Today in conflict areas around the world architecture is being targeting in a kind of genocide of the built world. So says Ole Bouman and Robert Bevan and a host of other authors in the 11th issue of VOLUME magazine titled “Cities UnBuilt”. The term unbuilt is an interesting one. With the systematic targeting of architecture based solely on the cultural and social value of the buildings and not those inside (termed Warchitecture in Sarajevo in 1993), cities are picked apart during the course of war. This is a new tactic since historically the destruction of the built environment was considered a military necessity or merely collateral damage. With this surgical unraveling of a city or town’s fabric they are essentially becoming unbuilt. I do think that we should be careful in how this term is thrown around in reference to the destruction of buildings. During war, the destruction of buildings is exactly that, destruction. To be unbuilt I feel implies a certain care which can only be claimed at the scale of urban planning. To unbuild a specific building would I think entail its deconstruction in a similar but opposite way to its construction. It implies an incremental process, not the wholesale instantaneous leveling of a building. Anyway my point here is not to debate the term but discuss its effects and the conditions following it.
Ole Bouman in his introductory piece “The Architecture of Destruction” starts framing this debate by suggesting that violence and conflict are now seen as inevitable and even taken for granted. Bouman tells us that through the specific targeting of our buildings, the goal is to incite outrage and fear as these targets are symbols of the opponent’s value system. He claims that architecture is not set up well to deal with despair or to place itself in a society which acknowledges the human condition as possibly a dangerous, fanatical and destructive force. One easily then makes the connection from architecture to its parents, the architects, and asks should architects take responsibility in considering the destruction of their buildings?
In a way they do. Consideration must be given to the gradual effects of gravity, the environment and the users so in this sense they consider the slow unbuilding but not necessarily the outright destruction of their buildings. This destruction might occur through acts of war or through other disaster.
What role then should we adopt as the contributors to the built world around us. Is it enough to merely recognize the targeted destruction of the buildings around us and the associated erasure of history and culture as well? Should we speak against it as creators/activists/preservationists and advocate its protection and exclusion from such treatment? Or should we go beyond this, take matters into our own hands and protect our own buildings. In thinking about this it leads me to consider the link from protected architecture to architecture as protection and we are back to the conversation about buildings as our own personal bunkers. Lets entertain the idea that significant social and cultural architecture should be protected and excluded from destruction during war. Its interesting to think then that in this case what you have created in essence is architecture as protection only instead of using four foot thick concrete walls, you are using the history and cultural importance as a shield. It’s a sticky situation to get around and for that reason probably why in most cases there is no such thing as untouchable architecture in the world of warfare.
So lets say then that there is no protection of our precious architectural achievements and that the architectural circle of life must continue unabated. In Ole Bouman’s aforementioned piece he makes a statement I find powerful. He says “Perhaps the most daring and at the same time uncanny position is for architects who devise strategies to cope with destruction by finding ways to deceive, ridicule or pervert it and in doing so possibly help to avoid it.” This I think is fantastic.
Niloufar Tajeri’s essay “Towards Non-destructive Aid” highlights the fact that relief architecture in response to conflict “negate and erase contexts” and that more often than not they are deployed temporarily but never are. The problem here is that this is the norm. The cookie cutter solution does not subvert the destruction which it responds to in any way. In Esther Charlesworth’s essay “Architects Should Act!” she makes a call for what she describes as roaming, collaborative, mobile agents to work outside traditional constraints. I think this would definitely take steps to address the problem that as architects we are not responding quick enough to the vacuum created by a post conflict situation.
Traditionally architects have thrived on post disaster situations due to opportunities for rebuilding. In this day and age, the architect’s role it seems has been relegated or by choice limited to maintaining an established image of an environment which already exists. In other cases it is to establish this same image in a location where it is at least is deemed safe & ready to accept it (ie. Dubai). What architects need to do is pounce on the opportunities created in post conflict scenarios despite the discomfort and embrace the potential to implement new non-western language (or western if its appropriate) and create something unique to the situation. This may require a more Macgyver (untraditional ad-hoc) methodology of design but the challenge should provide for interesting results. These unorthodox solutions could subvert the destruction and as a consequence devalue the violence and its necessity. Its time to bring the Wild West to architecture, attention all architects, get on your horses and ride.