Highlights from the newly released World Monuments Watch list.

By Bonnie Burnham
October 22, 2015
World Monument Watch
Credit: © Robert Harding World Imagery / Alamy Stock Photo

Recent world events have been at once bleak and hopeful for the world’s cultural heritage. Syria's Palmyra, the beautiful desert oasis, will never be the same since the loss of the Baal temple, which was destroyed by ISIL in August. The ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud is also lost, destroyed by the same group earlier this year.

The recent destruction of these heritage sites in the Middle East has struck public indignation as well as a feeling of futility. Can we do anything, and how should we feel about this destruction in relation to the heartbreaking human toll of suffering in these countries, which tops the headlines every day?

The answer is that we can do something, but that something has more to do with vigilance than action. The losses in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere have made a wider public aware, more than before, of the fragility of humanity's heritage.

And this awareness should become an active concern.

Heritage sites face destruction every day, and war is both the least common and the most dramatically destructive reason. Without vigilance, resources, and focused attention, some loss will be inevitable. For its part, the World Monuments Watch regularly captures sites around the world that are facing urgent risks.

The 2016 Watch, published last week, includes many extraordinary places that represent high moments of human culture. Each of these sites has its own importance, its own stories and issues, and must develop its own strategy.

We also need to remember that many shattered monuments have been rebuilt, so these recent barbarous events are not necessarily the end of the story. In recent memory: the Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany, the center of Warsaw in Poland, the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. Perhaps the Temple of Baal will join them.

In any case, we should all recognize, celebrate and enjoy the sites that remain, doubly so when we realize how easily these wonderful places could disappear forever. Below, highlights from this year's World Monuments Watch:

Kathmandu, Nepal

The earthquake that ravaged Nepal in July did extensive damage to the historic center of the city and its living religious and cultural traditions. The losses were due to poor maintenance rather than the inability of the city’s historic structures to survive an earthquake. Ironically, more damage could occur during reconstruction, through the use of incompatible modern materials. This is where great vigilance is needed.

Petra, Jordan

World Monument Watch
Credit: © Robert Harding World Imagery / Alamy Stock Photo

To inhabit this gorgeous city, controlling a key mountain gorge, the ancient Nabateans created an ingeniously engineered water system. But over time the Nabatean channels and cisterns became dysfunctional. Flash flooding at this heavily visited tourist site is still a great danger today. Growth of the village adjacent to Petra has only intensified this danger. To preserve Petra sustainably, the local community needs to understand the challenges of water and tourism management and help to sustain the strategies that have been put in place in recent years.

Abusir el-Malek, Egypt

Abusir el-Malek is one of the worst hit sites in Egypt with looting in post-2011 political events. It represents a model of a lost history. We will never learn about the people who lived over its 2,700 years of history from the Pre-dynastic through Islamic periods. This special palimpsest of history is currently being lost every day with each looter’s shovel. But even with the bleak prognosis, Abusir el-Malek offers an opportunity to create new expertise on salvage and rescue archaeology that is highly needed in Egypt and the Middle Eastern region as a whole.

El Vedado in Havana, Cuba

A planned neighborhood along the Almenares River became the preferred address of wealthy Habaneros in the early twentieth century. Today, following more than 50 years of decline, vandalism, and incompatible additions, the neighborhood runs the risk of losing its residential character, particularly with the prospect of dramatic rises in property values following the anticipated lifting of the Cuban embargo. Legal protection, advocacy, and a strategy for orderly transition are needed to protect El Vedado and its citizens from a tumultuous upheaval as Cuba rejoins the world economy.

Bo Kamp, South Africa

The architecture and urbanism of Bo Kamp, a cultural landscape near the center of Cape Town, characterized by terraced houses, vistas, and the largest concentration of pre-1850 architecture in South Africa, is under pressure from the rezoning of residential fabric to office space; the conversion of multi-generational family homes to boutique hotels and neighborhood streets from pedestrian-priority to car-dominant; the encroachment of high-rise office towers; and the erosion of original fabric effected by the disruption of artisanal skills-transfer and the absence of good public maintenance. Urgent action, both policy-directed as well as grassroots-based, is needed to prevent further and irreparable loss.

Wentworth Woodhouse in England

World Monument Watch
Credit: © Nick Cockman / Alamy Stock Photo

One of the grandest Palladian houses built in England by the Fitzwilliam family, Wentworth Woodhouse, is now one of the historic buildings most at risk in the country. With its suites of lavish state rooms and major art collection, it had become a hub of political and social life in the north of England by the mid-eighteenth century. But in the social turmoil following World War I and the shortages in Britain after World War II, the house entered a process of decline. The grounds of the estate were mined for coal in a gesture of antagonism towards the house’s aristocratic owners, destabilizing its foundations, and eventually the house was stripped of its contents and turned into a school. An effort is now underway to purchase the house from a private owner and ensure its preservation as a public benefit.

Mission San Xavier del Bac

World Monument Watch
Credit: © America / Alamy Stock Photo

The most important surviving building in the United States from the eighteenth century New Spain, the “white dove of the desert” faces the impact of a harsh environment combined with a significant increase in tourism, which raises humidity levels within the church and threatens the conservation of the ‘folk baroque’ murals in its interior. Although a Patronato was formed some 25 years ago to steward the preservation of the active church, it has made slow headway against these challenges. Without a more comprehensive approach to conservation, the community will continue to struggle to maintain this popular icon.

National Sports Complex, Cambodia

The most important single building of the national building effort undertaken by the newly independent Cambodia following liberation from French colonial rule is at risk. Designed by the Cambodian architect Van Molyvann, it bears evidence to a time of enormous creativity and it helps to bridge the gap created in Cambodia’s recent history by the Khmer Rouge’s targeted elimination of the creative, professional and urban classes. While firmly grounded in the late modern tradition, it incorporates elements of scale and spatial organization connected directly to work of the Angkor Era. There is concern today that the building will soon be demolished, as the Cambodian government has allowed the site to be parceled and developed, and is making its own plans for a new future national stadium. Although this highly popular building and public gathering place in Phnom Penh may soon be lost, it has gathered a following of devoted admirers who have come together to celebrate the work of Van Molyvann through documentation, exhibitions and publications. It is still possible for advocacy to ensure its survival.

Bonnie Burnham is the president and chief executive officer at the World Monuments Fund.