The fate of Cologne's cathedral, a UN-protected site since 1996, will be decided this week. UNESCO will decide if new skyscrapers compromise the site enough to remove it from the prestigious list.
Construction of the LVR building blocks the view, UNESCO says
Members of the World Heritage Committee (WHC), the United Nation's body responsible for the conservation of global heritage sites, gathered in Durban, South Africa on Monday for its annual meeting, during which it will consider 42 proposed sites for inscription on the prestigious World Heritage List. It will also assess the case for removal of one of Germany's icons -- Cologne's historic cathedral.
At the WHC's last annual meeting, in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou in April 2004, the cathedral, which is widely regarded as being one of Europe's masterpieces of gothic architecture, was placed on the UN's Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) List of World Heritage in Danger, because its integrity was said to be threatened by skyscrapers.
The decision gave the cathedral the unwanted distinction of being the only European site on the list.
"The Cologne Cathedral and its urban landscape are the city's only outstanding cultural heritage elements to have survived World War II," Francesco Bandarin, director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, said in a statement in April. "I sincerely hope that Cologne will not lose an important component of its historical legacy."
Offending high-rise block completed
UNESCO's concern was aroused by the construction of several high-rise buildings on the bank of the Rhine River opposite the cathedral. Since the decision to place the cathedral on the danger list was made, the main culprit -- a new high-rise office block built for the Rhineland regional council (LVR) -- has been completed.
Views from the side of the Rhine opposite the cathedral are said to have been compromised by the new building and others, such as the head office of German airline Lufthansa, one of the main factors being considered by the WHC during its meeting this week.
Birgitte Ringbeck, from the German delegation of observers at last year's meeting, denied the integrity of the cathedral, built between 1248 and 1880, was endangered, but recognized that the new construction might have a harmful visual impact, a statement from the delegation said.
Top drawer tourist site full of treasures
Before the LVR building
The Cologne cathedral was added to the World Heritage List in 1996 and is one of the country's top tourist draws.
The cathedral contains a wealth of important art works, including the colorful stained-glass windows that flood the cathedral with their mysterious light and the Gero cross dated around 970 A.D., the oldest large sculpture in the Western world.
The cathedral's shrine houses the relics of the Three Kings (1180–1225), an exceptional example of the regional goldsmiths’ art, and the altar of the city patrons from the 15th century by Stephan Lochner, the masterpiece of the Cologne school of artists.
While the cathedral was long ago replaced as the world's largest building, which it was at the time of its completion, its western facade remains the biggest of any church in the world, with a surface area of 7,000 square meters (23,000 square feet) flanked by two mighty spires each 157 meters high (515 feet).
New sites up for consideration
As well as passing judgment on the Cologne cathedral, the WHC will consider 28 cultural sites, 10 natural sites and four mixed sites presented by 44 countries, including Albania, China and host country South Africa as possible additions to UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Four countries -- Bahrain, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Gabon and Moldova -- could see one of their sites join the list for the first time, a committee statement read.
The Durban meeting is the first WHC session held in the sub-Saharan Africa since 1972, when UNESCO approved a convention concerning the protection of the world's cultural and natural heritage.