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Landmarks lost in the rubble of war
Lucy Daniel
1/29/2006
 

          The word "vandalism" derives from a Germanic tribe that sacked Rome in the fifth century but it was during the French Revolution that it came to mean an attack on civilised values in art and architecture. The word "genocide" was introduced by Raphael Lemkin, who was instrumental in the United Nations' acceptance of the 1948 convention on genocide. To Lemkin, genocide meant the destruction of a people and their culture, such as the Jewish patrimony of his native Poland. In The Destruction of Memory, Robert Bevan's contention is that genocide and vandalism are "fatally intertwined". The contention is not original - and in fact it's rather obvious.
More original is Bevan's determination to show that, rather than being accidental, the destruction -- or construction -- of buildings in wartime is often part of a deliberate policy of "enforced forgetting". He demonstrates this "war against architecture" with a sobering catalogue of examples. In the former Yugoslavia, for example, iconic events such as the fall of Mostar's 16th century bridge showed how architecture's fate could be "a marker proving ... genocidal intent".
During the Chinese invasion of Tibet after 1949, demolition went in step with other oppressive moves such as banning the language, actively eradicating Tibetan "memory of a separate identity and past". In Afghanistan, the Taliban's destruction of the colossal 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 also combined ethnic and archaeological cleansing; local people were forced to place the explosives that destroyed their own traditions. Attacks on libraries, sacred sites, housing and monuments may all be a form of cultural cleansing.
Bevan is an architectural journalist who has written about all aspects of building design. Although this is a scholarly work, he is calling for broader acknowledgement and awareness of the issues. He shows how reconstruction has been used to mould, construct and falsify history and national identity. Historic Warsaw, devastated by the Nazis, was rebuilt in replica after the second world war in an astonishing display of resolve.
Yet destruction makes its own history, and Bevan supports what he calls "critical preservation": preserving the scars of war. Not rebuilding the Bamiyan Buddhas, for example, is a reminder of what the Taliban did to Afghanistan -- to rebuild would be to cleanse history. Most small reminders of the Berlin wall "with all their intrinsic power of place" have lost out to souvenir-hunters; in Hiroshima empty space is left to tell a story.
Throughout, Bevan digs away at the deep relationship between the animate and inanimate. Implicitly the book addresses the way buildings gather meaning to them, and therefore how that meaning can be stamped out. We need not look to the ancient world to realise our misplaced sense of our own permanence -- though Bevan gives examples such as Carthage and TenochtitlcA. Only 14 years ago, however, the incineration of Bosnian heritage along with Sarajevo library's 2m books and documents brings Alexandria to mind.
Bevan conveys a powerful sense of the lost testament to what he calls the world's "ethnic jigsaw": beautiful 16th century wooden synagogues in Poland; Tibet's monasteries (more than 6,000 in 1950; by 1980 just 10); "vanished" villages in Romania. The mood is not elegiac, more explanatory -- and quietly angry.
While Bevan suggests it is "bizarrely atavistic to attack and demolish stones in retribution for Palestinian suicide bombings", bizarre atavism seems a universal human trait. The idea of urbicide, retribution visited on cities for what they represent -- architectural pluralism, cosmopolitanism, freedom has driven many totalitarian "vandals". The book also suggests atavistic motives we are rarely conscious of in ourselves, but which become apparent in times of war: sacred soil and patriotism, and fear of the barbarian at the gates.

THE DESTRUCTION OF
MEMORY:
Architecture at War
by Robert Bevan
Reaktion Books $29.95/19.95, 240 pages


The Destruction of Memory also reminds us what the world chooses to acknowledge as destruction. The 1991 shelling of Dubrovnik, a world heritage site, caused outrage in western media, for example, whereas a "relatively low-key response" greeted the destruction of Balkan Islamic heritage. Bevan argues that a "deeply embedded cultural memory of a threat to western European cities and civic values from hordes from the East" offers "an implicit hierarchy of architecture worth targeting or worth protecting in conflict".
After the July 7 bombings in London last year, newspapers invoked the "spirit of the Blitz", publishing Herbert Mason's famous photo of St Paul's rising over the smoke of a 1940 bombing raid. A threat to our monuments is a threat to our collective identity. It is "about belonging"; about our sense of ourselves. But in another way, the Allied bombing of Dresden in the second world war was also a threat to the collective British sense of themselves as cultural guardians.
Bevan offers evidence that "more care was taken" by Allied forces in Italy than Germany or northern France in the war. Eisenhower also articulated a strategy of protection, telling his commanders that Italian art and architecture represented civilisation itself. This protectiveness of civilisation's monuments has not, of course, been equalled in present day Iraq, where 8,000-year-old archaeological records are largely unprotected. US helicopter movements in the site of ancient Babylon are destroying temple walls and both sides are violating international law on the military use of historic sites.
The idea of a global inheritance seems to have fallen by the wayside and lessons that should have long ago been learnt are still being recklessly disregarded. This is what makes Bevan's book relevant, even urgent: much of the destruction of which it speaks is still under way.
As a book on architecture and history, The Destruction of Memory offers pages of photographs. Images of Bosnian mosques stand next to their present sites -- now gaps in the landscape, ruins, or car parks -- accompanied by a statement from the Serbian mayor of Zvornik: "There never were any mosques in Zvornik."
And it's not just buildings but people that form the memories; painting people out of the picture is also part of architectural warfare. In Kabul Museum, paintings of women were disguised by the Taliban with protective shrubbery that was later washed off. In Jerusalem the Israeli security fence is photographed with the Palestinian landscape behind it - minus the Palestinians. Sarajevo's ruined library carries the inscription: "Remember and Warn".
The Hague Convention's chequered flag, signifying a site of cultural importance, now has little power.
Bevan's book is not just a scholarly work but a call for change: he concludes with a demand for a separate crime of "cultural genocide". An eyewitness account here recalls the ashes of Sarajevo's books, floating across the city. It is not a misalliance of sympathies to describe buildings as "vanquished" or "murdered". These are sentiments we can all understand, through deep-seated attachment to our own treasured built environments.
The Destrution of Memory is greater than the sum of its parts; unfortunately there is little in the book that we didn't already know, but it seeks to remind us that "the continuing fragility of civilised society and decency is echoed in the fragility of its monuments". If words have any weight, it might motivate us to help preserve those monuments.
Under syndication arrangement with FE

 

 
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