UNESCO urbanicide?

The Erekthion, near the Parthenon on the Acropolis, in Athens. (Photo by David Brussat)

The Erekthion, near the Parthenon on the Acropolis, in Athens. (Photo by David Brussat)

DOMUS, a magazine about cities and culture, has published an infantile essay, “Urbanicide in all good faith,” excoriating UNESCO’s World Heritage program as an assassin of cities. The author, Marco D’Eramo, doesn’t call a spade a spade. Only briefly does his real agenda slip out: He says that if the Marais, in Paris, had been UNESCOed, we would not have the Beaubourg – that is, the piece of junk, the Centre Pompidou, maquerading as a museum that ruins its neighborhood of the Marais.

You see, the author is one of those critics who believes that modernists should be allowed to destroy historic cities because otherwise they are not cities but museums. He regrets that so many historic districts are unaffordable to most people, but fails to acknowledge or understand, that it is modern architecture that has caused beauty to be so rare around the world that, as with any rare commodity, its price is bid up by the wealthy who come to be (because of modern architecture everywhere else) the only people who can afford to live there.

Of course, that is an exaggeration, and the author traffics in exaggeration. He says you can’t find a grocer, butcher or baker in the listed Italian town of San Gimignano – well, you probably can. He says all you can find is gift shops with the same trinkets. In the Plaka, in the shadow of the Acropolis, that may be very close to true, but if it is not true, if you can find shops that sell other things, even other types of trinket, then you have uttered a falsehood. The writer specializes in this.

Indeed, the UNESCO program is not quite as perfectly effective at creating mausoleums worldwide. If it were, we would not have to put up with the New Acropolis Museum, which desecrates the Acropolis and serves as a perfect argument for keeping the Elgin Marbles in London. Where were you, UNESCO?

Does anyone imagine that the authoritarian government of Turkey will demolish three luxury apartment towers because UNESCO warns that they threaten to undermine the historic center of Istanbul? Not bloody likely!

Of course we wouldn’t need to anoint great places as World Heritage Sites if modernism did not make them so rare. So if you don’t like the fact that great places greatly need protection, then go on the warpath against modern architecture. This may seem simplistic. No, it is merely simple. You can dig down and find complexities, but the truth regarding the need for UNESCO is simply as stated.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to UNESCO urbanicide?

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  2. Well done David, spot on as usual.


  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s Domus, not Domos…


  4. Steven Semes says:

    You are spot on. The “museumification” of cities is not the fault of conservation but of modernist urbanism. That is the real urbanicide. That is why people by the millions flock to historic cities to see what they can’t find at home. If modern suburbs were healthy and beautiful places there would much less damaging mass tourism and you’d be able to find a shoe repair shop in your historic district.


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