It’s no secret that the Czech Republic has garnered many victories in the competition for UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Twelve locations in the Czech Republic have already been inscribed on its World Heritage List. Some of these places are very obvious inclusions, such as the historical centre of Prague and the wonderfully preserved picturesque medieval town of Český Krumlov in Bohemia. But the competition continues as the Czech Republic awaits even more additions to the coveted List.
Bohemia and Moravia were often privy to the pivotal events and developments that helped shape the history of this continent. So it’s not surprising that the Czech Republic would rank very highly on any imaginary league table of countries with sites of historical and architectural significance that have been listed by UNESCO.
Nevertheless, there are also some other ostensibly surprising monuments which illustrate the broad scope of UNESCO’s concept of heritage, including the modernist Tugendhat Villa in the Moravian capital of Brno, which was designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. According to UNESCO, this was considered worthy because it is an outstanding example of the modern movement in 1920s European architecture.
One of the main criteria for selecting sites for the World Heritage List states that for a cultural monument to be chosen it must be “a masterpiece of human creative genius.”
Consequently, some of those newest places chosen for consideration on the Czech Republic’s own tentative list of possible UNESCO sites may cause a raised eyebrow or two. One such location is the industrial complex in the Moravian mining town of Ostrava, which includes old coal mines as well as early examples of buildings connected with the region’s iron and steel industry.
Although this may not have the same instant a peal as the historic buildings in the centre of Prague, it can be just as interesting and culturally valuable in its own way. That’s according to Věra Kučová, of the Czech National Institute for the Protection and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, which recommends sites to the Ministry of Culture for possible consideration by UNESCO and then coordinates the preparation of nomination dossiers. “The Ostrava industrial complex was chosen precisely because it can be a very good example of an important phenomenon in the history of an entire region in the Czech Republic, namely the development of coal mining, iron-ore processing, and related heavy industry,” she explains.
Kučová feels that Ostrava’s concentrated cluster of well-preserved industrial buildings boasts an authenticity as well as a structural and technological value that is worthy of greater care and attention. “A UNESCO inscription for the Ostrava complex would help us share knowledge of this segment of history with foreign visitors who are interested in industrial heritage,” she says.
The hops town of Žatec, which boasts a number of genuine period buildings charting the development of the Czech Republic’s celebrated brewing tradition, offers another slice of industrial history that many like Kučová hope will be recognised by UNESCO in the near future.
Another of several Czech sites that are being evaluated for a UNESCO inscription in the coming months is the Moravian spa town of Luhačovice, which Kučová describes as a veritable “gallery” of interesting architecture from the late 19th and early 20th centuries Many of the town’s buildings are the work of the important Slovak architect Dušan Jurkovič, who ingeniously combined Eastern European Art Nouveau decorativism with the motifs of Slavonic folk architecture from the nearby Carpathian region. If Luhačovice does become inscribed on the World Heritage List, says Kučová, it will be due in no small part to local enthusiasts who “in recent years have put in a lot of honest work for the benefit of the local architectural heritage.”
Preservation partners with development
Although historic preservation has often clashed with property renovation and development, the two aspects actually may find ways to work hand-in-hand.“The main benefit of inscribing a location on the World Heritage List is the great prestige it attains as a result,” Kučová points out. “Even locations that would otherwise be relatively small and unknown have a chance to put themselves ‘on the map’ with other jewels of the world’s heritage.”
Shining the spotlight on a previously obscure location that suddenly becomes of international interest to not only academicians and historians, but also to tourists, can encourage development of additional prestige hotels, restaurants, and residential developments.
One such listed site in the Czech Republic that has enjoyed an upsurge in interest since being inscribed by UNESCO is the Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape in Moravia, which is one of the largest artificially designed landscapes in Europe, ingeniously blending classical, Baroque, neo-Gothic, and romantic elements of ornamental outdoor architecture over an area of 200 km2.
Given the obvious upsurge in tourism that a UNESCO listing inevitably brings to an area along with all its corollary economic benefits, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are literally hundreds of locations around the world clamouring to get inscribed on the list, which means obtaining a UNESCO World Heritage inscription is far from straightforward “The nomination process is a matter of great responsibility, which is very time consuming and financially demanding as well,” says Kučová. “Consequently, it is necessary to propose locations of genuine value.”
Not surprisingly, Kučová’s institute has had to reject many sites for its “tentative list” of other Czech monuments that she hopes will be included on the World Heritage List in the future. Many of those that don’t pass muster are unfortunate in that they may be of legitimate historical and cultural interest, but are no longer unique or distinct enough to warrant inclusion on an increasingly long list of UNESCO locations.
With 12 sites already included on UNESCO’s heritage list, it is certain that any future Czech nomination will have to be extraordinary to merit inclusion, as it is well known that the organisation is trying to redress a perceived bias in favour of North American and European sites (which account for almost half of the places already inscribed on the List) by giving priority to recognising places of universal cultural and natural value in other parts of the world.
Nevertheless, even if none of the nominations on the Czech Republic’s tentative list manage to be inscribed on the List, they are still extraordinary locations that are well worth visiting. “Article 12 of the World Heritage Convention specifically states that just because a monument is not on the World Heritage List, this does not mean it has no outstanding universal qualities,” says Kučová. “The list is just really stringent and selective.”