UNESCO Bangkok

Damir Jakovic

UNESCO office in Venice

UNESCO Bangkok

920 Sukhumvit Road Bangkok 10110 Thailand

www.unescobkk.org/culture

First Principles for Conserving Built Heritage: Best Practices from the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards  for Culture Heritage Conservation (2000-2004)

UNESCO leads preservation efforts worldwide in safeguarding the continuity of diverse cultural values represented in both tangible and intangible heritage. The 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (popularly known as the World Heritage Convention) forms the framework for international action in the conservation of immovable tangible cultural heritage, which encompasses built structures, sites and landscapes. The principles enshrined in the Convention and its Operational Guidelines extend not only to World Heritage properties, but also to other significant heritage sites.

Recognizing that a significant portion of the built heritage remains in the hands of traditional owners and caretakers, UNESCO seeks to encourage private sector involvement and public-private collaboration in heritage conservation. The flagship strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is the annual UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation programme. The programme was established in the year 2000 as a means of identifying and showcasing the most successful best practices in built heritage conservation from this region.  By recognizing private sector achievements and public-private initiatives in successfully restoring structures of heritage value, UNESCO encourages both policies and practices which result in the preservation of the unique heritage values and  historic significance of our communities, which pave the way for future projects both within the same communities and beyond.

Since its establishment, the programme has brought to public attention a noteworthy body of work in the field of heritage conservation. Since 2000, a total of 241 entries were received from 23 countries, of which 105 were recognized with UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards. Winners represent a broad spectrum of the region's built heritage, serving as a testament to how conservation can be successfully integrated into various urban development strategies. The projects highlight the challenges facing the conservation profession around the Asia-Pacific region today, ranging from the disappearance of traditional materials, skills and techniques to the economic and political forces driving urban densification.

In recognition of the ever-evolving nature of built form and cultural expression, a special award category, the Jury Commendation for Innovation, was inaugurated in 2005 as part of the programme to recognize innovative new buildings which successfully integrate into historic districts in a way that complements and enhances the historic character and contributes to the cultural continuum of the area.

The selection process for the Awards programme is rigorous and is conducted annually by a panel of international conservation experts in architecture, urban planning, landscape design and heritage conservation, all of whom practice in the Asia-Pacific region.

The award-winning projects set benchmark standards of technical excellence, foster community involvement and capacity-building, and have a catalytic effect on local restoration and conservation efforts. All winning entries serve as best practice models in their understanding of the issues of conservation in relation to the cultural, social, historical and architectural significance of the building, employment of appropriate construction and artisan techniques as well as use of appropriate materials.

A set of powerful "first principles" guiding the conservation of the historic built heritage in the Asia-Pacific region has emerged from the programme, which have evolved and been validated through professional practice over the past two decades. They are:

  • Collective mapping of cultural space, its hierarchies, symbolic language and associations is a pre-requisite for appropriate and successful conservation;
  • Tangible cultural expressions derive their origin, value and continuing significance from intangible cultural practices;
  • Authenticity, the defining characteristic of heritage, is a culturally-relative characteristic to be found in continuity, but not necessarily in only the continuity of material;
  • The conservation process succeeds when histories are revealed, traditions revived and meanings recovered in a palimpsest of knowledge;
  • Appropriate use of heritage is negotiated, resulting in a life-enhancing space.

Together, the first principles affirm a set of professional norms which have arisen out of a uniquely Asian physical and socio-cultural space.