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Maiden's Tower in Baku

The foundation of the Maiden's Tower in Baku dates from the sixth century.

Saving the past

U students help rescue an ancient city from extinction

By Patty Mattern

From M, spring 2006

Inside Baku, Azerbaijan, lies Icheri Sheher, a medieval walled city built on a site inhabited since the Palaeolithic period. It came into its glory in the 12th century and is still a vital, living city. But with the encroachment of modern buildings and damage from the 2003 earthquake, the city is on the "endangered" list of World Heritage sites--812 properties that UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has designated for preservation because of their outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of all humankind.

The future of the past of Icheri Sheher now lies partly in the hands of some University of Minnesota College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (CALA) professors and students. Their work in Baku is part of CALA's expanding efforts to conduct research and service projects in conjunction with UNESCO/WHC (World Heritage Center).

This year, CALA has established the Center for World Heritage Studies to study and help preserve cultural or natural sites around the world that face extinction. The center will help CALA make a larger impact internationally, says Arthur Chen, an architecture professor and director of the new center. "We want to branch out our intellectual enterprise to less developed countries," Chen says. "We'll provide a global perspective to students and provide service to the global community."

U students will work in teams and focus on buildings within various districts of the walled city. The teams will produce reports on various building functions and populations, construction types, construction techniques, current conditions and assessment, and earthquake worthiness, and will draw plans and cross-sections.

Chen has advised UNESCO/WHC on projects in other areas of the world including Chili, Mexico, and Italy. He recognized the need for UNESCO to have a research base "to have a think tank," and thinks the Center for World Heritage Studies can serve that purpose.

Icheri Sheher will be the center's first project. The site in Baku has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic period and "reveals evidence of Zoroastrian, Sasanian, Arabic, Persian, Shirvani, Ottoman, and Russian presence in cultural continuity," according to UNESCO. Icheri Sheher is one Azerbaijan's few surviving medieval towns.

During this year's May term, CALA students are traveling to Baku where they will spend three weeks researching and developing the building preservation inventory of Icheri Sheher.

Chen, along with Bob Mack, an adjunct architecture professor, and Bruno Franck, associate professor of architecture, will lead the project. They plan to train students in fieldwork techniques specific to the WHC. Students will identify and inventory historic and non-historic buildings inside Icheri Sheher in collaboration with the faculty and students from the Preservation Department of the Azeri University of Architecture and Construction.

U students will work in teams and focus on buildings within various districts of the walled city. The teams will produce reports on various building functions and populations, construction types, construction techniques, current conditions and assessment, and earthquake worthiness, and will draw plans and cross-sections. Students will also look into ways to bring various stakeholders into the preservation efforts. "We want to do everything we can to remove it from the list of endangered places," Chen says.

In the process, students will witness the complexity involved in preserving sites. A constant struggle exists between preservation efforts and modern development pressures, something many heritage sites experience, Chen says. "We can help people there to look at the historic sites from different sides," he says. The reports will be used as part of the process to remove Icheri Sheher from the endangered list.

The Center for World Heritage Studies is involved in two other projects. The center will conduct preparatory work with UNESCO/WHC to nominate the governmental ensemble--the capitol building in Dhaka, Bangladesh--as a modern heritage site. Created by Louis I. Kahn, it is one of the largest legislative complexes in the world and considered an architectural masterpiece.

The other project involves the Silk Road, a 4,000-mile-long network of roads or caravan tracts that served from about 500 B.C. to 1500 A.D. as the major transporting route between Europe, the Near East, India, and China.

The opportunities created by the Center for World Heritage Studies are amazing, says Lance Neckar, professor and associate dean for academic affairs in CALA. "This provides a tremendous amount of access for professors and students to learn, and it's also an opportunity for all of us to be good stewards," he says.