UNESCO Hath Spoken

Readers who have been following this blog over the past several months are aware of the ongoing concern that I and others have about the high-speed train tunneling project going on in Barcelona at the moment, which will come close to the foundations of the Sagrada Familia church. The masterwork of the late Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, the church will dedicated by Pope Benedict XVI on November 7, 2010; the Pope will be naming the church a Minor Basilica. Meantime, a high-speed rail link to connect Barcelona to Madrid and eventually to France, will be inching its way closer and closer to the structure.

The last-ditch hope of those opposed to this project was that UNESCO would step in and try to halt the tunneling, until further studies regarding its safety could be completed. Unfortunately, at its annual conference in Brazil, the World Heritage Committee determined that it was safe for the tunneling project to go ahead. At the same time however, the committee recommended that a close eye be kept on the tunneling, and that a committee of experts be formed to monitor the foundations of the church not only during the passage by of the tunneling project, but also indefinitely once the tunneling is completed. It also requested that this to-be-named expert group submit a report to the World Heritage Committee at their next annual meeting.

I hope that I am wrong, but this decision does not give me much confidence. It is not a “get out of jail free” card from UNESCO to the tunnelers on this subject – though of course, even if UNESCO had ruled against the Spanish government on this subject, it is unlikely that Madrid would have halted the tunneling anyway. Rather, UNESCO seems to be taking the view that if everything continues as it has been, then everything will be fine. This is a bit like saying, “So long as I don’t die, I won’t be dead.”

It is impossible for the World Heritage Committee to foresee what will happen when the tunneling reaches the area of the foundations of this building, whose foundations were laid long before uniform modern standards of structural engineering. It remains incredibly short-sighted and silly of the Spanish government to risk the destruction of one of the most important architectural wonders on the Iberian Peninsula for the sake of making a shorter and cheaper tunnel. Even though the Sagrada Familia will be open for business – as it were – by November, construction will continue for at least another decade or more, particularly on the enormous towers which will one day garner it the title of the tallest church in the world. I sincerely hope that this UNESCO-backed expert committee, whoever happens to be appointed to it, will take their job seriously in the years to come.

A rose window at the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

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