World Heritage City Chicago

ImageLast Saturday, Irena Bakova, Director-General of UNESCO, was in Chicago for a meet-and-greet with local heritage conservation professionals, and last night ICOMOS Director Gustavo Araoz spoke as part of the Chicago Modern: More Than Mies series, presented by the Save Prentice Coalition of AIA Chicago, docomomo Midwest, Landmarks Illinois, The National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Chicago.  Both talked about Chicago’s singular architectural legacy and suggested that Chicago would be an ideal World Heritage city.


Let that sink in for a second while we review World Heritage.  It started back in 1972 as the first international heritage conservation list, one incorporating both natural and cultural heritage.   The U.S. jumped in early, inscribing the world’s first national park (Yellowstone) along with several other parks and a number of sites like Taos Pueblo and Mesa Verde as witness to our PreColumbian history.  We kind of treated World Heritage like we treated our first landmarks law, the 1906 Antiquities Act, which was largely limited to natural and archaeological sites.   Illinois has more National Historic Landmarks than any other state, thanks to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and atomic bombs and other things that helped our region rock the socks off the 20th century.  But our only World Heritage site is Cahokia Mounds.


pyramids.  in Illinois.  Metropolis 1010..

Not only that, but the U.S. World Heritage program went into hibernation through the 1990s while the rest of the world was inscribing sites and turning them into tourist attractions while validating and underscoring their own cultural achievements.  


count the lights – Mexico OWNS us.

To be on the list a site must establish universal cultural value, and we have seen the list reflect the expanding diversity of the heritage conservation movement over the years.  Europe has added significant sites reflecting industry (Falun, one of my favorites) and modern architecture, like the Dessau Bauhaus and Rietveld’s Shroeder House in Utrecht.


yes, it is a strip mine.



China has listed several whole cities, including of course Lijiang in Yunnan, my favorite touristic monoculture admonition, and Pingyao, the walled city in Shanxi I have written about before.  These become tourist magnets following inscription, which has both its good and bad points.  I am just back from Angkor, where World Heritage status and a functional government has watched tourism jump from 1 million to almost 3 million visitors a year over the last decade, causing many to wonder if the famously flawed Khmer engineering can handle the stress.


On the other side, we have our work in the World Heritage Cercado of Lima, where the depredations of poverty, disinvestment and even termites still threaten a heritage city where only a portion is considered safe for tourism. 


So what does all this portend for Gustavo’s suggestion that Chicago become a World Heritage city?  Of course, you have the huge World Heritage problem that such status requires full owner consent, and Chicagoans are Americans who are loathe to lose even a toothpick from their bundled property rights.  But Chicago easily meets the criteria.


We invented a new kind of architecture in the 1880s with the skeletal frame highrise and that technology and type traveled the entire world and is still how we build high today.  We hosted the brightest talents of modernism and gave the world the 20th century discipline of city planning.  The contributions have outstanding universal value, to be sure.


No one doubts this, and it would be a brilliant move by the Mayor since the city is trying to build its international tourist appeal.  Do you know that Newark, N.J. gets half a million MORE foreign tourists each year than Chicago?  Can you explain that in an objective way?  Would Newark qualify for World Heritage status?


In the meantime, we are finally playing a bit of catch up, proposing a list of 10 great Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings, including Unity Temple and Robie House (it is a good list) and slavery sites and a few others that will bring the U.S. in to the 20th century in terms of cultural conservation and World Heritage.  Chicago’s city inscription may have to wait until we join the 21st century.






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