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Demolishing Picasso?

  Christin Krohn
Zintis Hermansons

Cultural heritage can help us create a sense of belonging and get to know our roots - something that is important to most humans. Europe in this sense is fortunate, as we have a lot of heritage, both material and immaterial. For most of us, it is therefore important to make sure that future generations can also benefit from this.

Built cultural heritage can sometimes be an impediment to expansion and development, especially in cities experiencing growth. Developers (both private and public) are keen to put a lot of effort into finding arguments for their projects. Nevertheless, most European countries have some sort of official government bodies that safeguard the built cultural heritage. For decades, they have developed and refined arguments concerning archaeology and art history to preserve the built cultural heritage.

However, the problem is that developers put forward other arguments detailing the need for development that is economically advantageous, sustainable, climate friendly and more secure.Norway has recently seen one of its most prominent post-Second World War buildings torn down. In 1969, Picasso and Norwegian artist Carl Nesjar created five murals, one of which was placed on the outer wall of the so-called Y-block, a modernist building in Oslo's government quarter.

“Built cultural heritage can some times be an impediment to expansion and development , especially in cities experiencing growth

Ever since the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik damaged the building in 2011 by detonating a car bomb, the fate of the Y-bock has caused international controversy.

In line with the government's plans to redevelop the government quarter and demolish the Y-block, in July 2020 the government detached Picasso's concrete mural. The New York Times noted at the time that 'the mural's removal was the culmination of a years long fight between the authorities, who argue the demolition is necessary for security reasons, and activists, who believe the decision represents a crime against Norwegian cultural heritage'.

Many believe that the government did not want to tear down the building, but ultimately the arguments to do so were more convincing than those in favour of keeping it. As a result, the building was demolished, despite the countless protests and petitions, international pressure, Europa Nostra announcing the Y-block as one of the seven most endangered heritage sites in Europe and, above all, the fact that the building represented a symbol of social democracy for many Norwegians.

“it is important to underst and how cultural heritage is connect ed to our wellbeing and t he economy

If we are going to preserve the built cultural heritage in the future, it is important to understand how cultural heritage is connected to our well-being and the economy. The ESPON HERITAGE and ESPON HERIWELL projects are, in many ways, a testimony to the fact that, despite the scarce amount of evidence and statistics, it is possible to showcase the benefits that cultural heritage brings to economic growth and wellbeing.

The ESPON HERITAGE project illustrated how the built cultural heritage plays a major role in most economies in Europe that were included in this study. The built cultural heritage was important in many sectors, but it played the largest role in the tourism and construction sectors. The ongoing ESPON HERIWELL project (to be finished in 2022) has already showcased the many links that cultural heritage has with quality of life, societal cohesion and material conditions across European countries.

In conclusion, once we tear our cultural heritage down it is lost for ever as a resource for societal wellbeing and economic growth. There is a need for a deeper understanding and more evidence and knowledge of the many ways that cultural heritage connects with people and places, and its potential to be a driver of development rather than an impediment to it. This is particularly true right now, as cultural heritage is a 'tool' that can help us feel a sense of belonging in a time when everything has been turned upside down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL