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  • Historic Cities and the Venice CharterContributions to the Sustainable Preservation of Urban Heritage
  • Eduardo Rojas (bio)

Urban heritage, heritage preservation, the Venice Charter, UNESCO

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Figure 1.

San Francisco Square in Quito, Ecuador, on a Sunday. (Eduardo Rojas)

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The Preservation of Urban Heritage: An Idea from Modern Times

The opening statements of the International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites—commonly known as The Venice Charter 1964—tell us about the scope and depth of its origins. They express the concern for history and its material expressions, which is:

Imbued with a message from the past, the historic monuments of generations of people remain to the present day as living witnesses of their age-old traditions.1

They articulate the universality of the values of this heritage.

People are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage.2

With these considerations in mind, the charter articulates the challenge for architects and technicians of historic monuments gathered in 1964 in Venice as holding:

The common responsibility to safeguard . . . [the historic monuments] . . . for future generations . . . [and] . . . to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity.3

In its conceptual makeup, the charter is a product of its time. It is strongly influenced by the ideals of the international movement in architecture and is the embodiment of a reaction to the romantic reconstruction and improvement approach used by the conservators of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is evident in the charter’s call for the recourse to all the sciences in the practice of conservation and restoration in Article 2, and it is also present in many of its detailed recommendations. A few are worth mentioning: the monuments should be intervened with minimally, and any intervention should show respect for the original materials (Article 9); and when interventions are needed, each should bear a clear contemporary stamp so as to differentiate it from the monument’s original material(s) and/or design (Article 9).

The charter also departed from the early tradition that focused on the preservation of an individual monument and recognized in Articles 1, 6, 7, and 14 that the preservation [End Page 197] of a monument should also encompass the preservation of its setting. Moreover, it indicates in Article 5 that the preservation of a monument is facilitated if it is put to “some socially useful purpose.”4 The Venice Charter provided scholars and practitioners with internationally agreed upon principles to guide the preservation and restoration of ancient buildings, but allowed each country to apply the established principles within the framework of its own culture and traditions.

Much has happened in fifty years and it is most appropriate to take a fresh look at the Venice charter. The focus here is to trace the charter’s contribution to the study and practice of urban heritage preservation and the challenges that the profession currently faces. This endeavor, however, would be incomplete if no proper consideration were given to the different charters, norms, recommendations, conventions, resolutions, and other documents approved by ICOMOS and UNESCO in the last fifty years that expanded the scope of the international concern for our material and intangible heritage and provided guidelines for its preservation. The list is long and varied, each making its unique contribution to expand the scope of the concern for material heritage. This is the case for the Nara Document on Authenticity of 1994, which provides this broad perspective and stresses that authenticity is the essential, qualifying factor concerning the values of heritage. It specifies that authenticity includes the monument’s “form and design, materials and substance, use and function, traditions and techniques, location and setting, and spirit and feeling.” Most of the other documents further expand the concepts of urban heritage preservation from individual monuments to neighborhoods and towns.

The Preservation of Historic Neighborhoods and Towns: A Growing Concern

The recommendations of the Burra Charter of 1979 extend beyond the individual monument and include the preservation of “places of cultural significance.”5 The Washington Charter of 1987 further expanded the concern for...


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