arch-peace editorials

13 February 2008

"What's War/Peace - Construction/Destruction got to do with Architecture?"

"What's War/Peace - Construction/Destruction got to do with Architecture?"
Watch any news channel or listen to any news station you will find floods of issues and concerns that refer to human-made destruction caused by conflict and war. Architects and Urbanists seem to join the public in just watching or listening…! Can they have a say? I doubt it. Can they intervene? I am not sure! Can they play a positive role? I hope they do!

This editorial is deeply rooted in the mission of Architects for Peace that simply involves the promotion of peace from architectural, cross-cultural, sociopolitical and socio-economic perspectives. While it might be seen as an article more than an editorial, it attempts to consolidate a number of issues typically oversimplified by the global professional community. In very recent discussions, however, the issues of War, Peace, Destruction, Post War Recovery and their correlation to architecture and urbanism are starting to gain momentum toward shaping a new body of theories or cases on destruction and their underlying applications in terms of recovery efforts. While this is not new, it indicates that architects and planners have important roles to play in this context. Here, I reflect on such a relationship within the scope of some selected writings.

Is Destruction Needed?
The history of architecture and urbanism tells us much about how to design and erect buildings; it typically exhibits the way in which specific cultures lived, expressed their identity, and mediated their environment. However, if we blindly and slavishly followed its basic assumptions, there would be such a huge number of temples, mosques, churches, houses, and all types of buildings that it would be almost impossible to find a place for one more building on earth after millions of years of building buildings and of accumulation of civilizations. In recent years, a new assumption is emerging to shape some new understanding that is "that history of architecture should involve the destruction of buildings as it involves the building of buildings." Some argue that building requires a preceding incident of destruction, a spatial void without which it would not be possible to build new buildings. Interrogating this assumption might be an exhaustive task that needs in-depth investigation.

The Syndrome of Celebrating Destruction!
The preceding assumption goes along the recent issue of VOLUME magazine, where issues of migration and displacement, ‘warchitecture’ and ‘post-warchitecture’, 'counter-heritage', 'cultural interventions' and 'post-conflict reconstruction' strategies are debated. On the basis of what is displayed in terms of construction efforts in different cities such as Kosovo and the southern part of Beirut one would infer that such an assumption is tested and proven valid as Ole Bouman in the introductory statement of VOLUME puts it "…there is a strong correlation between destruction—the unbuilding of cities—and the construction of buildings." Strikingly, Bouman introduces the issue by saying that "…Volume explores the less discussed creative sides of destruction, a realm where architecture and design play an important part…" Here one would wonder if destruction has a creative side, and in what terms. While this issue of VOLUME addresses reconstruction efforts …again one would wonder why destruction is emphasized. And why don't we say 'creative reconstruction efforts.'… Is this for marketability or publicity purposes? Or is it meant just for introducing a new term or buzzword that increases the confusion of the public on the value of architecture and of what architects do? It is bothering to see how the term 'destruction' is ‘celebrated' and very irritating to see its mere acceptance as the 'price of progress.'

Is this 'price of progress' a new face of an old coin? In the wake of the industrial revolution, humankind developed destruction tools and techniques in parallel to the development of different means of industrial production, transportation, simply for progress, civility, and for raising living standards. True, the result was a new way of life. Sadly, it had its severe negatives because while industrial workers lived and died in poor conditions, mines, and slums, the political elite prospered...lived and died in palaces. Many countries were not satisfied with their own growth and needed more resources…, in the process of satisfying those needs…wars were a deterministic result…some were escalated to world wars while others were regional or local. In all cases, architecture…the ultimate form of human material culture was the victim, apart from the sad reality… the loss of millions of lives.

The current claim that societies are now more civilized led to accepting the preceding facts as part of our daily discourses is surely believable. Yet, celebrating 'destruction' leads one to confidently say that many are enticed by the ethics and aesthetics of destruction as a source of regeneration and inspiration, while the enduring values of human culture are oversimplified. And so, the basic fact that human civilization has evolved over time is forgotten and under the slogans of progress, wealth, advancement, quality of life… you name it, many traditional towns are destroyed, many cities are losing their identity, and environments are continuously damaged/degraded. These are not necessarily the results of wars, but of human actions and choices, in essence—of violent actions against architecture and cities' built form. This is not all — the tale of human evolution is being interpreted by many as a deterministic violent history without which human race cannot progress. However, some hopes exist where anthropological research shows that human evolution has essentially to do with creative, constructive, and peaceful activities. In this respect, I refer to the great Arab historian—Ibn Khaldun—the founder of urban sociology—who says "History is the story of human achievements in construction."

A word of caution arises in this context as wars and conflicts involve not only destruction but building too… nevertheless, not all building acts are positive. This is manifested by highway blocks, fences to segregate, isolate, contain… Perhaps East-West Beirut blocks, Bosnia-Serbia-Croatia blocked borders, the segregation wall between Palestinian Territories and Israel, the famous Berlin wall, and even the walls enclosing gated communities around the globe, those are all negative building acts. Robert Frost, the American Poet, in his famous Poem: Mending Wall reminds us of offensive building acts when he says: Before I built a wall I'd ask to know... What I was walling in or walling out... And to whom I was like to give offence.

Wars and Architecture/Reconstruction: 6 Decades of Efforts and Discourses
Reflecting on some correlations between wars and architecture, I refer to three publications that have received very little attention, if any at all. They—while remarkably delineating the amount of reconstruction efforts that have taken and are now taking place around the globe—dramatically indicate a strong correlation between the acts of wars and violence and the acts of building and reconstruction. Notably, while these three publications were developed over a little more than a decade ago, it is evident that they reflect reconstruction efforts since the end of the WWII.

An important publication titled: Reconstruction of War-Torn Cities, edited by Jad Tabet was a result of an international conference organized jointly by the Order of Engineers and Architects in Lebanon and the UIA-International Union of Architects, and took place in 1997. Reconstruction of War Torn Cities encompasses a considerable number of articles that analyze and debate different experiments and experiences in reconstructing cities and villages. Evidently, the correlation of war and architecture is not new, as exhibited in those articles that articulate the experiences of rebuilding London, French cities, Russian cities, and Warsaw after WWII. Other articles delineate that such a correlation was sustained over the past sixty years, those that address reconstruction efforts in Vietnam, the Greek part of Cyprus during mid 1970s and Mostar and Kampala/Uganda during the late 1990s. A common feature in all cases is that all of these efforts are basically preceded by colonial or civil wars.

Another important publication is entitled At War with the City, edited by Paola Somma, 2004. This book assembles a collection of essays that investigate the relationship between war and the city in a comprehensive manner. It goes beyond the case study logic and aims at improving planners’ and designers’ ability to look at and interpret different reconstruction scenarios. Presenting reconstruction as a sociopolitical planning activity, several planning schemes are presented with reference to the economic and social contexts within which they are developed. Notably, reconstruction of Saigon south is linked to emerging new housing typologies; the reconstruction of Sarajevo's Town Hall and library is linked to issues that pertain to memory and identity; the metaphor of looking at Beirut as 'Hearth' is questioned; the strategic urban planning of the Gaza strip is analyzed within the limits of blocked roads; Fragmentation, commodification, and reintegration, are socio-physical aspects explored within the scope of reconstruction efforts in South Africa, Mozambique, and Rwanda. Again, this round of articles in At War with the City, which is published seven years after Reconstruction of War Torn Cities, corroborates that there is a sustained interest in investigating the relationship between war and architecture/reconstruction.

Addressing the specific case of Kabul, Babar Mumtaz and Kaj Noschis have co-edited the seminar book of proceedings on 'Development of Kabul: Reconstruction and Planning Issues.' The book addresses how decisions about housing, transportation, and infrastructure needs are made in an ad-hoc and urgent manner. Discussing the necessity of a consolidated urban planning approach toward the development of the city led to the belief that a typical master planning approach seems not to be favored by the majority of the contributors to the book. The editors argue that the idea of a general Master Plan seemed too much "a reminder of planning practices issued from offices that do not dare nor want to be in contact with the realities of a fast-moving urban fabric such as that of Kabul today." The existing Master Plan of Kabul-developed by the Russians during and after the Soviet Union’s Invasion of Afghanistan has a somewhat ambiguous status, but is currently utilized by the Municipality in considering building permissions and spatial decisions.

Some Lessons Learned – Issues for Continuous Investigation
In light of the above three publications some important issues arise in connection to the roles architects, urbanists and planners could play; some can be looked at in terms of open-ended questions that truly need continuous investigation, while others may allow us to openly debate the re-construction delivery after catastrophes. I briefly reflect in the following context on four major issues.

The first issue concerns itself with 'constructing' and 're-constructing.' Should we reconstruct a destroyed city exactly as it was in order to keep its image in the memory of its inhabitants? Should we build a better environment conceived on the basis of new planning standards? There are specific choices that can be addressed in practical terms. For example: whether to preserve the traces of old transportation routes and land parcels or develop new ones more suited to a city's developmental needs. These choices are often dictated by the pressure of events, urgency or the pace of development. They can be governed by reference to specific urban models, value systems, or cultural codes that reflect the general interest and the prevailing social conditions.

Another issue pertains to the element of utopianism inherited in mass reconstruction of cities. Can we still see destruction caused by war, violence or conflicts as an opportunity that enables new aesthetic values or planning standards to emerge? If we have to preserve the memory of the past of a city, which past should we refer to? In this respect, one may assert that many of the destroyed cities represent an accumulation of different historical eras. The third issue is a terminology related one. Reconstruction can be seen as an ambiguous term which Paola Somma sees as a pretext for struggle and the settlement of scores between local power bases. As well, one would add, it can be manipulated by external interests that typically ignore the needs of those who are most seriously affected, or address them only superficially. In many cases, such interests deal with reconstruction as an exercise in financial techniques utilizing cost/benefit analysis methods.

The fourth issue is social in nature where, after wars, emphasis is placed upon reconstructing the physical environment. However, the transition from the state of war to that of peace involves political, social, economic and cultural processes. Here, the question of whether reconstruction is just getting society—as it was before the war—going again. How are the upheavals of social disorder caused by war perceived? Underlying this issue 'participation' comes in as a determining factor in healing the social organization, creating dialogue between different actors: politicians, decision makers, architects and planners, and the people they are to serve typically in an urgent manner.

Warchitecture! Theorizing War and Architecture
Evidently, the six decades of debating war recovery construction efforts addressed cases, experiments and experiences, and practical solutions; recently however, the relationship between war and architecture is theorized. In a very recent article entitled "Warchitectural Theory" by Andrew Herscher an attempt is made to introduce a new term 'Warchitecture' where such a relationship is addressed in theoretical terms. In drawing relationships between war, architecture, and culture, Herscher states that "The foundational opposition organizing most discourse on war and architecture is that between violence and culture. Before it is targeted by violence, architecture is located within the domain of culture…violence, by contrast tends to be located outside the domain of culture and defined as a phenomenon that destroys that culture…" Perhaps, this reminds us of what happened and still is happening in Iraq where destruction of cultural artifacts is manifested as a result of sectarian conflict produced by war. One would refer here to architecture as a cultural index that takes different forms in different civilizations and political settings. Again, how to protect that index from destruction is in essence a crucial question. Herscher ends his article by suggesting that warchitectural theory accommodates the work of those actors called architects and the product of those activities called constructive, and the range of actors and processes involved with architecture. By this only we "…can do justice to the social facts that could or should concern us."

Final Word
In closing, I argue that wars followed by immediate recovery construction efforts have a lot to do with architecture. Going beyond the very physical world, there are multiple roles architects and planners could play, including mediation, interpretation, and collective decision making on reconstructing war-torn cities. The questions of war and peace, social equity and disruptive justice in war-torn countries should not be seen as abstract concerns anymore. It is not about seizing business opportunities, it is not about seeking opportunities for establishing new sets of planning standards, it is not about introducing new physical masks for expressing power, it is not about establishing means for covering up the harsh realities of inequity and injustice that plague war-torn societies. It is simply about healing the processes of human, societal, and cultural evolution.

Ashraf M. Salama
Architects for Peace, February 2008


1. My reflection here is partly based on two visits, the first was to Beirut in November 1999 to speak at a regional conference on Recent Architectural Trends in Societies in Change organized by the AUB-American University of Beirut, and the second was to Bosnia and Herzegovina in October 2000 to take part in the International Jury of the UN/UIA Urban Planning Competition on Revitalization of Sarajevo. As well, recent responsive publications on the topic are utilized where indicated in the text.
2. Please refer to these sites for a complete table of contents of VOLUME titled "Un-built Cities" April 2007
3. Ibn Khaldun on Wikipedia
4. Tabet, J. (ed.) (1997). Reconstruction of War Torn Cities, UIA and the Order of Engineers and Architects, Beirut, Lebanon.
5. Somma, P. (ed.) (2004). At War with the City. The Urban International Press, Gateshead, UK.
6. Mumtaz, B. and Noschis, K (eds.) (2004). Development of Kabul: Reconstruction and Planning Issues. Comportements, Lausanne, Switzerland.
7. Herscher, A. (2008). Warchitectural Theory, Journal of Architectural Education, Vol. 61 (1), pp. 35-43.


Beatriz Maturana said...

Dear Ashraf,

Thanks for your most opportune editorial, this is such an important discussion and I hope we can incite the discussion of these ideas.
I am going to jump all over the place to express some further thoughts on the points you raised.

In thinking about the Herscher’s warchitecture and their opposites (war and architecture as one of violence and culture), I thought of Darko Radovic’s presentation to the arch-peace forum in 2004. Darko discussed the destruction of the Stari Most bridge and according to him this was a significant act because, more than the destruction of infrastructure, it aimed to destroy culture, the sense of urbanity—civilisation perhaps.

“…the tale of human evolution is being interpreted as a deterministic violent history without which human race cannot progress”. It is hard (almost impossible) to come to terms with the notion that architecture (as a creative activity, intrinsically linked to people and culture), can on the other hand accept ‘destruction’—more so when this is not motivated by the need to improve the urban conditions but as a result of sheer violence. Is this the schizophrenic side of architecture? And what is the role of architectural education in this?

Contrary to the notion of human progress through violent history, Edward Said has a more constructive (creative) approach when he says that “…humanism is the only, and I would go as far as to say the final resistance we have against the inhuman practices and injustices that disfigure human history.” A Window on the World, 2003.

And in the same line, I wonder whether the “Syndrome of celebrating destruction” has something to do with the rise of the militarisation as a form of solving conflicts? Our vocabulary is littered with these types of militaristic notions, again the dichotomies of good/evil, east and west. Thomas Friedman comes to mind in this current move toward oversimplification of what is in reality complex ideas. If anything, this is a far less sophisticated form of thinking—is this what ‘civilised’ means to some?

In an urban context it would be interesting to look at how the notion of ‘civilised’ is expressed. It strikes me that in cities within wealthy countries such as Australia, control, over-regulation and separation are used as a form of avoiding conflict—for example, the barricading of roads along tram lanes, to gated communities and by-laws that determine the colour of the gutters. All this might provide a sense of ‘peace’—one in which the individual does not need to decide, resolve or think. Separation is equated to order, security and good management, but is it? How can the notion of ‘civilised’ being advanced and put to the test without the opportunity for dialogue, discussion and negotiation?

You have raised many important issues, some which continue to bother me, such as the current negative approach to master planning (and the pressure to accept this view). It would be naïve to deny that there are many examples of bad planning, but it is also naïve to believe that there can be decisions/plans/designs created without an agenda. Is this a market serving position, one that allows them to decide without any type of consultation? In a radio program “By Design” (, Kim Dovey (following on ideas explored in his book The Fluid City), presented Federation Square as an example of the changes in the typology of squares. The question is whether or not there is a need for squares in Australia today. Some of the suggestions go something like this: there are many types of communities and it is difficult to mediate between public and private interest; urban space cannot prescribe for future uses; the large screen focus on the global world (this refers to a large plasma screen placed in the centre of the 'square') … I wonder whether there are more chances to learn about the world by looking at the ‘local’ people passing by, than through the big screen displaying publicity or sport. In whichever case, it is not so much about what the screen shows but about the singularity of the activity.

It is interesting that Fed Square is anything but an agenda-free space. Orchestrated activities together with the large screen is what keeps it alive. Somehow it is like the knowledge accumulated through hundreds if not thousands of years in regards to public spaces for gathering, can be made obsolete in a decade or two. It is almost as to deny the basic rules of geometry—how natural is this? While the term ‘should’ was not used by K. Dovey, his approach was interestingly prescriptive. Once again, what is the role of the architect? Is it to serve the status quo and by default to reinforce it? Is it to try to understand social process and society and to attempt to place its knowledge to the service of society? Who are we listening to and working for?

Finally, I think that we tend to forget that we are also the ‘public’—part of an ‘informed public in matters of cities’, and who have vested interests and can assist in the prevention of violence that will destroy cities and its culture. I would like to suggest that architects can play a role before it gets to the point of “War/Peace - Construction/Destruction”.

Thanks again for a great editorial/article.


Beatriz Maturana said...

I feel that I need to get back to “the tale of human evolution is being interpreted by many as a deterministic violent history without which human race cannot progress”. This is a very pessimist way to understand human evolution and as you, I am interested in Ibn Khaldun’s views on human evolution. I wonder how all these all-encompassing notions of violent history and self-interest (sustaining our economies), which are so dominant today, fit with the ‘supposedly’ relativist approach of postmodernism?

In a book by R. Usher and R. Edwards entitled Postmodernism and Education, they claim that the “task of human betterment is perhaps the feature of modernity which has come under most significant attack”, (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p.9). Accordingly, there is ‘incredulity’ in post modernism in which these ‘grand narratives’ do not find a place. However, I get the impression that the more we struggle to free ourselves from these ‘meta narratives’, the more we succumb to other equally reductionist/determinist ideologies. For example the relationship between postmodernity’s lack of certainty and economics (in the commodification of everything) is well established (Usher and Edwards, 1994) and this is the current all pervading ideology. The idea of globalisation that dissolves differences and in which vacuum we find freedom is to me one of those straightjacket ideology that could in fact obliterate alternative knowledge—isn’t it? For instance I was thinking of an example in Necdect Teymur’s book ‘Architectural Education’ when referring to the destroyed buildings in Iraq, he asks how can this be done by a group of multinationals, cross-cultural…? (N. Teymur 1992, p.41).

Can ‘human betterment’ be classified within the ‘grand narratives’, or is it an aspiration and as for Ibn Khaldun, it would then describe some of the motto of human evolution? If this was the case, how can we rid ourselves from what is intrinsically human? Is portmodernism loosing the plot?


Post a Comment