Intangible and tangible cultural heritage belong together, and only if presented together can the meaning of cultural heritage be made apparent. An interview with Christian Hanus, Head of the Department for Building and Environment at Danube University Krems.
Interview: Cathren Landsgesell
upgrade: In the 19th century an attempt was made to define “cultural heritage” in the context of national identity. But do cultural heritage and nationalism even belong together? Isn’t culture always passed on as something local or regional?
Christian Hanus: Most countries in the world identify themselves with the history of their most important monuments and/or customs, as can be seen on their bank notes. Nationally contextualizing cultural heritage only becomes a problem if this devalues or even negates other historical content and connections. It goes without saying that a “national landmark” is bound to be more in the local and regional foreground, and also received by the public in more different ways. Many architectural monuments and customs in particular are locally and regionally established and are part of a people’s cultural identity. As a general rule, the historicity of landmarks should be studied and presented beyond their geographical contexts.
upgrade: The motto of this year’s European Cultural Heritage Year is “Sharing Heritage.” Does this point to a European identity?
Hanus: Diversity, the abundance of European cultural heritage and the different interpretations and approaches are at the forefront of the Cultural Heritage Year. The main aim is to spotlight the conjoining elements. In this context it is a shared heritage whose diversity makes it so rich.
upgrade: It is not unusual to differentiate between “intangible” and “tangible” cultural heritage. In what proportion are these two to each other?
Hanus: I became aware of the close connection between intangible and tangible cultural heritage in a special way during our work rebuilding cities destroyed by earthquakes. Coming from that profession, naturally I first focused on the architectural reconstruction of destroyed ancient cities. Very early on, though, the importance of all the intangible dimensions of architectural cultural heritage became clear to me. Every building has a function and a meaning that contributes to the functional, cultural, social, religious and economic fabric of the city. The connections become particularly succinct when you look at the recovered depots containing cultural goods such as sculptures, pictures, holy statues or bells that are borrowed for processions and other customs. It was a particularly moving moment when, in the Easter vigil 2017, the bells rang in Amatrice from temporarily erected scaffolding towers. It is essential to analyse all of these connections during reconstruction projects in order to re-build and revitalize a city in its entirety. If only the architectural “monuments” were rebuilt, without all the intangible structures, there is no guarantee that these and their surrounding cultural landscapes will ever really work again.
„Every building has a function and a meaning that contributes to the functional, cultural, social, religious and economic fabric of the city.“
upgrade: What’s your opinion of the ways in which cultural heritage is used for tourism, such as the Roman Festival in Carnuntum, where the Roman settlement was reconstructed in this section of the “Danube Limes” project? Is this in the interest of cultural heritage or is it merely a spectacle?
Hanus: Many conservators regard such replicas very critically, but I see them – as well as the Roman festivals – as a way of experiencing history and culture in a very valuable way in terms of understanding and awareness of the original archaeological site. This also leads to the preparedness by the general public to bear the expense for preserving this heritage for future generations. Moreover, Carnuntum’s significance embraces other regions, as many other sites along the Limes profit from the cultural mediation work done there.
upgrade: A section of the Danube Limes in Bavaria, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary is applying for UNESCO world heritage status. However, there is very little visible evidence of the Limes. How does one mediate cultural heritage one cannot see?
Hanus: The Danube Limes, over 2,000 kilometers long and part of the Roman Empire’s frontier, is difficult to mediate as a late antiquity monument. It consists of a natural border, the Danube, and many isolated archaeological sites such as former watchtowers, forts, legion camps, and even entire garrison and civilian towns. In Lower Austria a comparably large number of architectural structures survive, for example in Mautern, in Traismauer, in Zeiselmauer and, of course, Carnuntum. A tower-like fort in the Wachau still exists, in Bacharnsdorf, integrated into a residential building. But in Zwentendorf we only see fields, or maybe a mound. To mediate that this spot is nonetheless an important site of what was once 8,000 kilometers of Roman Empire frontier is a big challenge. One shouldn’t just tell the story of isolated artifacts, but always present them in the context of the entire frontier structure. The premise in doing so is to reciprocally draw attention to the other sites to demonstrate how everything is connected and their significance. Then every individual site benefits greatly.
upgrade: Limes, as one single monument, requires close international collaboration.
Hanus: Yes, the Roman Empire frontier runs through the Middle East, North Africa, Scotland and across all of Europe. Discussions show that Limes is really very well suited for an intercultural dialogue across political borders. The diplomatic potential is great because Limes is, after all, a historically untarnished legacy with which every region, every country and every continent can identify in their own way.
upgrade: UNESCO is sometimes accused of being aloof and out of touch with the real world. How can the importance be relayed?
Hanus: Well, that’s the question. World heritage is just a selective section of humanity’s entire rich heritage. The rules and the practice for adding sites to the world heritage list have changed over the decades. The historical significance of cultural heritage is still given even if it is only known to a few people. The Mostar Bridge, for example, was hardly known before it was destroyed. It was only its loss that led to many people becoming aware of its importance. Unlike the original bridge, the reconstruction eventually made it to the world heritage list.
upgrade: What in your opinion is the biggest threat to architectural cultural heritage today?
Hanus: There have always been modernization phases that jeopardised physical heritage structures, for example in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the danger potential often comes from the strict assessment of the requirements for utilization. There are already many regulations with regard to safety, fire protection, access, energy consumption and so on. While these issues are usually justifiable, the standards for their implementation often only pertain to new buildings. Implementing them for landmarks and monuments, however, often requires elaborate customized solutions. The money, time and know-how to do this is often unavailable. We try to help in our teaching and research, particularly in the area of monuments’ structural physics or the lifecycle costs of old buildings.
Univ.-Prof. Dipl. Arch. ETH Dr. Christian Hanus studied architecture at the “Eidgenössische Technischen Hochschule (ETH)” in Zurich. He specializes in historic preservation, solar architecture and building materials science. In 2007 Hanus left ETH Zurich to join Danube University Krems, where he became head of the newly established Center for Architectural Heritage in 2010. Since 2013, Christian Hanus has been head of the Department for Building and Environment and Dean of the Faculty of Education, Arts and Architecture.