Archive for March, 2007

The architecture of destruction

Volume editorial
#11 - 2007

Ever heard of Kevin Sites? He is a reporter who runs a blog, currently under the banner of Yahoo!, to tell us about his experiences in the ‘Hot Zones’ of the world. Dozens of conflict areas, where he, armed with a camcorder and all on his own, tries to cover ‘how conflict feels on the ground’ by letting people tell their own stories. Even under the veil of high professionalism and the gloss of global audience, you can feel how gruesome the circumstances are of so many people.

Whether it is a matter of more extensive coverage or a matter of real quantities, it is clear that we live in an age in which conflict increasingly is considered as inevitable. It is taken for granted. With the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, also a time has begun that we start to realize that violence in the 21st century isn’t necessarily directed to people, but can also, and even more so, be inflicted upon buildings. As symbols of the value system of the enemy (like the mosque of Samarra), they are attacked or blown up to incite outrage, fear and resentment that seems to be stronger than any mass murder could ever achieve. Also it has become a new trend in warfare not only to fight the enemy, but the habitat and the infrastructure of the enemy, and even the habitat of the people who might have harbored the enemy. In sum, while the reasons for terrorist attacks and pre-emptive strikes become more vague, the degree of retaliation becomes higher and the following suffering more widespread than ever. And most importantly, destruction is no longer the outcome of blind rage, but increasingly a matter of meticulous calculation. Destruction as become an alternative architecture.
Underlining this historical reality makes it even more interesting how the people who are the creators of the stuff that’s destroyed, the architects, react. It is quite remarkable that there seems virtually no discourse on it within the global professional communities. While there is a dramatic proliferation of the unbuilding of cities worldwide, most architects remain silent. This is even true when they are directly involved, as citizens of countries in war, as soldiers of modernity who are asked to build on the tabula rasa of city governments, or as professionals affected by massive neglect, mismanagement or developers misconduct. Even if the opportunities are right in front of them: to analyze destruction and enter the public debate, or to act constructively to repair or reconstruct, all architectural engagement with it, if any, has remained on the level of incidental intervention.

Let me probe one reason for this passivity. Architecture has always been identified with construction. It appeals to men’s deepest feelings about fragility of life and how to overcome that. Architecture is there to protect, it offers shelter from the out-side world. Either in literature, in theology, in politics or philosophy, it has been associated with the positive, the will to elevate, with resurrection, with hope. And if people managed to start thinking from scratch, in an utopian gesture towards completely unknown worlds to inspire mankind with a destiny, architecture was the first to help to provide the images of the better world. Architecture was about giving shape to dreams and striving for utilitarian perfection. A better world that needed to be built. Architecture simply has a hard time to address despair.

But even if we accept this historical rationale for perpetuated innocence, it doesn’t mean that it is justified. As said, this notion of architecture as the vehicle of hope and progress is under siege. This is an age of realism. A time of acknowledging the human condition as possibly a dangerous, fanatic, destructive force. At least in the West, today people incline to saving what they have, rather than achieving what they aspire. It is also a time where historical tendencies like globalization are widely accepted as inexorable forces that need to be coped with, not challenged. In sum, metaphorically speaking, it is a time to shelter against fear and to accommodate private interest, not to build new edifices of collective vision or monuments of general optimism. If war is not a fact, in the minds and hearts it has become a projection.
For instance, this is also an era of renewed interest in certain worldviews which for a long time were seen as utterly disgusting and unacceptable. Quite suddenly, violence is back on the agenda; not as an expression of evil, but as a sometimes useful tool to solve problems. Warmongers, social Darwinists and professional Cassandra’s are taking the floor to proclaim the purifying value of taking up arms. Most people, living in their safe havens of affluent societies, take it as a matter of press, covering events too far away to engage with, or feel perhaps somewhat tempted with the new totalitarian seduction. Others, those on the fringes of the global village have to deal with the consequences of these new forms of aggression. But whatever side, violence more and more is becoming a norm, if not a value.

If you want, a positive side effect of the new realism is clearer view on the agenda or ideologies of the aggressors. Indeed, architecture often reveals itself currently as criminal tool of oppression and destruction. Look at Afghanistan, Iraq or Lebanon: modern violence is pervasive, abstract and dehumanizing. It destroys buildings and communities in a frequency which hasn’t been seen before. As a result, it forces ordinary people to improvise and develop ways of survival. . So, what does it mean to stand up for those who are victimized? Can architecture also be present on that side of the spectrum and if so, how?
Perhaps the most daring and at the same time uncanny position is for architects who device strategies to cope with destruction by finding ways to deceive, it, ridicule it, pervert it, and ultimately, by doing so, may help avoiding it.

When clusterbombs are ready to be dropped, we need to cluster our cleverness to new configurations after conflict. When nature hits our habitats, we need new ways to inhabit this world and cope with nature. When crime and corruption are taking life worlds apart, we need a new sense of public domain. When violence is the norm, we need to violate the status quo in architecture.

This is the aim of this issue of Volume. When the rulers of this planet do no longer come to the public place, the public place will come to them. Our print rate is 8000 copies. If our distribution system does not reach you in Kabul, Kigali, Prishtina, Beirut, Ramallah, … or you know someone there who may need it, call the office for a copy to be sent to you.