Frank Lloyd Wright, UNESCO, and the Future of World Heritage

The United Nations' World Heritage List has been called "the Oscars" of conservation. But does the designation do more harm than good?

Taliesin West, one of eight sites added to the World Heritage List. Courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

A Decision Fifteen Years in the Making

When the UNESCO World Heritage Fund added the 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright to its World Heritage List, it had been a decision fifteen years in the making. Eight of Wright’s buildings, including Taliesin, Taliesin West, the Unity Temple, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, have been added to the World Heritage List, joining the likes of the Pyramids of Giza, the Taj Mahal, and 1,090 others. The eight structures join the only 24 World Heritage Sites in the United States. In their application— the second bid for World Heritage Status– the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, working with the National Park Service and representatives from each site, argued the eight structures should be admitted as one collective site because altogether they “illustrate a full range of ways in which Wright’s unique approach to architectural design fused form with spirit to influence the course of architecture in both North America and beyond.” Barbara Gordon, executive director of the Wright Building Conservancy, says, “our hope is that the inscription of these eight major works also brings awareness to the importance of preserving all of  [Wright’s] buildings as a vital part of our artistic, cultural and architectural heritage.” 

A Brief History of UNESCO and the World Heritage List

UNESCO's first General Conference. Courtesy of the United Nations.

Since the first World Heritage Sites were named in 1978, being on the World Heritage List has been a symbol of international cultural importance. List status also offers financial, political, and environmental protection to sites. All World Heritage sites receive funding from the World Heritage Fund, while Ecological World Heritage Sites can receive emergency aid and long-term support from the Rapid Response Facility and International Assistance for conservation and aid. When the city of Dubrovnik was shelled in 1991, its status as a World Heritage Site ensured that it received swift financial aid and has since become a top tourist destination. In 2001, after the Taliban destroyed two 6th-century, 150-ft statues of Buddha in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley, UNESCO awarded over $4 million to help reconstruct them. Being on the World Heritage List also ensures that sites are protected under the Geneva Convention against destruction or misuse during wartime. 

The shelling of Dubrovnik Nov. 12, 1991. Courtesy of Peter Northall / Getty.

World Heritage status drives tourism and confers prestige. Time magazine’s Carolyn Sayre called the World Heritage list “the Oscars of the environment,” while The Independent calls World Heritage status “a guarantee of preservation.” So how does a site join this elite list? Nominating countries must make a “tentative list” of its important natural and cultural heritage sites. A State Party selects sites from the list and plan when to present a nomination file. This file is then sent to the World Heritage Centre. Property is evaluated by two Advisory Bodies: International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the third Advisory Body, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). Once nominated, it is up to the World Heritage Committee to officially inscribe the site into the World Heritage Site list– or request further information or defer their decision. 

Controversy and UNESCO

Despite the benefits afforded to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the organization is no stranger to controversy. The organization drew criticism for holding its 2019 World Heritage Committee session in Baku, Azerbaijan due to the country’s role in the Armenian genocide. Simon Maghakyan, writing for HyperAllergic, called the choice of location “nothing short of an insult to all world heritage.” UNESCO has also fielded complaints about its prohibitive nomination process. Mechtild Rossler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, admits that “developing countries often lack the institutions needed to support this process.” A former UNESCO staffer adds, “Submitting an application for the classification of a site on the list is very expensive, and it requires expertise to prepare a nomination, which [developing] countries don’t have. Moreover … many poor countries do not have the expertise to draw up a management plan or the means to finance the preservation of a site.” 

A tourist takes a picture next to a wall of Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap province. Courtesy of Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images.

Meanwhile, even when sites are admitted to the list, many wonder if World Heritage Site status actually does more harm than good. Foreign Policy’s Jonathan Keating called World Heritage status “the kiss of death for fragile historical sites.” Chloé Maurel writes that the 1997 listing of Panama City’s historic Casco Viejo neighborhood drew tourism to the area but in doing so “relegated its poorest inhabitants to the city limits.” The historic city of Angkor Wat, designated in 1992, introduced approximately 2 million visitors to the site, but The Independent’s Simon Usborn writes that “the neighboring town of Siem Reap has been transformed into a concrete mass of hotels, restaurants and an international airport. Meanwhile, the ancient stones at the temples are being slowly worn away by millions of flip-flops and walking boots.” Meanwhile, the 2008 designation of the Chew Jetties in Georgetown, Malaysia drove tourism to the seaside town, but Guardian Cities reports that locals “were caught unawares by a tide of tourism that has washed over their stilt village.” So while World Heritage status is a boon for sites with the capacity to handle skyrocketing rates of tourism, for those without such resources, it can actually further deterioration and create more problems than it solves.

Frank Lloyd Wright, UNESCO, and the Future

UNESCO’s World Heritage List is one of the highest honors a cultural heritage site can receive. Being named on the list is a powerful method of promoting, conserving, and preserving cultural heritage sites throughout the world, and affords many benefits to those who make it through the rigorous application process. However, if sites are not adequately prepared for the influx of tourism that comes with increased press, being named on the list can actually harm them. However, many sites already take precautions to protect their structural integrity, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West in Scottsdale, AR, which requires visitors to reserve spots on guided tours. The 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designation is a victory not only for Wright and his legacy, but also, as the first and only example of modern architecture on the World Heritage List, a harbinger of things to come for the world of modern architecture. 

-Eve Felsenthal 8/26/19