2014 World Monuments Watch
Gas lamps first lit the streets of Berlin in 1826, and about 43,500 of the original 80,000 fixtures still function in the city today. While gas lights used to characterize metropolitan centers around the globe, most of them have been replaced. Today, Berlin is among the last bastions of gas lighting and home to more than half of the world’s surviving gas street lamps. The lamps themselves, which represent four common styles as well as many unique ones, date from the nineteenth century to the post-WWII era and are important elements of industrial heritage as well as character-defining features of the urban landscape. In addition, the aura the gaslight casts across the darkness of the city’s avenues and neighborhoods uniquely defines the experience of nighttime Berlin.
The government has called for replacement of the remaining lamps with electrified fixtures over the next eight years, with plans to save only a small number. Over 1,000 were lost in between the summers of 2012 and 2013, and demolition contractors are given financial incentives to finish ahead of schedule. Berlin residents and the international community have been protesting the loss of the gas lamps, not only because of their social value and cultural significance but also due to the questionable rationale for their replacement. Proponents for demolition claim that new lamps will be more cost-effective and ecologically friendly, but opponents counter that proper full-cost accounting, which incorporates a life-cycle-based assessment of all economic, environmental, and social costs, suggests otherwise. The situation represents an important opportunity for the heritage field to demonstrate the full range of benefits that historic resources provide to society, and the costs associated with their loss. The lamps’ inclusion on the 2014 World Monuments Watch sought to raise awareness about their plight, and to underscore the need for the heritage field to engage in these types of analyses to better rationalize its cause.
Watch Day was held in May 2015 in the format of an international conference. Gas lamp experts gave lectures and participated in a panel discussion, and participants enjoyed a bus tour of the gas lamp districts.