International Style Heritage

by Lucia Allais

Heritage as Crisis
Heritage has become a way to stabilize crises by stabilizing meanings. It is an idea born of crisis: the crisis of the Enlightenment, or more precisely, the crisis of modern nation-building. When the revolutionary fervor that swept late-eighteenth-century Paris began manifesting itself in the destruction of aristocratic property and religious monuments, cultural entrepreneurs designated fragments of these monuments as republican patrimony in order to spare them from destruction. In a sense, this was an emergency measure, devised to avert a crisis. Yet once salvaged, these spoils could not be valued by the same criteria that gave them legitimacy in the eyes of the monarchy: in the nation-state, they became icons of rupture, 'national objects that, belonging to no-one, are the property of all.'1 In this sense, the category of heritage was invented not to avert a crisis, but rather to make the crisis permanent, masking the continuity between the cultural values of old and new regimes. Heritage is a distancing device, a spacer. Instead of belonging to the realm of history in which wars and revolutions unfold, it belongs to an abstracted realm where ownership is delayed.

This abstracted realm is now a few centuries old and has acquired a complicated geopolitical history. When a crisis of heritage makes the news, it is usually to illustrate the multi-layered nature of contemporary wars as image-wars. When, for instance, the Iraq National Museum was looted in the early days of the US-led invasion in April, 2003, the New York Times reported that the Pentagon had been briefed on the location of Iraq’s cultural sites but failed to secure them, and that, in contrast, the Allies had successfully protected the monuments of Europe using this same briefing procedure during World War II.2 Whether the precedent was applicable was irrelevant. The point was to expose the trampling of not one, but two mythical images: the image of Mesopotamia as birthplace of civilization, and the image of the US as pioneer in the legislation of the rules of war since the Lieber Code of 1863. In part because of this bad publicity, the museum was eventually secured - but only after the international art market had been flooded with antiquities. Soon Iraq’s archaeological sites also became the targets of a vigorous illicit digging campaign, fueling a growing black market in Mesopotamian artifacts. To heritage advocates, this lack of foresight showed that US military planners failed to grasp the concept of 'cultural property,' as defined in postwar international law: a type of property which should, in times of crisis, be held in custody on behalf of a collectivity that UNESCO calls Mankind. Indeed the first codification of cultural property, the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, was designed to prevent exactly the combination of military neglect and civilian vandalism that occurred in Iraq. Nor did the US invoke the 'military necessity' clause of the Convention, which it negotiated along with the UK, based on the experience of World War II, to provide an exception when cultural property interferes with the attainment of war goals. This clause was originally meant to regulate the choice between preserving monuments and saving lives, but the meaning of 'necessity' is notoriously flexible, and in Iraq, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld argued that looting was a symptom of freedom, with 'freedom' the avowed military goal. Rumsfeld might even have pointed out that the US never ratified the Hague Convention, even after having built such a major exception into it.3 But - to put it in terms familiar to Carl Schmitt - Rumsfeld did not even bother making the exceptionalist argument available to him. Instead, he essentially accused the media of heritage inflation:'The images you are seeing on television,' he insisted, 'you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it twenty times, and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?''4 Ironically, this cavalier attitude pointed directly to where the real crisis lay: the breakdown of the strict export regulations, also written into postwar International Law, that had hitherto carefully kept Iraq’s vast collection of vases and other artifacts 'in the country.' If the US publicly snubbed the Hague Convention, quietly it abided by two other Conventions to which it is a party: the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention. In accordance with UNIDROIT, the US military commissioned a follow-up investigation in collaboration with INTERPOL, which published a list of Most Wanted antiquities. This investigation has unmasked an intricate web of connections between the black market, the First Gulf War and UN-imposed economic sanctions.5 So in a sense, the fate of Iraq’s heritage—its dissemination to an unregulated international market—has been perfectly consistent with the neo-conservative rationale for the invasion, which connected political liberation with economic liberalization.

All but two of INTERPOL’s Most Wanted Works of Art have been recovered.6 Yet the dissemination of artifacts has also diluted media coverage. As a collection under attack, Iraq’s heritage made the news. But once the crisis had been laid bare and the story became that of dispersed objects, tracked by INTERPOL, shadowed by traffickers, and periodically appearing on eBay, it stopped being a newsworthy act of iconoclasm. Advocates are now hoping to shame international agencies into stricter enforcement by linking 'trading antiquities' with 'supporting terrorism.'7 Yet it is not clear how international legal instruments that were designed to protect institutional concentrations of heritage will deal with a broad extra-national dispersal of value and of attention. Even in its incarnation as a set of international laws, heritage continues to focus attention on political crises while obscuring the cultural continuities that lie beneath.

International Style Heritage
Today these cultural continuities reside in objects and buildings alike, but heritage law distinguishes between art and architecture as 'movable' and 'immovable' property. In theory, this distinction reflects a difference in protective mechanisms. In practice, the effect of this split is that theft is considered legally reversible, while destruction is not. A stolen object remains 'illicit' until it is returned to its state of origin (UNIDROIT 1995), but an army that has destroyed a building is under no obligation to rebuild it (Hague 1954). Still, even without this obligation, the crisis-relief potential of architecture has undeniably come to carry the same ethical charge–what Elazar Barkan has called an “international morality”—as the restitution of objects.8 There exists today an International Style of architectural heritage restoration, which is sustained worldwide by international agencies of conflict management. By helping to rebuild destroyed monuments, preserving the sites of war crimes, and generally concerning themselves with cultural institutions in crisis, international actors such as UNESCO, the World Bank, NATO and a growing number of NGOs promote the idea that heritage is a peaceful concern, and its preservation a humanitarian activity. These practices create a platform of exchange between certain tropes of architectural preservation, such as integrity and authenticity, and certain tropes of modern warfare, such as proportionality and military necessity. It is the style of restoration, rather than the nature of what is being restored, that provides the crucial link.

I use the phrase 'International Style' somewhat in jest, although it is a useful heuristic. The style has its origins in the middle of the twentieth century, the period when art historians theorized the first International Style (Gothic art, circa 1400) and architects formalized the second (Modern architecture, circa 1940).9 Early works include projects associated with World War II, such as the reconstruction of the center of Warsaw and the transformation of the Genbaku Dome at Hiroshima into a memorial. More recent examples include the reconstruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar (or Stari Most) after its shelling in April 1993, and the preservation of the site of the Bamyian Buddhas after they were dynamited in March 2001. Like the first International Style, with its monumental picture cycles sponsored by new patterns of courtly patronage, post-conflict heritage acts as a vast iconographic program. It legitimates political institutions of global governance, while seemingly arising from regional rebuilding. Taking a cue from Erwin Panofsky, we may push the analogy further: just as late-Gothic art was a two-faced display of collective melancholia that announced the rise of bourgeois urbanity while mourning the 'autumn' of feudalism, so International Style heritage celebrates collective cultural identity while emitting an unmistakable nostalgia for heroic authorship.10 Certainly the practice of turning sites of humanitarian tragedies into popular tourist attractions has produced a commercial aesthetic out of retrospection and morbidity. But the point is not to force a historiographic parallel. The point is to re-politicize heritage alongside other large-scale iconographic programs that have been vehicles for consolidating power by spreading a cultural message.

With the architectural modernism of the mid-twentieth century, International Style heritage shares a more obvious set of architectonic traits, based on structural integrity, volumetric legibility and material consistency.11 International norms of preservation treat every monument as if it were a work of modern architecture, designed for objecthood. The similarity is helped by three facts: that many monuments to twentieth century warfare belong to utilitarian typologies, that applied decorative elements have usually long disappeared, and that their preservation has museumified them into neutrality. The Stari Most exemplifies how the structural rationalism inherited from nineteenth-century restoration theory has combined with twentieth century international diplomacy to produce an unmistakably modernist style of tectonic neutralization. The bridge was rebuilt by NATO, through an agreement between Bosnians and Croats, with aid from agencies in East and West, and under the rationalized supervision of a French bridge engineer. The project unfolded over five years and under the banner of 'integrity,' a preservation criterion that says reconstructions are authentic, rather than replicas, if they are conducted with a strict technological ethos based on detailed documentation of the original structure. The NATO-led Stabilization Force, SFOR, made ample use of the engineering metaphor of integrity to publicize its success in enforcing the 'Stability Pact.'12 Yet as Michael Igniatieff has shown, all these efforts to maintain the tectonic integrity of the 'new old bridge' coincided with its complete collapse as a political symbol of unification, except in the cynical sense that both ethnic factions in Mostar agreed that the influx of money and attention was needed to maintain their city’s value as a bargaining chip in a virtual war.13 It is the impulse to bear witness that leads restorers to alternately erase or impose destruction. But the signature aesthetic that results—clean-lined and clean-cut, almost Brutalist—inevitably benefits the ideology of international bureaucracies, who imprint every project with a white-gloved neutrality that voids this witnessing act of much of its value. However authentically restored, the Stari Most is a stylized representation indeed, and the only lasting iconographic certainty to have been embedded into it is NATO’s 'integrity' as an international force.

The phrase International Style is most useful, then, as an artifact of the twentieth century itself: as a historiographic construct, it is the result of a persistent search for monuments to mirror on an aesthetic plane the nascent geopolitical order. The first search found in the Middle Ages a connection between trauma and display, the second found in modern architecture a structural Esperanto, and both built pious display into their historiographies, whether through medieval itineracy or modern museology.14 But it is only in the architectural heritage of twentieth-century warfare itself that the International Style has found a support for both the metaphor of structure as neutrality and the logic of conspicuous display as constitutive of a global aesthetic experience. Sadly, the monuments of this third International Style have little left to display, aside from evidence that the very cultural politics they are supposed to represent—where international governance arises from shared global experience—has repeatedly failed.

Monumental Concentrations
In the face of this continual slippage, heritage is equally available to iconoclasts and salvagers as a way to concentrate attention and formalize conflicts. The Bamyian Buddahs are a case in point: the Taliban’s 2001 announcement of their intent to destroy the statues triggered a cycle of intensive cultural diplomacy, where UNESCO and various member states proposed to dismantle the statues and reconstruct them outside Afghanistan. To justify this drastic measure preservationists appealed once again to 'integrity,' this time invoking the 1972 World Heritage Convention, a third legal instrument whose sole purpose is to ensure that the world is always 'briefed' on the location of its heritage. But the Mullahs considered their edict against the Buddahs a type of 'briefing' too, and after some debate, they proceeded with the destruction. Theirs was a pre-emptive image war, a cultural equivalent of the scenario that was later played out in the UN as a build-up to the Iraq war. The stylisic stakes of this heritage diplomacy became plainly evident in the statement made by Information Minister Qudratullah Jamal after a week of silence, when footage of the destruction was finally released: 'The destruction work is not as easy as people would think. You can’t knock down the statues by dynamite or shelling as both of them have been carved in a cliff. They are firmly attached to the mountain.'15 Destruction, in other words, followed the same strict professional ethic as reconstruction—it was based on material integrity. UNESCO has now placed the empty niches and the remains of the colossi on the World Heritage List, and is laying the discursive groundwork for an International-Style commemoration at the site: debates over how to reconstruct, plans to display fragments in a museum and bittersweet discoveries of cultural heritage made visible by the destruction. To UNESCO, this project will be a monument to a new type of image warfare that occurs exclusively in the cultural realm.16 To the Taliban and its observers, the episode commemorates the humanitarian crisis that befell Afghanistan as a result of UN-imposed economic sanctions.17 Where both sides agree is that the physical detachment of the heritage project from any specific site of humanitarian tragedy has only amplified its humanitarian overtones.

This detachment of heritage-commemoration from the sites of humanitarian trauma marks a shift in the iconography of International Style heritage. A return to the precedent of World War II is useful. If the twentieth century added a humanitarian dimension to the original humanist dilemma of heritage, it is because specific urban morphologies ensured the proximity of mass-murder and monument-reconstruction. The cultural sites protected by the Allies in World War II existed in the same urban spaces as the civilians that they attacked from the air, and all subsequent heritage law has been based on this coincidence of population density and monument concentration.18 In short, a European urbanity is built into current heritage law.

This is why the reconstruction of the Stari Most has been an attractive project for aid agencies: apart from being a model of early-modern engineering and a symbol of multiculturalism, the bridge fits into a familiar urban morphology and a reassuring image of public space that legitimates a concentric type of power. The concentration of effort, on one monument, at the center of one town, in the middle of one region, was presented as a model for conflict-resolution worldwide. The hidden continuity here is between war-time heritage reconstruction and peace-time preservation, both practices invested in urban contextualism. (Hence the first person to petition for bridge reconstruction was the architect-urbanist who spent the 1980s restoring the Mostar city center to a pristine medieval state.)19 In contrast, the shadowy world of internet-antiquities trading—which links tax-haven art collections and mainstream cultural institutions, invisible archaeological diggers and ubiquitous souvenir-hunters—probably offers a better model for understanding the public space in which 'Mankind' resides today, or at least a better medium for the public opinion in whose name image wars are fought.

As international legal instruments designed to deal with concentration and proximity are increasingly deployed against dispersal and remoteness, the two spatio-temporal categories built into heritage law - movable/immovable and war/peace - become increasingly difficult to sustain. Even embedded monoliths can become movable (as the Bamyian Buddahs show), and even war-time protection requires peace-time institutions (as Iraq’s antiquities show). This blurring of categories goes directly against the stylizing tendencies of international heritage practices, which concentrate in space phenomena that were once distributed in time. Nowhere is this clearer than in UNESCO’s struggle to curate the geographic 'diversity' of its World Heritage List, as if global proportionality had its own iconographic value. Finding the Stari Most and the Bamyian Buddahs in the List is revealing: they belong, along with other sites of humanitarian significance like the Hiroshima Dome, the Island of Gorée, and the Aapravasi Ghat, to a rare list of sites valued according to 'Criteria (vi)' alone, which derives value from 'an event.'20 The first site in this exclusive list, the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was inscribed in 1979 only on condition that no other 'sites of a similar nature' be inscribed in the future.21 World Heritage only had space for the Holocaust as one 'event', and this precedent has been followed ever since. As with the politics of integrity, this stylization of history relies on heritage to perform a crucial conflation: between proportionality as a military variable (that weighs military ends against civilian means) and proportionality as a cultural control-mechanism (that transforms historical crises into global display objects).22 If much of what passes for straightforward ethical discourse in heritage management today is in fact a set of highly sophisticated architectonic tropes, then one way out of the current mass-melancholia will be to let these tropes reflect more accurately how heritage transforms historical continuities into spatial ruptures: not through neutral integrity but through consolidation of power; not by spatial proportionality, but by historic condensation. Left to its own devices, International Style heritage will continue to mask the growing remove between humanitarian crises and international intervention. This is because international bureaucracies, like nation-states, favor monumental concentration of every kind: of funding, of effort and of attention.


1. 'Que le respect public entoure particulierement les objets nationaux qui, n'etant a personne, sont la propriete de tous.' Abbe Gregoire, 'Rapport sur les destructions operees par le vandalisme,' in Patrimoine et Cite (Paris: Confluences, 1999), 37. Translation mine. This 'public respect' was to be the antidote to 'vandalism,' a term Gregoire also coined.

2. Frank Rich, '“And Now: Operation Iraqi Looting,' New York Times, April 27, 2003.

3. For a parallel history of the Lieber Code and 'military necessity' see Burrus M. Carnaha, 'Lincoln, Lieber and the Laws of War,' in American Journal of International Law, 92/2 (Apr 1998), 213-231. On the U.S and Hague 1954, see 'War and Cultural Property: the 1954 Hague Convention and the Status of U.S. Ratification,' in International Journal of Cultural Property, 10/2 (2001), 217-245.

4. Transcript of DoD News Briefing - Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers, April 11, 2003, 2:00pm.

5. First-hand accounts include: Matthew Bogdanos, Thieves of Baghdad (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005); Geoff Emberling & Katharyn Hanson, eds, Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past (Chicago: University of Chicago Oriental Institute, 2008); Lawrence Rothfield, ed., Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War (Lanham: AltaMira Press, c2008); Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, eds., The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008).

6 '[T]he four items displayed on the left have meanwhile been recovered. Only the two on the right numbered 3 (gaming board) and 6 (lioness attacking a Nubian) are still wanted.' INTERPOL General Secretariat, Works of Art Unit: Unpublished email communication with the author, 4 December 2008.

7. Matthew Bogadnos, 'The Terrorist in the Art Gallery,' New York Times, December 10, 2005. For same in humanitarian warfare, see Thomas Keenan, 'Mobilizing Shame,' in SAQ 103:2/3 (2004), 435-449.

8. Elazar Barkan, The Guilt of Nations (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2000). Barkan’s optimism has been challenged, but the phrase has stuck.

9. The expression International Style is attributed to André Courajod, a sculpture historian who curated in the 1890s the revolutionary spoils Gregoire helped save a century earlier. The high point of usage was the 1962 The International Style exhibit at the Walters Art Gallery; the best review of subsequent work is Paul Binski, 'Court Patronage and International Gothic,' in The New Cambridge Medieval History Vol. VII (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995-2005), 222-233.

10. The 'autumn' formulation belongs to Johan Huizenga’s 1919 The Autumn of the Middle Ages, until recently translated as The Waning of the Middle Ages. Panofsky complicated Huizega’s story by describing a dichotomy between a 'flamboyance' due to the “fluidity … between art production and art consumption” and a 'nocturnal aspect' reflecting the way 'melancholia… assumed its modern meaning of a purely psychological dejection—a state of mind rather than a disease.' Erwin Panofsky, 'The Early Fifteenth Century and the ‘International Style’,' in Early Nederlandish Painting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953), 72.

11. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture since 1932 (New York: 1932). Alfred Barr summarized the three criteria invented by Hitchcock & Johnson as volume over solidity, regularity over symmetry, and rejection of applied ornament.

12. As a stabilization force, SFOR operated between NATO’s implementation force, IFOR, and the E.U.’s peace-keeping mission, EUFOR. The rhetoric of constructive success spans from the first report ('Operation Complete,' SFOR Informer, 12 Nov 1997) to the last ('Mostar Bridge is standing up,' SFOR Informer, 7 May 2003).

13. Michael Ignatieff, 'The Bridge Builder,' in Empire Lite (Toronto: Penguin, 2003)

14. Art historians and curators actively theorized the relationship between modern and medieval culture: Millard Meiss recounted the variations of the concept of International Style with contemporary moods in his 1974 The Limbourg and their Contemporaries, and Hitchcock saw Modern Architecture as born in 'the chief engineering architecture of the past, the High Gothic of France.' Hitchcock, Modern Architecture (New York: Payson & Clark, 1929), 161, 223-229. Adjoining these two narratives yields a grand conspiracy, where the same international style has reigned uninterrupted since the 13th Century.

15. Interview with CNN, 12 March 2001, cited by AP, 12 March 2001.

16. Francesco Francioni, 'The Destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and International Law,' in European Journal of International Law 14/619 (Sep 2003).

17. 'We are very disappointed,' said Ahmed Faiz, chief of the Afghan foreign ministry’s press department, 'that the international community doesn’t care about the suffering people but they are shouting about the stone statues of Buddha.' Kathy Gannon, Associated Press (26 March 2001).

18. This spatial and strategic conflation is the subject of a chapter in my doctoral dissertation, Will to War, Will to Art: Cultural Internationalism and the Modernist Aesthetics of Monuments 1932–1964 (MIT: 2008).

19. The original restoration provoked a debate on heritage inflation when it was awarded the Aka Khan Award for Architecture. See 'A call for Affirmative Action,' in Architectural Record (Jan 1987), 94-99. Echoes of these disciplinary debates are heard in recent complaints that heritage inflation is at work in the undeserved attention paid to a utilitarian Ottoman bridge. Image wars and disciplinary wars are complicit in determining the type of international action they attract. See Mostar’ 92: Urbicide. (Mostar: Hrvatsko vijece obrane Opcine Mostar, 1992) and Inga Saffron, 'Mostar' in Metropolis (October 1994), 46-54.

20. Criterion (vi) carries a caveat: 'The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria.'

21. 'The Committee decided to enter Auschwitz concentration camp on the List as a unique site and to restrict the inscription of other sites of a similar nature.' UNESCO World Heritage Commmittee, Report of the Third Session, Paris, 30 November 1979. UNESCO/ CC-79/CONF.003/13.

22. A similar historic stylization is evident in UNESCO’s division of heritage into two timelines, World Heritage and World Heritage in Danger, all while suppressing the one spatial distinction that is consistently encountered by practitioners and scholars alike, namely, the tension between national and international values. See John Henry Merriman’s seminal essay, 'Two ways of thinking of cultural property.' The tension can be felt by comparing the discourse nation-states must use to get a property listed as World Heritage list, writing long essays on the value of their heritage that avoid any mention of national history in favor of a proto-internationalist history of civilizations, with the nationalist arguments they must make to appeal for objects to be repatriated, that unless it is physically embedded in a national narrative, cultural property loses its value completely.


1. Image, Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, archaeologist-journalist

2. Spoils of Empire, Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly, archaeologist-journalist

3. These objects are features in the CD-rom, Interpol- Stolen Works of Art

4. Image, Donar Reiskofer

5. 'The destruction work is not as easy as people would think' — Minister Qudratullah Jamal, Image, UNESCO/J. Sorosh-Wali



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