Do we destroy buildings to destroy whole cultures? Is war at least partly an architectural practice? Read more at Building Design.
Destruction as cultural cleansing â€¢ Reviewed 3 February 2006 by Abe Hayeem
A new book examines how attackers use the tactical eradication of architecture.
"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then you have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was."
Milan Kundera, The Book Of Laughter and Forgetting
This quote opens the second chapter of Robert Bevan's timely and original book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War
. As Bevan says, the destruction of symbolic buildings and the physical fabric of cities and civilisations is not merely collateral damage, but a deliberate intention by the attacker, to "dominate, divide, terrorise, and eliminate" the memory, history and identity of the opposing side. Cultural cleansing is inextricably linked to ethnic cleansing, genocide and holocausts.
Arranged thematically more than chronologically, the book shows the political forces at work that led to targeted destruction beyond military requirements, from the Roman erasure of Carthage in 146 BC, the elimination of the Aztecs, Mayas, Incas and their cities, to the "murdering" of aristocrats' houses during the French Revolution. But it is the 20th century leading into the 21st that is examined with forensic insight. From Guernica to Dresden, China's continuing "Sinification" of Tibet, Cambodia and the Yugoslav war, few countries escape the culpability of physical and cultural genocide.
Bevan details the Nazi "proto-genocidal" episode of Kristallnacht as the iconic destruction of memory, when hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, along with Jewish shops, businesses and institutions. Though Hitler was finally defeated, there were protests at the Allied bombing that wrecked virtually every city in Germany but most devastatingly the cultural treasure house of Dresden which contained no military or industrial targets. The old historic cores of cities like LÃ¼beck "that burned like firelighters" were chosen.
The book details the sheer insanity of extremist leaders and warped dictators, often to their own people in Stalin's Russia, Mao's various Cultural Revolutions, and Ceausescu's Romania. In the interest of recreating proletarian states, ruthless killings of the intelligentsia and peasants were combined with levelling indigenous and religious architecture to re-create a "utopia on the ruins of the past".
The war in Bosnia saw an almost complete destruction of a unique and beautiful Islamic heritage, whose existence was simply denied by local Serbian dignitaries. While Israeli bulldozers and tanks during the Defensive Shield operation in 2002 were crushing historic buildings in the ancient casbah in Nablus, the aftermath of which was witnessed by Bevan himself, it was brazenly refuted by military chiefs and the head of the Israel Museum, who described the damage as "non-existent".
Partitioning a country and the construction of walls can also ensure the erasure or enclosure of a people. The Berlin Wall was a prime symbol, but is now nostalgically missed by some on both sides. Israel's "otherisation" of the Palestinians by the building of the Separation Barrier, while destroying thousands of houses, trees and farms, and creating what are in effect vast prison enclaves, has ironic echoes of the ghettos that European Jews experienced. Warring sides never seem to have learnt the lessons of the past. Despite peace being declared in Belfast, for example, the divisions continue, where the walls are being raised higher between Protestant and Roman Catholic communities.
In the rebuilding of post-war cities, Bevan says the "pitfalls of reconstruction in circumstances where there has been an attempt at forced forgetting by the destruction of material culture are particularly treacherous". Rebuilding or restoration of damaged buildings can never re-create their originality. It seems a vain hope to try and achieve reintegration with monuments.
The single minded re-creation of Warsaw's Old Town astonished the world. In Moscow, the Russian orthodox Kazan Cathedral was rebuilt from scratch, while genuine historic buildings are being torn down by rich developers for flats for the elite at an alarming rate. The unification of Berlin has created dilemmas as to whether to preserve the East German "Palast der Republik" or replace it with the schlock of the original 17th century Stadtschloss. Rebuilt synagogues in Eastern Europe are still being attacked. In Bosnia, the restoration of Sarajevo's National Library has a plaque: "Remember and Warn".
Now, the conflict between fundamentalist Islam and the west is in full swing. The targeting of the World Trade Centre by Al Qa'eda as the pre-eminent symbol of the world's prime superpower struck at the "collective self" of the US. The retaliatory war against the fabricated enemy Iraq, using "shock and awe", has lead to tens of thousands of civilians being killed and the devastation of historic cities, and ancient Babylon and Nineveh.
Both the Hague and Geneva Conventions consider the destruction of cultural heritage a war crime, unless there is "imperative military necessity". The US has refused to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which the UK government reluctantly signed up to in 2005, after 50 years of prevarication.
In this indispensable and beautifully written first international survey of its type, Robert Bevan raises the importance of safeguarding the world's architectural record. The compelling subtext is a plea for heterogeneous, pluralist values, integration and human justice, and for cultural genocide to be made a punishable "crime against humanity".Abe Hayeem is an architect and member of Architects & Planners for Justice.