project, he said.

In the longer term, the project would include the construction of the proposed international centre in a central position in the village. The mosque would be restored, as would Fathy’s former residence. The centre would include a guesthouse for teachers, scholars and students, and the project as a whole would include an important environmental component and sewage-treatment scheme.

Overall, those living in New Gourna would benefit from the plan in the form of better housing conditions, and they would be able to capitalise on the national and international attention focussed on the village.

Local businesses could develop as a result of the new emphasis on mud-brick conservation, and villages could become entrepreneurs renting out rooms, running local eateries and shops and setting an example to surrounding communities of the social and economic gains to be made through the conservation and adaptive reuse of their own heritage.

For the full article, click here.

*   *   *

Would, would, could, could, could…  but who will be there to report if the project funding just disappears into the same old pockets?

Modern Druidism: What’s Continuity Got To Do With It?

Well I suppose this makes it clear that historical/archaeological authenticity and uninterrupted continuity are no longer preconditions for civil recognition of cultural traditions.  It was probably inevitable that cultural belief systems only need to be “historically themed” to be meaningful.    

The danger is, of course, our growing inability to distinguish (or even to care if there is a difference between) historical reality and historical fantasy.  I’m sure that many think that The Lord of the Rings is as old as Beowulf… And what exactly does the lead sentence “Druids have been worshipping the sun and earth for thousands of years in Europe” in the following article mean?     

From the AP Oct 3, 2010:    

Druids recognized as religion for first time in UK

By SYLVIA HUI    

LONDON — Druids have been worshipping the sun and earth for thousands of years in Europe, but now they can say they’re practicing an officially recognized religion.    

 The ancient pagan tradition best known for gatherings at Stonehenge every summer solstice has been formally classed as a religion under charity law for the first time in Britain, the national charity regulator said Saturday. That means Druids can receive exemptions from taxes on donations — and now have the same status as such mainstream religions as the Church of England.    

The move gives an old practice new validity, said Phil Ryder, the chairman of the 350-member Druid Network.    

“It will go a long way to make Druidry a lot more accessible,” he said.    

Druids have practiced for thousands of years in Britain and in Celtic societies elsewhere in Europe. They worship natural forces such as thunder and the sun, and spirits they believe arise from places such as mountains and rivers. They do not worship a single god or creator, but seek to cultivate a sacred relationship with the natural world.    

FILE - This Tuesday Aug. 10, 1999 photo from files shows Arch Druid Ed Prynn as he calls down the sun during his sun dance around a ring of stones, in St. Merryn, England. The druid dance is to celebrate the total eclipse of the sun, which is due in this part of southwest England on August 11. Druidry has been officially recognized as a religion in Britain under charity law. The Charity Commission has granted the Druid Network charitable status, giving it tax breaks and equal status to mainstream religions like Christianity. The commission said Saturday that druidry has a coherent and serious set of beliefs and that it offers a beneficial ethical framework. (AP Photo/Dave Caulkin, File)

 

Although many see them as robed, mysterious people who gather every summer solstice at Stonehenge — which predates the Druids — believers say modern Druidry is chiefly concerned with helping practitioners connect with nature and themselves through rituals, dancing and singing at stone circles and other sites throughout the country believed to be “sacred.”    

Ancient Druids were known to be religious leaders, judges and sages among the Celts during pre-Christian times, although little evidence about their lives survived. There are now various Druid orders and about 10,000 practitioners in Britain — and believers said the numbers are growing because more people are becoming aware of the importance to preserve the environment.    

The Druid Network fought for nearly five years to be recognized under the semi-governmental Charity Commission, which requires proof of cohesive and serious belief in a supreme entity and a moral framework.    

After initially rejecting the Druid Network’s application, the Charity Commission decided this week that Druidry fit the bill.    

“There is sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law,” the commission said.    

Adrian Rooke, a Druid who works as a counselor, said Druidry appeals to people who are turning away from monotheistic religions but still long for an aspect of spirituality in their lives.    

“It uplifts the spirit,” he said. “The world is running out of resources, and in that context it’s more important to people now to formulate a relationship with nature.”

So Cut the Baby in Half Already!

Everyone knows the story of King Solomon’s Judgment of the Two Mothers who both claimed the same baby.  Knowing that the true mother would prefer to give up the infant rather than see it harmed, he awarded its custody to the woman who did not want to see the baby cut in half.

Philip Roth, in his brilliantly hilarious novelized biography of King David, God Knows, has a slightly different take on the incident.  Picturing King David as a Mel-Brooks-type wisecracking old cynic, and his son Solomon as nothing more than a self-centered dummy pushed ahead in life by a doting mother, Roth has David quip about that famous Solomonic ruling:

“I’ll let you in on a secret about my son Solomon:  he was dead serious when he proposed cutting the baby in half, that putz.  I swear to God.  That dumb son of a bitch was trying to be fair, not shrewd…”

And so it also seems to be in cultural heritage, where cutting the baby in half is the preferred means of settling disputes between conflicting narratives.  First it was the idea of the Israeli-Palestinian Working Group that partitioning archaeological sites according to territorial distribution would aid, not hinder, the effort for Israeli-Palestinian peace.  ( see my op-ed and theirs)

Well that proposal was a non-starter.  The cultural heritage tail could never wag the diplomatic and military dog.  Besides, the possession of or sovereignty over old heaps of stones makes absolutely no impression on people who don’t accept the owner’s narrative.    

And in the world of heritage today,  it’s all about narrative, not possession.  It’s a shame that we have inherited laws and concepts that make heritage (read: collective memory) just another national resource, subject to exclusive claims of sovereignty and the victim of total control by state authorities.

Of course there need to be some centralized professional bodies to deal with issues of protection and conservation, but the idea that a heritage site belongs legally and exclusively to any one state, group, body, or pressure group is asking for trouble– and as much as inviting counter-narratives and continuing strife.

If you don’t believe me, check out this other, similar cultural heritage trainwreck about to happen:

From the New York Times September 30, 2010

Indian Court Divides Disputed Ayodhya Holy Site

by Jim Yardley

NEW DELHI — In a case that spanned centuries of religious history and languished in the legal system for six decades, an Indian court issued a historic ruling Thursday on the ownership of the country’s most disputed religious site by effectively handing down a split decision: granting part of the land to Hindus and another part to Muslims.

The unorthodox decision by a three-judge panel in the state of Uttar Pradesh provided a Solomonic resolution — if one likely to be appealed to India’s Supreme Court — to a case the authorities had feared might unleash religious violence across India.

Nearly 200,000 state and federal officers were deployed across Uttar Pradesh as a precaution, as almost every major political figure in the nation, led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, appealed for calm and harmony.

The case was considered especially combustible because the contested site, in the city of Ayodhya, was the scene of a searing act of religious violence in 1992 when Hindu extremists tore down an ancient mosque known as the Babri Masjid on the property. The destruction sparked riots that spilled into the following year and have been blamed for about 2,000 deaths.

For full article, click here.

From Al-Jazeera TV: