UNESCO to Look Into Cologne Cathedral Vibrations

PHOTO: People walk past Cologne`s landmark the Cologne Cathedral.Patrik Stolarz/AFP/Getty Images
People walk past Cologne`s landmark the Cologne Cathedral.

A newly opened subway line in Cologne is causing the city's beloved World Heritage cathedral to vibrate, raising concerns that it might suffer damage. Although it has yet to be formerly notified, UNESCO is anxious to know what is going on.

The damage was immense. Wide cracks spread through the walls, some of them up to three-centimeters (1.5-inches) wide, allowing water to seep in. Through the fissures in the ceiling "one could look up and see light coming through." Even worse, the arched ceiling "was totally fractured and was only holding together because of the weight of the stones."

The descriptions come from a report on damage caused to the sacristy of the world-famous Cologne Cathedral in the 1960s as a result of construction work on a subway station adjacent to the Gothic masterpiece. But church and city officials are now worried that a similarly damning report might soon be in store for them. A new subway line, opened last December, is causing the cathedral to vibrate. And there is concern that the centuries-old structure could sustain damage as a result.

"The effects can be felt, measured and heard," said the provost of the Cologne Cathedral, Norbert Feldhoff. In a statement posted on the church's website on Wednesday, he writes that "it cannot be ruled out that the (vibrations) could cause long-term damage to the structure."

Following an emergency meeting called to discuss the problem on Wednesday, it was agreed that metro trains would travel 20 kilometers per hour instead of the planned 30 kmh through the tunnel section in question. Visitors have reported feeling the vibrations through the floor of the cathedral as well as on the steps outside. Though seismographs have long measured vibrations in and around the church, additional tests are scheduled for the coming weeks. UNESCO Not Informed

Construction of the cathedral began in 1248 and was only completed in 1880. It survived World War II largely unscathed, even as the city around it was virtually destroyed. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.

When contacted by SPIEGEL ONLINE , a UNESCO spokesman said that the organization had heard nothing about the problems with the cathedral, but noted that the World Heritage Committee would look into it. The spokesman said that the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention request member states to inform UNESCO of "new constructions which may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property." Article 172 of the guidelines continues: "Notice should be given as soon as possible … and before making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse." Germany apparently failed to honor the article in this case.

Concerns about potential damage to Cologne's most famous landmark, among the most visited tourist attractions in all of Europe, are just the latest problem created by the city's new north-south subway line. Already massively over budget, the project first began creating negative headlines in late 2004. During preparatory work for the actual digging of the tunnel, the tower of the St. Johann Baptist Church in southern Cologne began tipping. Only a complex and expensive effort managed to save it.

Then the building housing the city's historical archive completely collapsed in March of 2009, killing two people. Huge quantities of invaluable historical documentation were also seriously damaged or destroyed in the incident, which was later determined to be the result of work on the nearby subway tunnel.

The subway project is set to be completed only in 2019. And for now, cathedral officials are insisting that there is no immediate danger to the structure. Provost Feldhoff said that visitors need not be worried. After all, the church has withstood greater vibrations that those currently being created by the subway, and not just during World War II. In March 2011, seismographs noted that the entire structure rose and fell by up to a centimeter several times. The cause was the massive earthquake in far-away Japan.