Targeting architecture: the material world of political violence

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of California Santa Cruz]On: 19 November 2014, At: 20:40Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Targeting architecture: the material world of politicalviolenceSara Fregonese aa Manchester Architecture Research Centre (MARC), University of Manchester , UKPublished online: 06 May 2009.

    To cite this article: Sara Fregonese (2009) Targeting architecture: the material world of political violence, Building Research& Information, 37:3, 340-342, DOI: 10.1080/09613210902808091

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  • REVIEW

    Targeting architecture: thematerial worldof political violence

    Sara Fregonese

    TheDestruction ofMemory: Architecture atWarRobert Bevan

    Reaktion, London,UK, 2006; ISBN 978186189319 2

    While reading The Destruction of Memory: Architec-ture at War by Robert Bevan, Sun Tzus phrase thatThe worst policy of all is to attack walled cities con-tained in the 6th-century BC classic The Art of War(Sun Tzu/Wu Sun Li, 2003) comes to mind. Itimplied purely strategic considerations, related to theriskiness of fighting in densely populated and architec-turally intricate environments. Bevans book, however,adds a new dimension to these purely tactical aspects.In the authors fascinating perspective on war, militaryconsiderations constitute only part of the story, whileanother protagonist takes a leading role: the rubbleof war itself. Buildings, Bevan explains, are attackednot because they are in the path of a military objective:to their destroyers, they are the objective (p. 8).

    Bevan uses a collection of globe- and time-spanningexamples including Uttar Pradesh (India), Bosnia,Tibet, England, and Palestine, to illustrate how thephysical fabric of cities does more than stand inert in

    the crossfire: it can be the very target or theweapon of states, oppressive regimes, revolutionarymovements, territorial disputes, and other geopoliticalevents. There is, in Bevans view, a parallel war againstarchitecture going on (p. 8) and he accompanies thereader through a number of destroyed cities, makingthe argument that targeting architecture is a continu-ation of genocide by other means.

    Through the examples of the Armenian genocide, theannihilation of Jewish urban heritage in EasternEurope, and the destruction of Muslim buildingsduring the war in Bosnia, the initial chapter explainseradication of a minoritys social fabric through itsmaterial one through the calculated and systematicdestruction of architectural artefacts. Both state andnon-state actors have used the urban built fabric tosend messages of power. While the third chapterdescribes state-sponsored action on and through archi-tecture in order to acquire hegemony (the pillaging ofTibetan villages by the Chinese Maoist army; the hom-ogenization of architectural patterns and the physicalelimination of vernacular architecture throughoutRomania under dictatorship), the fourth chapterdescribes how attempts by revolutionary movementsto instate new sets of social and cultural values havealso thrived in the selective targeting of certain physicalsigns of power. Architectural reflections of societaldivision emerge in the fifth chapter about territorial dis-putes. From Belfast (Northern Ireland) to Nicosia(Cyprus), the physicality of politics is manifest in segre-gated neighbourhoods, through walls and fences. Asconflict cast in stone, these structures become part ofthe everyday activities of urban dwellers for longperiods of time. In the two conclusive chapters, Bevaninvites one to remember architectural destructions andto take responsibility towards the value of architecturefor the well-being of a community because the builtenvironment embodies a communitys memory andidentity, but sometimes it also provides the space forsharing the everyday life of different communities.

    BUILDING RESEARCH & INFORMATION (2009) 37(3), 340342

    Building Research & Information ISSN 0961-3218 print ISSN 1466-4321 online # 2009 Taylor & Francishttp: www.informaworld.com journals

    DOI: 10.1080/09613210902808091

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  • Geopolitical architecturesThe Destruction of Memory contributes, firstly, to theincreasing number of studies aiming to repopulate his-tories of past and present, state and non-state politicalviolence with the material worlds that are usually cutout of classical approaches on war and violence.Lately, scholars have started to think of political vio-lence as less anthropocentric (Coward, 2006) asbuildings not only people are the target of violence,and sometimes they constitute the spaces that makeviolence possible. By investigating the parallel pathsof human groups and architecture under fire, TheDestruction of Memory highlights the mundane andconcrete reverberations of war in the cities caught upin it, after a century in which we have been used tothink of war as a process involving somehow intangi-ble categories such as homeland and nation(Bishop and Clancey, 2004).

    The Destruction of Memory makes another importantcontribution: it examines the targeting of architecturebefore the end of the Cold War, rather than focusingexclusively on post-1989 conflicts. Discourses aboutthe thriving of non-state actors within the redistribu-tion of state powers among which legitimate politi-cal violence (Giddens, 1985) to non-state actorshave underpinned military approaches that focus onthe urban and asymmetric new nature of warfare.This often superficial belief in the newness of war incities rather than at state borders, and the consequentfrequent involvement of architecture, is re-balancedin the book through a series of pre-1989 case studiesof conflicts involving the built environment of oftendensely populated urban areas. In other words, Bevanpopulates with brick and mortars the hollow militaryand geopolitical map of the Cold War, made of twoapparently homogeneous power blocks clashing attheir borders but rarely considered for its concretesites of violence. Through these unsung architecturesgeopolitics, literally, took and still takes shape.

    Architecture and communityBuildings, Bevan argues, do not contain any politicalessence in themselves; they rather become meaningfuldue to relation that their physicality has with specificsocial processes:

    it is the ever-changing meanings brought to brickand stone, rather than some inbuilt quality of thematerial or the way in which they are assembledthat need to be emphasised.

    (p. 12)

    Buildings acquire meaning not only for how they arebuilt, but also in the moment in which they aredestroyed. In this sense, the situation of a communitydepends not only on well-being as a group ofhumans, but also on the situation of the physical and

    material environment in which that community findsa place.

    This is a crucial point and a third contribution of thebook that makes it relevant to current internationalaffairs and human rights issues. Bevan proposes touse evidence of architectural destruction as part ofofficial investigations on crimes against humanity.As if reacting to a sort of material gap in the legalprosecution of war crimes, Bevan proposes to extendthe 1954 Hague convention for the protection of cul-tural property in the event of armed conflict, to theactions perpetrated against the built environmentboth by state and non-state actors. In destroying archi-tecture, he argues, there resides a will to hinder thewell-being, or sometimes eliminate altogether the com-munities living in a specific physical environment or equally important those spaces where different com-munities come together. Bevans book makes the casefor so many instances to recognize cultural genocideas an international crime.

    A fourth, more philosophical, contribution of the bookis to think of society and architecture as a reciprocallyinfluencing whole, so that the well-being of a commu-nity can also be interpreted from its architectural andphysical aspects. However, some passages miss outon the full potential of a holistic socio-materialapproach. At some point, Bevan maintains a clear hier-archy between the social and the material, by locatingthe agency in the human subject rather than extendingit to the architectural object. According to him:

    the meanings and memories we bring to thestones are created by human agency and remainthere.

    (pp. 1516)

    In other words, the community has agency, and archi-tecture is only a reverberation of the communityvalues: a prompt, a corporeal reminder of humanrelations (p. 15). This argument risks relegating archi-tecture to a role of background, which is clearly notwhat this book is set out to do.

    What risks being lost in the book is a useful and inno-vative focus on understanding how materiality canpartly drive social processes (including war). Attacksto architecture happen not because of an intrinsicessence of the material environment, but because of aset of specific relations that architecture has withspecific social settings. These relations seem to be inter-rupted in certain passages of the book, leading to theossification of the architectural as a backlash to war.For example, ideas such as layer of meanings (p. 16)that accumulate in places, or the idea of a undefinedsense of power of place that becomes palpable incities such as Jerusalem under the weight of memoryand meaning (p. 111) reinforces this view of place

    Review

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  • being an immobile reflection of human relations, ratherthan an active component of these relations. Some-times, the book even risks to become orientalistic incertain passages on cities whose architecture accord-ing to Bevan somehow becomes alive through someunspecified dynamic. For example, Jerusalem is seen inthe book as having a life of itself hidden behind itshigh walls. Tension always there, sometimes burstingout suddenly and irrationally.

    Finally, I must admit my attraction for the books cover,which portrays a ravaged site in Beirut. However, thebook surprisingly contains only one swift mentionof such a relevant city in this domain.

    ConclusionThe Destruction of Memory is a fascinating andempirically well-informed reading offering a generalview on the missing matter of present and past wars.

    Both architecture and planning theory and practice areincreasingly aware of the complex but close relationsbetween architecture and planning with politics andeven violence. Since some years, scholars have cometo terms with the idea that architecture is not only apositive kind of knowledge tending forever to thegood, but also a dark science (Yiftachel, 1998) thatsometimes serves the interests of political actors tooppress and harm social groups. The Destruction ofMemory reminds us of how these relationships have

    been often obscured, but need to be revived andshould have a place in the way we consider war andcrimes against humanity. Once we make visible therubble of war, it is not possible to think of planningand architecture as neutral and positive attempts, sep-arate from wider power contexts. It is not possible tothink anymore of the well-being of the community asseparate from the actions of those who build itsspaces and of those who destroy them.

    Sara FregoneseManchester Architecture Research Centre (MARC),

    University of Manchester, UKsara.fregonese@manchester.ac.uk

    ReferencesBishop, R. and Clancey, G. (2004) The city-as-target, or perpetu-

    ation of death, in S. Graham (ed.): Cities, War and Terror-ism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics, Blackwell, Oxford,pp. 5474.

    Coward, M. (2006) Against anthropocentrism: the destruction ofthe built environment as a distinct form of political violence.Review of International Studies, 32(3), 419437.

    Giddens, A. (1985) A Contemporary Critique of HistoricalMaterialism, Vol. 2: The Nation-state and Violence, PolityPress, Cambridge.

    Sun Tzu (6th century BC/2003) The Art of War, trans. Wu SunLi, Long River, San Francisco, CA.

    Yiftachel, O. (1998) Planning and social control: exploring thedark side. Journal of Planning Literature, 12(4), 395406.

    Review

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