The Architectural Review, February 2106

The images of the Temple of Bel in Palmyra, the Syrian 2,000-year-old monument, designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site and considered the most important temple of the Middle East, destroyed by Isis in August 2015, are a constant reminder, if ever there were the need, that cultural and architectural heritage are crucial aspects of international conflicts. Palmyra is just the latest, and possibly the most devastating, destruction of world’s heritages that occurred in warfare areas in recent years.

When a terrorist organization like Isis chooses to demonstrate its ‘supremacy’ to the world by destroying a historic site, it underlines the importance of buildings as expression of culture, memory and, of course, power. Architecture matters. Especially in time of conflicts when the need to identify with symbols and symbolism is urgent, and the destruction of built artifacts becomes a clear attempt to erase memory and cultural identity.

Ruins represent also a profitable source. Terrorists sell artifacts and relics to the black market to bankroll other attacks. But this represents just a secondary aspect. The destruction of symbols, the ‘show‘ accurately filmed, is a substantial part of the propaganda and behind, there is a precise strategy to affect our wavelength/mentality. By killing and executing hundreds, thousands of people they touch our sense of justice. By razing meaningful architectures, our symbols, they touch our inner consciences, something universal. Expanded media coverage and peak of people’s attention are all evidences of this terror tactic that takes advantage of symbols visibility worldwide. This happened during the raid of Palmyra more than ever. Sadly, even more than dozens of hostages executions occured in the same conflict areas.

This change of perspective spreads more and more. In September 2015 we had a tangible sign: for the first time, the International Criminal Court pursued someone for destroying a cultural monument. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahd, a member of al Qaeda, is suspected of the ancient North African city of Timbuktu’s destruction in 2012, the UNESCO World Heritage site. The Hague Court, which usually goes after individuals who violate humanitarian law during conflicts, began a new path.”This is the first such case and it breaks new ground for the protection of humanity’s shared cultural heritage and values,” said UNESCO Secretary General Irina Bokova. “The cultural heritage of Mali belongs to all humanity. It is vital that the criminals be brought to justice.”

The relationship between architecture, identity and war is something often ignored by the general agenda of the architectural critics and writers. There are few who pursue this field of research. Among them we can find Jean Louis Cohen curator of the international exhibition ‘Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War’ (displayed first at CCAA and thant at Maxxi) and Robert Bevan, architectural critic for the London Evening Standard, writer of the book ‘The  Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War’ (Reaktion Books 2006). They attempt, in different ways, to analyze the trans-disciplinary nature of architecture by studying collateral sides of the discipline. For their research, they were both invited to be part of the ‘Meeting Architecture’ Programme, a series of lectures and exhibitions that the British School at Rome has organised as of 2013, curated by Marina Engel,  with a number of initiatives planned until 2017.

‘Culture, Identity and Genocide’ was the lecture held by Bevan in Rome on Thursday 10th December 2015, as first event of the third edition of the BSR program, named ‘Fragment’. It explores how memories and ideologies are constantly tied to buildings and their contents.

In his book Bevan examines some of the most pivotal events which have occurred in recent history such as the Nazi attacks on Jewish architecture during the Second World War, the destruction and rebuilding of Warsaw, the bombing of Dresden and the war in Bosnia. All cases that suggest a key to better interpret recent facts in the Middle East.

Bevan argues that the destruction of the built artefacts of a people or a nation is a means of cultural cleansing or division in order to annihilate the identity of a people. “The targeted destruction of material culture has continued for centuries but despite the connection between such attacks and human rights first being made before the adoption of the Genocide Convention, this vital point is still barely recognised today. What should we be doing to address this?” he asks.

Until now there has been the tendency, at an international level, to separate the human genocide from the cultural one, this last is generally considered ‘collateral damage’, but after September 11th  this assumption has been radically shifted. “Place matters. The buildings are the target” Bevan points out. A concept reinforced by the strong bond between architecture and power that leads to consider buildings as symbols of ideals, principles and political statements. Destroying these symbols is not just an act of vandalism, it is far more extreme, it is the manifestation of a precise intention: to exterminate fragments of culture, to dissolve the identity of communities.

History has given us a plethora of examples of this cruel ritual being applied. The Stari Most, a 16th-century Ottoman bridge in the city of Mostar, Bosnia was destroyed in 1993 by the Croatian army during the Croat-Bosniak War because it was one of the most well renown examples of  Islamic architecture in the Balkans. After the end of the War the UNESCO decided to reconstruct the original bridge by using local materials and Ottoman construction techniques by doing so created, de facto, a replica that denies the traumatic event.

This procedure of faithfully rebuilding what has been damaged, is conducted by UNESCO worldwide, but the discussion is open and full of controversial positions among architects, historians and critics. What Bevan suggests instead, and with him a large part of experts, is to have a critical approach to reconstruction,  where past and present coexist,  and where the tragic episode is somewhat re-interpreted by a new piece of architecture that in itself expresses the power of what is no longer visible. A fine example of this attitude  is the New Synagogue in Dresden built in 2001 on the exact same location of the original Semper Synagogue (designed by Gottfried Semper) destroyed in 1938 by the Nazis during the Kristallnacht. The new building, designed by architects Rena Wandel-Hoefer and Wolfgang Lorch, is all  at once the expression of contemporaneity whilst standing testimony to its past. It incorporates the last remaining parts of the original building by using modern materials and forms. In this way it doesn’t deny the evidence of what happened and it starts to write a new conscious memory.

Now, more than ever, thanks to the work of reporters, researchers, writers and to an increasing extent social media the stories of cultural destructions are being reported globally, even if they happen to unknown and faraway cultures. An important contribution to this cause is represented by the documentary ‘The  Destruction of Memory’ an adaptation of Bevan’s book, directed by Tim Slade that will be officially launched in New York in 2016, that brings together a highly experienced documentary filmmaking team, which will bring passion and insight to the subject. A special preview was shown at the BSR during Bevan’s lecture and it showed how the film continues the discussion to the present day and describes the current war against material culture in the Middle East.

It is hoped that with public awareness regarding these critical issues increasing day by day, our politicians will be forced to place them at the top of their political agendas because, it seems clear from the recent past, without political solutions the world’s built heritage will constantly be at risk. And with it our story.