Clinging to the wreckage

And into the top 100 comes the ancient city of Tyre...
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The Independent Culture
If the ancients had The Seven Wonders of the World what could be more appropriate to our own gloomy epoch than the fin de siecle equivalent "The Hundred Most Endangered Sites", the architectural version of the endangered species list?

Just released by the World Monuments Fund for their 30th birthday (the organisation was born in 1965 at a highpoint of disregard for historic structures), this compilation of Entropic Greatest Hits is intended to alert the globe to the fact that it's not just drizzly woods that are threatened with imminent extinction, but many of the supposedly immortal creations of human artistry, ingenuity and labour.

Without a doubt these imperiled structures are a lot more interesting than your average ecocatastrophe (what price the Taj Mahal compared to a patch of ozone depletion?) but they can be almost as politically tricky to try and resolve. The chosen 100 are not only amazingly various as to location and function, many of them are also in countries that should know better than to let their heritage crumble and which cannot but come off as faintly Third Worldy for their inclusion. Surely Ireland, whose only apparent source of income is tourism, should not have to make an appearance at No 39 with the potential desecration of the 6th-century Clonmacnoise monastery due to the expansion of its neighbouring graveyard.

By contrast it should surprise nobody that on the Monuments Watch's worldwide map of sites Italy requires its own special inset, scoring a record breaking 11 places, as Italian attempts at preservation and protection are as notoriously inefficient as their past is glorious. That said, the World Monuments Fund is based in New York's plush Park Avenue and it is an impeccably WASP organisation, an East Coast equivalent of the National Trust but with a degree in business administration and super computer. The last thing on their minds is to upset anyone, unless that is the only way to save something.

With the dramatic launch of their new Watch division and its controversial list, the Fund part of the World Monuments has come to the fore, in the shape of a $5m donation from American Express. This grant resulted in a faintly incongruous lunch in the executive suite on the 50th-floor of the Amex building where after numerous nouvelle cuisine courses, one was treated to depressing slides of crumbling 16th-century slums in Mozambique, the world's poorest country, and even the Ellis Island National Monument, which could be seen from the boardroom's panoramic windows.

Harvey Golub, Chairman of American Express, has enthusiastically explained his company's commitment: "One of the key elements that defines American Express in the eyes of our customers is travel and tourism - it's a critical part of our brand. No industry has a greater stake than ours in preserving history and tradition, cultural differences, and nature and the environment."

Yet many of the monuments on the critical list are mainly threatened by tourism itself, notably the churches of Italy whose bishops even issued a document on the topic in 1993, pointing out that on a single day in high season the Duomo in Florence can expect as many as 40,000 tourists, a ferocious example of human pollution. Golub ripostes that tourism per se is not a danger, only "insensitive tourism", but it's hard to imagine how their pamphlet, "Good Conduct Guide for Caring Tourists", is going to solve this problem in a radical way. Indeed were an enterprising tour company to set up a 100 Most Endangered tour (and it would be a truly fascinating itinerary), it would probably end up adding numbers 101 and 102 to the line up.

But equally the problem with many of the sites is lack of people rather than surfeit; technological and industrial changes have blown out the raison d'etre of countless extraordinary buildings, such as the vast "Tour and Taxis" transport hub in Brussels, once Belgium's key economic booster, now a vandalised skeleton of early 20th-century rationalist architecture. Likewise, if the inhabitants of Targu-Jiu, Brancusi's birthplace in Romania, were suddenly faced with a steady influx of wealthy visitors waving their Platinum Amex cards in search of the sculptor's Endless Column of 1937, they would probably try to ensure that it didn't rust and rot away entirely.

Oddly enough, though America has the largest and most booming prison population of any country in the world, there is nobody in residence at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the most influential examples of prison architecture when it was begun in 1829, originator of the practice of solitary confinement and clearly a vital historic landmark for a country increasingly obsessed with novel forms of incarceration. What makes the Endangered Sites list such perversely enjoyable reading is exactly this geographic and stylistic eclecticism, ranging from the elevators of Valparaso, finished in 1915, to the Bronze Age Liao Dynasty site of Inner Mongolia or the adobe mission churches of New Mexico that span the 16th- to the 20th-century. Every corner of the earth is represented in between, though Great Britain may feel smug in making no appearance here, perhaps swayed by the Anglophile snobberies of the WMF. The oldest sites are Catalhoyuk in Turkey, an excavation site dating from around 9,000 BC that the government stopped all work on in the 1960s due to supposed poor conservation and looting, and the Coa Valley Petroglyphs in Portugal, examples of Paleolithic art on rocks along a remote valley that could be from as far back as 11,000 BC. The smallest listed site is the horseback statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice which was last restored in 1919 and is being chewed to bits by the lagoon's salty air. By contrast, the biggest site is the entire ancient city of Tyre in the Lebanon which managed to invent the alphabet only to be threatened by destruction today from the construction of a marina and tourist complex.

The money to try and save these many sites is clearly not going to come from Amex's $5m, most of which must have been eaten up by organisational and marketing costs - if not literally by hungry journalists - but from local governmental and development budgets. The idea may not be to shame the appropriate authorities into finally doing something, so much as orchestrate a suitable sense of guilty embarrassment that may ultimately result in action, even from the Italians perhaps.

Those nihilistic romantics who have always insisted it would be more fitting if Venice did indeed sink back into the sea never to be seen again, and those more perturbed by the worldwide fetish of preservation at all costs than by the occasional missing temple, will never recover. Architectural history, like everything else, has now become as marketable and merchandisible as any other Top 40 chart.