Dutch architecture reflected in the waters of a canal in Amsterdam. Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum


Heritage at sea

Must we simply accept the loss of beloved buildings and cities to the floods and rising seas of the climate crisis?

by Thijs Weststeijn + BIO

Dutch architecture reflected in the waters of a canal in Amsterdam. Photo by Christopher Anderson/Magnum

As an Amsterdam-born art historian, for the past three decades I’ve enjoyed guiding students and other visitors along the concentric canals that cup the city’s 17th-century historic centre (now a UNESCO World Heritage site). With its tall gabled houses, arched bridges and stately municipal buildings, old Amsterdam has survived in a remarkably pristine fashion the wars and urban development that affected many other European cities. But for the past year or two, I have noticed that my students’ appreciation of the city’s visible antiquity has acquired a new dimension. This monument to human ingenuity, which rests on thousands of wooden poles hammered into the marshy soil, now seems to have a longer past than it does a future.

View of the Golden Bend in the Herengracht during construction. Painted by Gerrit Berckheyde, 1671-72. Courtesy the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s ancient foundations suffer from what is known as ‘pole pest’, brought on by sinking groundwater caused by increasing droughts. In 2020, like many of the city’s residents, I had to leave my house for months as the wooden foundations and ground floor of my building were completely refurbished in cement; and it is only a matter of time before Amsterdam’s medieval churches and Royal Palace suffer the same fate. At present, even casual visitors to the city cannot miss the bridges and quays shored up by temporary scaffolding as the wooden foundations await replacement.

At the same time, the city, built in a river delta on land below sea level, is threatened by rising sea and river waters, and the giant sluice in IJmuiden is kept increasingly busy pumping excess waters from Amsterdam’s rivers into the North Sea. According to this year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, by 2100 global sea levels are expected to rise between 0.5 to 1 metre and, ‘due to deep uncertainty in ice sheet processes’, a larger rise of 2 metres by 2100 and 5 metres by 2150 ‘cannot be ruled out’. In 2019, Deltares, a consortium of experts in sea level adaptation, examined the impact of different scenarios for the Dutch coast, including a managed retreat: that is, a migration of the population eastward to higher areas. By 2021, their warnings already seem outdated, as the southeast corner of the country experienced dramatic flooding when excessive rainfall caused rivers to overflow their banks. There was notable damage to the built heritage, including the 13th-century Church of St Nicholas and Barbara in Valkenburg.

It seems that the Dutch will have to come to terms with the fact that they will not only lose their immaterial heritage such as ice-skating, but also much of their material heritage. In fact, the Dutch are canaries in a global coalmine: historic heritage on all continents is under threat from the climate crisis. To the extent that this is a highly emotive issue, consider how the world grieved when the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris burned in 2019. So many values and sentiments of identity and belonging are invested in historic heritage. How will we cope with the much more substantial loss that awaits us?

The alarm was first sounded in 2005, when the World Heritage Committee published a warning to all member states to ‘seriously consider the potential impacts of climate change … and to take early action in response’. Other institutions followed suit, most recently the International Council on Monuments and Sites, in declaring a climate and ecological emergency. In 2018, the leading scientific journal Nature Communications surveyed the risks in the Mediterranean area until the year 2100. The first city on their list to be affected was Venice, subject to increasingly frequent saltwater flooding. The city’s current protection – MOSE (for Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico), a series of retractable gates set in the Venetian lagoon and alluding to the biblical name Moses – was unfortunately designed only for a limited rise in sea level. In similar danger is the Croatian coast, particularly the old bishopric city of Poreč, followed by Carthage in Tunisia. Picturesque villages in the Bay of Naples, the crusader city of Acre in Israel, the temple of Ephesus in Turkey, and even modernist architecture in Tel Aviv also run a high risk of being flooded. Not only is the built environment painfully exposed, but so too are moveable artefacts. This year, the Louvre in Paris, situated dangerously close to the river Seine, has begun the transport of 250,000 artworks to a new conservation centre in the north of France.

A flooded St Mark’s Square by St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, 15 November 2019. Photo by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty

In North America, the Arctic region and the south-eastern United States are particularly vulnerable. Since 2007, higher temperatures have fundamentally destabilised the historic settlements of Canadian whalers on Herschel Island. A large part of the historical centre of New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. According to a quantitative analysis in the journal PlosOne, more than 13,000 sites of cultural heritage in the south-eastern US – from the archaeology of indigenous groups dating back 7,000 years to Jamestown Island in Virginia – are at risk of flooding with a sea level rise of only 1 metre. At present, however, a different threat is more visible: fire – and in 2019, the California wildfires came dangerously close to the splendid Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

At Angkor Wat, mass tourism has depleted so much ground water that the soil has subsided

In Africa, desertification as well as increasing precipitation destabilises the earthen architecture of Mauritania and Mali, such as the Sankoré Mosque in Timbuktu. Stronger winds, humidity and higher temperatures are taking a toll on Egypt’s ancient temples, their once rose-coloured granite already faded to a pale pink or grey. Most critically afflicted, however, will be the low-lying parts of Asia. In 2011, for instance, floods in Thailand reached hundreds of temples in the province of Ayutthaya. The 15th-century Vietnamese town of Hoi An, recognised as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, has flooded almost every year since 2017, and will disappear under water within a century.

One of a number of temples inundated with floodwaters at Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Thailand, 10 October 2011. Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty

Some locations suffer from a combination of hazards: heatwaves, rain, floods, fires and pollution; what’s more, climatic factors act as multipliers for the dangers that cultural heritage has traditionally faced. A good example is the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor Wat, where mass tourism has depleted so much ground water that the soil has subsided, destabilising the architecture and also making it more vulnerable to flooding. Such multiplier effects might lead to the exponential degradation of heritage. It is difficult to make predictions on fatal tipping points or to anticipate which new technical possibilities might help us protect, transform, and relocate objects. But it is certainly possible to reflect on what these changes mean for our assumptions about historic heritage and its future.

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) argued that material heritage offered him ‘an immediate contact with the past, a sensation as deep as the purest enjoyment of art, a (don’t laugh) almost ecstatic sentiment of no longer being myself, of flowing into the world outside of me, to touch the essence of things, to experience the Truth by means of history.’ He claimed to have first experienced this sensation in Bruges in 1902, at an exhibition of the stunningly lifelike oil paintings by the 15th-century Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck. Communing with these artworks provided Huizinga with a fuller immersion in the past than just reading written sources, and inspired his book The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919).

Huizinga is one of a number of visually sensitive luminaries, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jacob Burckhardt and Mario Praz, who could experience this kind of boundary-dissolving ‘historical sensation’ upon encountering a piece of furniture, a cityscape or a room that had been left untouched for centuries. Other historians have expressed scepticism as to the possibility of such hands-on contact with history. Yet heritage practitioners continue to embrace the ideal that only a carefully regulated sensory experience can provide access to the past. UNESCO, for instance, demands that the locations it recognises as World Heritage sites are surrounded by a buffer zone that optically and materially corresponds with the authentic remains.

Huizinga’s yearning to experience the past emotionally and ‘touch’ it was spurred by his realisation of there being a radical breach between present and past. This is not a universal belief. Prior to the 19th century, Europeans broadly assumed that they were in direct contact with the world of their ancestors; the Dutch who built Amsterdam, for instance, saw themselves as descendants of the Batavians, an ancient tribe who had been described by the Roman writer Tacitus. Yet, by the turn of the 19th century, the political and scientific trauma of the ‘double revolution’ – the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution – changed the Western world so radically that such long-term continuities were called into question. In 1830, the philosopher G W F Hegel recalled the excitement of a few decades earlier as a sea change, in which man became master over nature for the first time: ‘As long as the sun stands in the cope of heaven and the planets circle around her, it had not happened that man has turned himself on his head, meaning that he … builds up the world according to his own thoughts … This was a lordly sunrise.’ Only now, as the toll of the Anthropocene is recognised, is it clear just how disruptive that ‘double revolution’ has been.

This cyclical model could be better than the idea of linear progress to grasp the course of history

Criticism of the notion that history proceeds inexorably towards progress is not new. In the humanities, it was first voiced by authors who had no interest in climate, among them the postmodern philosophers Francis Fukuyama, who crowned liberal democracy as the apotheosis of our political evolution and the ‘end of history’, and Arthur Danto, who was less impressed with where ‘the end of art’ was heading. Danto predicted that art had become so overly occupied with conceptual reflection that it would ‘finally become vaporised in a dazzle of pure thought about itself’. Today, the unbearable intellectual lightness of his foreboding is all too evident, given that the climate crisis brings with it a practical rather than a theoretical ‘end’ of art – and art history. Even though every year UNESCO’s experts award more sites the World Heritage status, and benefit from increasingly sophisticated scientific tools, the climate crisis is so disruptive that it appears to herald the end of optimism, in that architecture, historic cities and potentially complete cultural landscapes could have to be abandoned.

In the face of such obliteration, we need to find alternative ways to think about historical development. We might begin by harking back to authors who predate the Industrial Revolution. The basic idea of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), for instance, was that the arts do not always progress, they also decline. After flowering in antiquity, the art of painting withered before reaching a new high point in Renaissance Florence. Such cyclical ideas of history have their own history. The Greek Stoics believed in ekpyrosis, the periodic destruction of the world; the ancient Chinese conceived of a dynastic cycle; and the 14th-century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldun thought cities developed only if they were sometimes destroyed by nomads. This cyclical model could be better than the idea of linear progress to grasp the course of history in times of climate crisis. Though we cannot know whether a period of climate-induced decline will be followed by another flowering.

Scenarios for the future will probably be much more chaotic than the schematic cyclical and linear models predict. For one thing, climatological developments will follow one another much faster than in the past, forcing us to reconsider the scale on which we assess history. Alongside longer timescales, we will use extremely short ones. When, in the 18th century, geologists realised that the age of Earth goes back much farther than the 6,000 years figured in the Bible, they spoke of ‘deep time’. They were awed by the unfathomable slowness of nature. The 21st century, by contrast, brings an unprecedented acceleration, which you can witness in emblematic form when you watch videos of millennia-old icebergs collapsing into the sea in a matter of seconds. And then it seems like present and past are happening simultaneously. In his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), David Wallace-Wells has tried to grasp climate change with the help of a conception of time borrowed from the Indigenous Australian ‘dreamtime’ or ‘everywhen’. This is the half-mythical experience of meeting in the present with ancestors from a remote past, as well as with immortal heroes and gods. The notion of ‘everywhen’ can help us update Huizinga’s conception of history for the 21st century. Now heritage becomes so precarious, the historical sensation provokes a forward view: in a single moment, present, past and future collide.

Amsterdam. Photo by Sarmad Alghourani / EyeEm

That the heritage of Amsterdam, New Orleans and Hoi An will be critically affected is beyond doubt, but few climate scientists are willing to make concrete pronouncements on the timelines involved. Instead, they continually adapt their models to take into account new data and insights, with the effect that taking action gets stalled. In her review in 2018 of Jeff Goodell’s book The Water Will Come (2017), Meehan Crist notes Goodell’s observation that the human mind is not wired to make decisions about barely perceptible threats that gradually accelerate over time. She likens our difficulty of accepting the ‘ambiguous loss’ that the climate crisis will bring to the ‘five stages of grief’ identified by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross – denial, anger, negotiation, depression, and acceptance: when it comes to climate change, says Crist, many people are still struggling with the first or second stage. ‘Ambiguous loss’ is a term that psychiatrists use to describe grief that follows a process without closure. Families of soldiers missing in action, for instance, grieve for a person who is physically absent while remaining psychologically present. With Alzheimer’s disease, it is the other way round, the person is physically present but psychologically absent:

[The first type of ambiguous loss] helps illuminate the arrested mourning often experienced by climate refugees. How do you mourn a home that is sinking into a faraway sea, but remains psychologically present? The second type of ambiguous loss is appropriate to the experience of living in an area threatened by a rise in sea levels. The object of attachment is there but not there – still present, but slowly disappearing … How do you mourn a home increasingly prone to flooding, but not submerged, yet? … With rising seas, the endpoint remains unknown. Three feet? Eight feet? Grief is stalled by uncertainty.

A similar climate-related emotion is central to the work of the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht. In his book Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World (2019), he elaborated the term ‘solastalgia’. A portmanteau coinage, embracing ‘nostalgia’ (longing for the past) and composed of the Greek term algos (pain) and Latin solacium (solace), solastalgia alludes to the feeling of being homesick while you are at home. If you have never lived in a house threatened by rising waters, think of how, upon arrival at a pleasant destination when travelling, you can be instantly overwhelmed by homesickness for precisely that place, because you know your stay will be of short duration. The medical journal The Lancet has already referenced ‘solastalgia’ as a useful concept to assess the effect of climate change on mental health. But the concept can also be useful for art historians. Perhaps it could help me understand my students feeling overwhelmed by the historical experience of Amsterdam’s heritage, while realising that it will disappear in the foreseeable future.

A focus on cultural heritage offers new perspectives on human agency in the face of the climate crisis

And yet the climate crisis might also offer new opportunities for cultural heritage. Archaeologists rejoiced after crumbling cliffs in the English village of Happisburgh revealed the oldest human footprints outside of Africa made by a family who walked on the land-bridge connecting Britain to the Low Countries at least 850,000 years ago. Likewise, melting glaciers in Canada, Norway and Argentina are revealing human artefacts from prehistoric times. Of more general significance, however, is a broad shift in focus, from nature to man, that can lead to new willingness to take action on the climate crisis. As Wallace-Wells notes, more has been written about the impact of climate change on nature and animals than about the impact on humans: ‘it seems to have been easier for us to empathise with the climate plight of other species than our own, perhaps because we have such a hard time acknowledging or understanding our own responsibility and complicity in the changes now unfolding.’

Or with the climate predicament of art and architecture, for that matter. When the Taliban destroyed the monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and ISIS bombed the ancient city of Palmyra, the international outcry over lost heritage outstripped the outrage expressed over so much human suffering that remained largely invisible. Perhaps an awareness that the building blocks of one’s own civilisation are under threat might mobilise new groups, for whom the disappearing of coral reefs, say, remains too abstract or remote. Behavioural scientists point out that, when confronted with overwhelming amounts of scientific data, such as that continuously produced by climatologists, people actually become less likely to take action (see Kari Norgaard’s book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, 2011). Instead, people have to be affected on a deep emotional, psychological and spiritual level, which suggests that the layered sensations we experience in encounters with heritage – historical connection, aesthetic appreciation, and solastalgia – might motivate people in new ways.

A focus on cultural heritage also offers new perspectives on human agency in the face of the climate crisis. This heritage has, after all, been made by humans and so by human hands we should be able to save it. Besides, historic heritage, while transcending the lifespan of one or more human generations, is less intractable to us than the ‘deep time’ associated with the evolution and extinction of coral reefs and other endangered creatures.

In terms of concrete measures, what are our options? The most obvious is to accept that historic heritage has never been stable but is always in flux. The notion that we can preserve objects, buildings and landscapes in their ‘pristine’ shape is an illusion. In any event, much of what we now regard as ancient is in fact the product of restoration: medieval-looking Bruges, for instance, is largely a 19th-century creation. Adapting a site to climate change will simply be the next chapter in its biography.

More important could be the realisation that our focus on the materiality of the ‘real thing’ is a typically European fetish. In parts of East Asia, for instance, temples are periodically rebuilt completely; it is this cyclical procedure rather than the static original that counts. Coastal and river communities have continuously adapted their heritage to changes in the landscape. The island of Majuli in the Brahmaputra River in India, for instance, is home to 22 monasteries known as sattras. Due to annual flooding, over centuries their users have developed modular and portable techniques to regularly relocate their buildings or elevate them on stilts.

Will Westerners be prepared to simply embrace climate-induced change and perhaps enjoy heritage all the more in this state of flux? One can imagine the partially flooded centres of Venice, Hoi An or Miami becoming particularly attractive tourist destinations for the duration of their disappearing (in a state of ‘dark euphoria’ described by the futurist Bruce Sterling in 2009), before turning into a diver’s paradise. And perhaps from the perspective of ‘deep time’ the man-made polder landscape was never a feasible project to begin with, and Dutch hydrologists might eventually, with a sigh of relief, surrender their lands back to the sea. Such visions are not necessarily long-term scenarios since, now, even the possibility of handing our heritage to the next generation appears impossible. Not only do art conservators and other specialists have to accept that monuments and artefacts have already disappeared or are critically affected by the climate crisis, they must also factor in the loss of heritage in any future-oriented policy they might devise. On the basis of arguments similar to those currently used for the allocation of World Heritage status, they will have to weigh up the different values – historic, aesthetic, spiritual, rarity, and other – of those remaining objects and sites. And they will have to be prepared to take difficult decisions about what must be abandoned.

We could immerse ourselves in a pleasant ‘Virtual Venice Experience’ while avoiding the temperatures outside

A second approach is digitisation. Various methods of high-resolution scanning and 3D-modelling, fully annotated with the relevant cultural and scientific data, are making great strides in archaeology and other approaches to heritage objects and sites. Artificial intelligence aids the reconstruction of missing parts and predicts future material changes. ‘Heritage on the Edge’, an initiative from Google, has selected five sites threatened by the climate crisis, from Bangladesh to Easter Island, for sophisticated online digital replicas. Although these are presented as an aid to conservation efforts, they seem to serve a double purpose: to test the ground for an immersive 3D-experience.

Such replicas pose anew Walter Benjamin’s question as to the artefact’s authenticity in an age of mechanical reproduction, but now in a more dystopian fashion. Some people might see Google’s efforts as part of its strategy to convince us that the world outside our phones is less urgent and meaningful than the realities offered to us via the screen. Wallace-Wells has suggested that our tendency to become addicted to screens might actually ease the next generation’s successful adaptation to climate extremes: we will increasingly live in the digital realm. Thus we will be able to immerse ourselves via a headset in a pleasant (air-conditioned and guaranteed tourist-free!) ‘Virtual Venice Experience’ while avoiding the sizzling temperatures outside.

Digitised objects, however, are not essentially more stable than physical ones. Their conservation is costly and cumbersome. In contrast with many of the objects they reproduce, their availability is limited by copyright laws. Changes in hardware and software are difficult to predict on the centennial scale associated with historic heritage. Accidental server crashes have temporarily erased digital data, and authoritarian regimes have wiped digital archives on a whim. Servers and other storage media can also be damaged by water and heat. What happens if the community relevant to a digital reproduction is forced to migrate?

The third option is more radical: to put major effort into relocating and partially reconstructing monuments and buildings in safer locations. For local communities, relocation is usually the least favoured option. Such operations will have a sizeable carbon footprint, yet they are not science fiction. Take what is, to all appearances, the oldest building in the Americas: the Egyptian Temple of Dendur, erected in the 1st century BCE. In the 1960s, it was taken down, together with 21 other monuments due to be submerged by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, and then transported and rebuilt stone by stone inside New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. More recent examples are the monumental Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina in the US, Clavell Tower in Dorset in the UK, and the Zhang Fei Temple in China, which were relocated due to encroaching shorelines.

Needless to say, the pros and cons of fully fledged reconstructions of monuments are hotly debated among heritage professionals. But in terms of the scale of future climate-induced operations, one might look back to the efforts of Warsaw and many German cities razed to the ground during the Second World War. The reconstruction of the Berlin Palace (for the Humboldt Forum museum) is only the most recent in a long line of historic buildings that have been rebuilt from the ground up since the 1940s, on the basis of photographs, maps and artworks. Another example is the Chinese city of Datong, where in the past decade the original 14th-century city walls and watchtowers were recreated from scratch. Modern concrete was used in this reconstruction that could, to some, have the feel of an amusement park; yet the end result is, if anything, more interesting than the drab multistorey apartment blocks that surround it. Like the rebuilt centre of Warsaw, it might eventually receive World Heritage status.

The parallel between a destroyed site and one due to be submerged is imperfect. Yet the Dutch might take a page out of Datong’s book. Eventually, they could demonstrate that they can confront the 17th-century genius of their artists, architects and urbanists with an unprecedented demonstration of artistic, technical and logistic ingenuity. On new locations, in new contexts, and adorned with new splendour, Amsterdam’s heritage might acquire unimagined meanings for future generations.