The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, Robert Bevan

As Robert Bevan states early in The Destruction of Memory, “there has always been another war against architecture going on [as distinguished from the destruction caused by territorial acquisition] – the destruction of cultural artefacts of an enemy people or nation as a means of dominating, terrorizing, dividing, or eradicating it altogether… the link between erasing any physical reminder of a people and its collective memory and the killing of the people themselves is ineluctable” (pg. 8). The destruction of cultural and religious buildings is, in effect, “proto-genocidal.” As he goes on to chronicle in exhaustive (and depressing) detail, “it is architecture’s very impression of fixity that makes its manipulation such a persuasive tool: selective retention and destruction can reconfigure this historical record and the façade of fixed meanings brought to architecture can be shifted” (pg. 13).

One interesting aspect of Bean’s book is that, while the book primarily focuses on architectural destruction, he also examines the ways architecture is used to ostracize, to dehumanize, to stigmatize with an “otherness,” and as a means of subjugating and “softening up” a community for eventual extermination – what Bevan calls a “spatial separation” (the Warsaw ghetto, for instance). He also examines how architecture, instead of being destroyed, can be debased to terrorize, humiliate, and appropriate (and delegitimize) historical meaning, such as turning synagogues into toilets or mosques into brothels.

His argument is arranged as follows:

  • Chapter 1 is an overview of the previously-mentioned themes.
  • Chapter 2 examines the destruction of architecture in the context of “cultural cleansing,” detailing Kristallnacht and the Bosnian War as campaigns targeting a community’s buildings either as a preliminary step or ongoing attempt to destroy specific populations.
  • Chapter 3 details how the “symbolic power” of architecture invests its destruction with a propagandistic purpose: to demoralize and terrorize. Architecture is also targeted in “revenge” campaigns and ideological-driven retaliation; in this regard, WWII featured a mass-scale “urbicide.”
  • Chapter 4 explores “the use of architecture as a weapon, in particular the destruction of indigenous architecture as a means to reorder newly won lands” and “how the desire to create a socialist man and a socialist city, or a fascist man and city, has built within it a desire to bring about that change through t the very act of destructions and rebuilding – the violent process of change” (pgs. 95, 127; emphasis in original).
  • Chapter 5 delineates “the destructive consequences of partition” and how borders, occupation, bureaucratic territorialism, and security cordons use architecture and the “razing and raising” of homes serves political and military purposes.
  • Chapter 6 describes how “rebuilding can be as symbolic as the destruction that necessitates it” (pg. 176) and efforts to rebuild and commemorate can both regenerate conflict and disassociate the rebuilding from the events which caused the original destruction. Those efforts can also, of course, serve to forge new national identities which crowd out the older, un-rehabilitated edifices – a sort of secondary destruction.
  • Chapter 7 discusses the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (neither signed by the USA, naturally) and their utter ineffectuality and non-enforcement, generally because the victor of any given conflict is as guilty of violation as the indicted parties.

Early in the book, Bevan states that his goal is a thorough documentation of the specific war against architecture. His encyclopedic examples certain help him achieve his goal and he provides seemingly endless instances from conflicts as varied as the IRA movement to the Chinese occupation of Tibet to more recent conflicts. And while his analysis is keen, his larger thesis is not all that revealing. It seems almost axiomatic that a battle against a people is also a battle against its shared culture, heritage, and buildings – all the symbols of its identity. It is an obvious, if dispiriting, realization that genocide, ethnic cleansing, and even less virulent conflicts are an attempt to eliminate both a population and any remaining evidence of that population. But Bevan’s book is still useful in explicating the ways war destroys both people and their symbols of permanence.

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