When Genius Isn't Enough


8 July 2019

What makes for outstanding universal value? UNESCO is the guardian of our architectural history, yet inclusion on its World Heritage List is a fraught and bureaucratic matter. The body’s most recent heritage conference, hosted in Istanbul, laid bare these complexities in the contrasting fortunes of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.

Masterpieces such as Fallingwater, a residence dramatically perched over a cascade in the Pennsylvania woods, and Villa Savoye, a minimalist elevated home in the French countryside, have made architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier household names around the world, famed for their distinctive genius and lasting influence on the development of modern architecture. With credentials like that, the works of both men seem as if they would be a shoo-in for a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a prestigious global roster of sites deemed to have “outstanding universal value” based on meeting at least one out of 10 selection criteria. Not so fast.

Inscription on the list, which was inaugurated in 1978 and now contains 1,052 cultural, natural and mixed properties (UNESCO-speak for anything from a cathedral to a canyon) in 165 countries, can be a convoluted, cryptic and years-long process. Proponents of both the Wright and Le Corbusier bids know this all too well. “Our approach with the first nomination dossier was a bit arrogant, really,” admits Michel Richard, director of the Paris-based Fondation Le Corbusier, which worked with the governments of France and six other countries on their joint bid to nominate 17 Le Corbusier buildings to the World Heritage List. “We were so sure Le Corbusier was the greatest architect in the world, we just laid out a story of what he did, how he started out here, and built such and such there.”

Members of the World Heritage Committee struck down that approach when the nomination was first considered at the global body’s annual meeting in 2009, referring the dossier to the governments backing it (known as the state parties) for more work. When it came in front of the committee again in 2011, they demanded an even more thorough revision, known as a deferral. “We had a real difficulty understanding why we came off worse the second time around,” says Richard. “At some points, we thought about withdrawing the nomination, because we really didn’t want to go through a third failure.”

The moment of truth came at the World Heritage Committee’s 40th session, held in Istanbul, Turkey, in mid-July, with the fate of the first nomination for Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and 25 other properties also on the docket. The 11-day session ended up being cut short after seven days due to an attempted military coup in Turkey, but even the truncated discussion provided insight into the challenges of the inscription process, particularly for serial nominations like those proposed for the two master architects.

When the Wright nomination came on the agenda about halfway through the original schedule for the July session, the discussion began with a presentation from a representative of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises the World Heritage Committee on cultural and mixed properties. (The International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, plays the same role for natural sites such as national parks or nature reserves.) Running through a slideshow of the 10 Wright-designed buildings that comprised the United States’s serial nomination, ICOMOS World Heritage Adviser Susan Denyer briefly and dispassionately described each structure’s distinctive attributes before delivering the advisory body’s verdict to the country delegations and observers in attendance in the vast, windowless hall.

“I have described the component sites, but not how each contributes to outstanding universal value as this is not articulated clearly in thenomination dossier,” Denyer said, explaining why ICOMOS’s recommendation was to defer the Wright nomination. “The series is nominated under criteria one and two, as a collection of masterpieces and for the influence they had. Although a few of the individual buildings might have the capacity to justify criterion one, the series as a whole is not justified as a masterpiece[...] nor can all of the buildings in this series be seen as influential.”

The path towards UNESCO recognition in both cases began with single properties – Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, and Wright’s Taliesin, his home and studio in rural Wisconsin – before the respective state parties and their advisers embarked on more thorough evaluations of the architects’ oeuvres and put forward broader selections of their work. Whether single or serial, it can take years of expert assessments, stakeholder consultations and site visits for a country (or in Le Corbusier’s case, multiple countries) to put a property on its tentative list and then subsequently submit it for nomination. At that point, the advisory body, ICOMOS or IUCN, steps in to make its own evaluation. Only then can a property come onto the World Heritage Committee’s annual agenda.

Following the presentation of each proposed property by ICOMOS or IUCN, representatives of the 21 countries that currently belong to the committee’s rotating membership make their cases to accept, amend, refer or defer the nomination. Delivered in a variety of official languages, these statements tend towards the bureaucratic and jargon-filled, although at times betray passion or pique, as when a representative from Lebanon suggested that the world’s smaller countries “launch a donation drive” to help the United States revise its Wright nomination after the procedure’s cost was raised as a potential issue.

Debate on the Wright nomination during the Istanbul meeting was roughly divided between two camps. One, led by Croatia and Vietnam, proposed to immediately inscribe the property, but as a reduced list of four sites: Fallingwater in Pennsylvania; the prairie school exemplar Robie House in Chicago; the iconic reinforced-concrete Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois; and the strikingly cylindrical Guggenheim Museum in New York. The other group, led by Kuwait, preferred to refer the full list of 10 sites back to the United States for further examination.

“These four sites convey a very strong message of organic architecture, the principle of connection to nature that is arguably Wright’s greatest contribution and continues to inspire architects today,” said Pham Sanh Chau, secretary general of the Vietnamese ministry of foreign affairs and a member of Vietnam’s delegation. “If we don’t inscribe works like these, whose outstanding value can be acknowledged even by ordinary people, our credibility is at risk.”

Urging that the committee instead opt for referral, architect Jad Tabet, a member of Lebanon’s delegation, argued that “it would be a shame to reduce the nomination to four buildings that would not cover the full importance of Wright’s work.”

“The outstanding universal value of this work is obvious but the problem lies in defining what makes it so,” said Tabet. “This is not only an academic question, since we have to know what exactly are the values we are inscribing in order to protect these values. If we inscribe a car, for example, we should know if we are inscribing its outstanding design, its revolutionary engine or its environmental qualities.”

Taliesin (1911) by Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin, USA. IMAGE Andrew Pielage.

This struggle is one with which the head of the Fondation Le Corbusier is painstakingly familiar. Both the 2009 and 2011 assessments of the Le Corbusier nomination by ICOMOS called into question whether the outstanding universal value of all the works was defined clearly enough. Before 2011, the nomination process was “kind of a black box”, says Richard. “You presented the file and got the results, but there was no contact with the ICOMOS experts, no explanation, nothing.” A new committee rule came into place that year, however, that allowed the foundation and the state parties to enter into a challenging but productive dialogue with ICOMOS. “With ICOMOS’s advising, we decided to focus on questions of influence and exchange of ideas, and our case for universal value is based on those two criteria,” he says. “As soon as we decided on these criteria, we had to abandon the buildings [on the original list of 22 structures] that might be very interesting on their own, but could not be said to have influenced the architecture of the 20th century.”

Richard says ICOMOS initially also opposed the entire idea of a serial nomination and worried about the management complications that could come along with what would be the World Heritage List’s first transcontinental inscription. (Numerous other properties, such as Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, are already transnational.) “The state parties, however, felt strongly that Le Corbusier’s role as the first universal architect, and his contribution to the modern movement, was something that couldn’t be demonstrated through one building,” says Richard. “They felt it had to be shown through a series, from very modest homes [such as the Petite villa au bord du lac Léman in Switzerland] to very large structures like the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh, India.”

Their persistence paid off. At the July session in Istanbul, a transnational serial property of 17 works by Le Corbusier – including the Ronchamp chapel, the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo – was finally inscribed on the World Heritage List to enthusiastic applause. ICOMOS representative Denyer praised the sites in the series as “outstanding responses to some of the fundamental issues of architecture and society in the 20th century” and declared that the outstanding universal value of each had been laid out with “great clarity”.

The decision reflects “a new openness by UNESCO to thinking outside territorial designations and recognising a body of buildings that can never be seen together at the same time outside of catalogues or exhibits,” says Barry Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University. Bergdoll, who co-curated the first major exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work at the MoMA in New York, hopes that the World Heritage designation will help broaden the public understanding of the architect’s legacy, as well as adding a new level of protection to the listed buildings.

The ground-breaking nomination also lays out a potential path for the Frank Lloyd Wright bid, which was referred back to the United States for more work at the Istanbul session. “We previously didn’t have a serial nomination of 20th-century works [spread across a broad geography] to look at for comparison, so looking at the Le Corbusier nomination will be very helpful for us,” says Lynda Waggoner, director of Fallingwater and vice president of the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, which is advising the United States on the Wright nomination.

Both serial properties contain multiple buildings with different private owners, and though the Wright bid is being put forward by a single country, Waggoner says that having sites in different states, subject to different law, makes it almost comparable to a transnational nomination. “It can be hard for other countries to understand how different US law is, how state and local laws can trump federal ones,” she says.

Villa Savoye (1928) by Le Corbusier in Poissy, Francy. IMAGE Cemal Emden.

Despite the encouraging example set by the Le Corbusier inscription this year, Waggoner knows there are still many challenges ahead. “Le Corbusier had very set principles, so you see them adopted everywhere. Wright’s work was very individualistic, based on the philosophy of an American society with individual rights and his feeling that there are as many buildings one can design as there are individuals. So trying to show the global influence of his style is not as easy,” she says. “Nevertheless, his ideas did permeate architecture, especially in terms of connection to nature. The open plan was first his idea, a break with Western precedent and classical models mostly appropriated from Europe. We’ll start making that narrative case as we work on re-framing the nomination.”

The United States has three years to submit the additional information requested by the World Heritage Committee in its referral decision, but Waggoner says the hope is to get the work done by 1 February 2017. “That way we can resubmit the nomination next year and try to capitalise on the momentum that’s been built up.”

The committee’s decision to refer the nomination rather than defer it for the more extensive reworking recommended by ICOMOS came as a relief, the Fallingwater director admits. “We were concerned about the possibility of having to start all over again with a deferral decision,” says Waggoner. “I don’t know that there would have been the will, or the funding, for that.”