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UNESCO mulls endangered status for old Vienna

July 3, 2017

Vienna's historic center could be added to the UN's list of endangered sites, along with the earthquake-devastated Kathmandu valley. A team of UNESCO experts is meeting in the Polish city of Krakow to decide.

Österreich Pferdekutsche vor der Hofburg in Wien
Image: picture-alliance/Arco Images/G. Lenz

Building plans around Vienna's historic old city could see the site added to the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger, with experts meeting in the Polish city of Krakow.

While the classic center of Vienna is a well-established UNESCO site, it could end up on the endangered list because of plans to build a 66 meter (216 foot) tower on the edge of the site.

UNESCO says it has received various messages of concern about construction plans for an ice skating rink, hotel and concert hall.  Although the original planned height of the tower has been reduced, that may not be enough.

It's not the first time the historic center of the Austrian capital has found itself on the list. UNESCO blocked a previous construction plan in the area in 2000. "I thought they had learned their lesson. I was wrong," top UNESCO official for World Heritage Mechtild Rössler said ahead of the meeting.

Italiienisches art deco Geschäftsgebäude  in Asmara
Asmara has a wealth of Italian fascist-era architecture, from its days under MussoliniImage: picture alliance/robertharding

The body will also debate whether the Kathmandu Valley, devastated by a massive earthquake in 2015, should go onto the endangered list. Nepalese authorities, who fear such a listing would discourage tourists, are opposed to such a designation.

Politics or substance?

As well as existing sites that might be given endangered status, the World Heritage Committee will discuss which new sites should go on the protected list. There are seven natural sites, 26 cultural ones and one mixed location up for discussion.

Most controversial among those is the old town of Hebron, deep in the West Bank. Israel is opposed to the listing, saying that it would "ignore the sensitivity of and Jewish connection to the city of Hebron."

UNESCO has warned the Palestinian Authority that its application has overly focused on Hebron's Muslim history at the exclusion of its Judeo-Christian heritage. Hebron was last year a scene of repeated conflict between Israeli troops and Palestinian protesters.

 Ibrahimi mosque West Bank Hebron
The mosque area in Hebron is also a religious site for Jews and ChristiansImage: picture alliance/dpa/A.Al Hashlamoun

UNESCO's Rössler said she hoped there would not be a controversy. "I hope it will be a debate about substance. This committee is not about politics," she said in a briefing before the meeting.

Also on the list is the Italian architecture of the Eritrean capital, Asmara. The collection of buildings includes cinemas, petrol stations, banks and shops. The edifices are a relic of the colonization of the country by Italy, from the end of the 19th century to World War Two.

Eritrea's entry touts the structures as bearing "the unique pastel colours and rounded edges that marked the rationalist and futurist styles popular in Fascist Italy."

Ivory treasures in German caves

Three German sites are in the running for possible protection. They include six caves in the southern state of Baden Württemburg, where archaeologists found 40,000-year-old ornaments and musical instruments made of mammoth ivory.  

Among the items are a figurine, the Venus of Hohle Fels, which is the oldest known image of a human.

Also on the list are a number of Bauhaus buildings in northern Germany. They include the Laubenganghäuser, "housing with balcony access," in Dessau, southwest of Berlin, and a trade union school in Bernau, north of the German capital. Both were designed by Hannes Meyer, a director of the Bauhaus school who sought to make the modernist architectural style comfortable and affordable while maintaining its aesthetic.

The other German site on the list is the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, the main landmark in the district capital of Naumburg in southern Saxony-Anhalt.

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.