Cities bask in UNESCO world heritage status. But what happens if it conflicts with modern city planning?

When Vienna’s Historic Center was officially added to the list of World Heritage Sites in December 2001, mayor Michael Häupl called it a “milestone” in the city’s history. It was unusual, that the center of a thriving, growing metropolis of nearly two million inhabitants would receive such a distinction. Now, 16 years later, it is Michael Häupl and his city government that may lead Vienna to lose this honor. The cause: the much criticized Heumarkt Projekt on the site of the Hotel Intercontinental and the city’s beloved ice skating rink, the Wiener Eislaufverein.

The Heumarkt project involves a complete restructuring of the skating rink, resizing it, modernizing its infrastructure, and giving it an additional indoor hall, while rebuilding and expanding the adjoining Hotel Intercontinental, which will pay for it. Furthermore, it would reopen the grand side entrance of the Konzerthaus long closed. Anybody who has seen the area, located between Stadtpark and Schwarzenbergplatz, can testify to its lacking visual appeal. The Intercontinental, a relic of 1960s design, towers as a gray block over the skating area, engulfed by metallic walls, plastered in advertisements. It has more the air of an industrial loading dock than that of an inner city social meeting spot.

So in theory, tearing everything down and starting over doesn’t sound too bad. But the devil, as always, is in the details. According to the approved plans, the new hotel and office tower would be 66 m high. Too high, by 23m to be exact, if Vienna wants to keep its dearly cherished world heritage title. So, which is more important, preservation or economics? The responsibility to keep a certain appearance is pitted against the “creation of open space for the Viennese population,” as Deputy Mayor Maria Vassilakou reasoned. But do they have to be in opposition?

Protection & Promises

Development and protection can feel like opposites, but seeing the choice as black and white is ill advised, says Gabriele Eschig, general secretary of UNESCO in Austria. “These two sides are played off against each other way too often, and it is the responsibility of the politicians to prevent this.” UNESCO claims Vienna is abandoning its responsibility to take care of its heritage. It still hasn’t made the effort to hand in the required management plan, Eschig points out. The current protection of the Glacis – a former green area between the inner city and the suburbs, transformed into the well-known Ringstrasse in the latter half of the 19th century – is not enough. Too much is excluded. Also, in 2014, the restriction on building skyscrapers in the city center was adjusted so that oversized buildings, which are generally not allowed within these residential and industrial areas, might be permitted to be built if “the construction plan requires differently.” This gives room for exceptions. When criticism of the Heumarkt project came up, the city passed rules that skyscrapers need to deliver additional value in order to be built. An argument made repeatedly for Heumarkt is its “public worth.”

Whether these steps are justified or not, they certainly make the city government’s commitment to prevent the construction of oversized buildings within the city center, for UNESCO, hard to believe.

Historischer Stich (1890). // © Österreich Werbung

“I can’t expect the investors to be more Catholic than the pope”, Eschig complains. “The city took on a responsibility when it originally proposed the inner city to the World Heritage committee. It has to set the boundaries.”

The readiness to take on this responsibility is one of the main criteria for becoming a world heritage site. It means agreeing to regular external monitoring, sending a regular report to UNESCO and creating a management plan as well as protection mechanisms. If the site is reported in danger of losing its unique character, it may be re-designated “endangered,” and put on the so-called “red list”.

And in July, Vienna was in fact added to this list, following approval of the plans for the construction of the Heumarkt complex. While this often happens due to civil wars, natural disasters or neglect, in Vienna it is purely a response to economic pressure. This is not a new problem: Vienna was threatened with the same thing back in 2002, when plans for the new Wien Mitte station complex were also deemed too high. It also happened in the Styrian capital Graz in 2006, when the new roof of the department store Kastner & Öhler was judged too big and not consistent with the roof colors of the world heritage city. In both cases, the investors and the city adapted. This time, Vienna went forward with its plan, citing the advantages for the local community.

Big City Life

So if the world heritage title stands in the way of development, is it helpful or not? Vienna is still a vibrant city, ever changing and developing. Its inner city is a testament to its different historical periods coming together in a plurality of architectural sites. Protecting its historic value is important, but its overregulation also causes problems. The project does have its positive sides. Not only does it improve the visual appearance of this area, it creates an improved public space, where the sidewalks in front of the Wiener Eislaufverein will be widened into a public plaza with paths, benches and landscaping, reframing the skating rink and adding entrances to a second rink and additional athletic facilities below ground. The planned tower complex will include not only the hotel and private apartments, but office space for public institutions and the university.

However, it is the height of the hotel tower that is the sticking point. For the investors, it seems to be a question of financial feasibility. The reduction from 72 to 66m has already made it a “worse project,” says investor Michael Tojner. Under the original 32m limit, they might well have walked away. However, there were never talks of staying within that limit. A tower was already mentioned in the city’s initial presentation in February 2013, considered important to make it “a signature building” – spurring an irritated Chamber of Architects to accuse the city of abdicating the planning process to the investors. The city respectfully disagrees.

“It’s a basic question of the needs of city development,” explains Vienna Tourist Board director Norbert Kettner, “with these strict rules, only small cities could fulfill the conditions. Vienna earns points for its readiness offering new sites and services.” The Tourism Head at the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, Markus Grießer, agrees: “Vienna has the asset of being a modern, safe and open city. Being a world heritage site is nice, but not necessary.”

This is at the heart of the debate that is probably as old as UNESCO itself. The organization, born from the ashes of the Second World War and the destruction it wrought, sees its goal as the preservation of the world’s most valuable natural and historic sites. It values the idea that the heritage of the past belongs to the whole world, not just the countries in which they are located today, and are a gift to future generations. It’s an altruistic idea, meant as a distinction rather than as a marketing tool. But it doesn’t hurt.

“Everybody profits from it,” Eschig reassures,“ it is our common heritage, no matter where in the world we are located.” For many poorer countries, it is a welcome regional development instrument and a catalyst for tourism growth. Having the title of a world heritage site brings public attention, creating global visibility. Also, financial support and expertise will be provided in the case of a catastrophe. A knock-on effect of the designation is often an increase of property value for these sites, which in turn attracts professionals who can help local communities become socially empowered.

However, not all countries have the resources to preserve their sites, particularly those that still struggle to provide for the basic needs of their citizens, like feeding and housing them.

With or Without You

A city like Vienna, however, may not need this rating. “The title doesn’t mean a lot,” asserts Kettner. “It is usually mentioned only as a footnote.” Vienna was a popular and renowned cultural and touristic destination long before it was added to the world heritage list, he says. And there is little proof that losing the title would damage the city’s appeal.

© Österreich Werbung

“The tourists who keep coming back want to see the city developing,” Grießler adds. He points to the precedent of Dresden – the first city to be de-listed because of a bridge over the protected river Elbe, where losing the world heritage status in 2009 didn’t affect its reputation or popularity.

It may be that modern European cities are simply not good candidates for UNESCO World Heritage status. To date, Europe has dominated the list, particularly compared with developing nations. At the same time, these vibrant places are exposed to constant change. It comes down to whether a city like Vienna wants to preserve its heritage status or not.

The inner city covers some 3.7km2, with about 1,600 buildings subject to the heritage site designation. Adding in its buffer zone of 4.6 km2, all in all the protected zone only represents about two percent of the city area. The ongoing adaption of a city to modern needs is a challenge for any city planner striving to reconcile the wishes of town dwellers, the realities of the market and the demands to preserve and protect what is there already.

“The preservation of monuments within the city is the protection of the ensemble,” explains Eschig. “This can only be done as a whole and not as individual buildings.” She still cannot understand why the city feels the need to allow building in its historic center, which is such a confined and limited space, when there is so much available space in the rest of the city.

Bungled Bidding

But whatever Vienna decides about its UNESCO rating, there is legitimate reason for criticism on how the city has been managing the project. Eschig and Grießler agree that effective management tools for the bidding process and a thourough construction planning process were and still are woefully lacking.

“Investors play a big role in the development of a city. It’s often not within a city’s budget to take on big new projects,” Grießler points out. Investors, who are forced several times to change their plans, as was the case for the Heumarkt project, and whose project is constantly “threatened,” might not come back, he says. This, he fears, could have a “devastating” effect on the city.

Getting investors on board before sorting out the legal aspects and the terms of UNESCO meant getting the whole sequence the wrong way around. “Even architects and engineers criticized this process,” Eschig continues. “This is a handicap for the whole industry, nobody knows what the rules are. Also, this way, not everybody has the same chances.” In the five years of planning the Heumarkt project, a lot of pressure came from the effort to keep early promises to the victorious architectural project by Isay Weinfeld & Sebastian Murr, together with the investor Wertinvest.

In a nutshell, Vienna doesn’t need to be a world heritage site to be rich in history and international recognition. But what it represents are values the city shouldn’t be so quick to throw away.