words Kieran Long
Robert Bevan’s Keenly observed account of the deliberate destruction of buildings is a reminder that architecture is a cultural fault line, especially in times of conflict.
One of the enduring television images of the wars in the former Yugoslavia was the destruction of the 16th century Ottoman bridge in Mostar, formerly a symbol of multi-culturalism, destroyed by Croatian artillery on 9 November 1993.
Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, quoted in Robert Bevan’s new book The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War, said in an English newspaper at the time: “We expect people to die; we count on our own lives to end. The bridge in all its beauty and grace was built to outlive us; it was an attempt to grasp eternity. It transcends our individual destiny. A dead woman is one of us – but the bridge is all
of us forever.”
This poignant and unflinching statement of architecture’s real purpose, of manifesting the boundaries of the individual and the beginning of the public realm, resonates through this powerful book. The Destruction of Memory describes the “urbicide” or “cultural cleansing” carried out, principally in the 20th and 21st centuries, by various regimes and countries in western and eastern Europe, the middle east, China and elsewhere.
While dealing convincingly with high-profile campaigns of demolition (Synagogues in Germany by the Nazis, Dresden by Allied bombing, the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban), Bevan’s book also serves as a remarkably passionate but even-handed exposition of the neglected architectural heritage of places like Poland, Muslim Bosnia, Armenia, Tibet, Iraq and Cyprus. It’s a shame that we have to come to these buildings after they’ve been destroyed, but a strength of this book is that it shakes off the myopia of Western cultural history.
The book is distinguished by a highly journalistic methodology. Bevan blends together architectural history with a journalist’s instinct for a human story. His accounts of conversations in Bosnia and Belfast, and a hair-raising encounter with an Israeli tank in Nablus, add so much to the lists of lost architectural treasures. The buildings of these cities are modulated or destroyed through combinations of paranoia and xenophobia.
Bevan’s observations, however, elicit a series of unanswered questions. I disagree with his premise that the built environment is “merely a prompt” for memories. Buildings are equal participants in the exchange between an individual and the culture that surrounds him or her. It was modernism in the West that convinced us otherwise, dividing buildings into function, structure and image, divorcing buildings from their requirement to represent society in form. Bevan’s book exposes as flawed the notion that memories can be separated from the cities we inhabit.
Also, Bevan’s laudable even-handedness and observational style has led to some contradictions. In a chapter subtitled “Conquest and Revolution”, Bevan simultaneously criticises the stripping of religious meaning from the Tibetan monasteries by the Chinese and the “religiosity” that pervades discussions about Jerusalem’s conservation. So, in one case, we have monks who are no longer really monks but tour guides at the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, sterilising the religious identity of this spectacular Buddhist complex. On the other hand, Bevan laments the near collapse of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem because the six different orders of monks that tend the Church took a decade to agree on a programme of restoration due to highly-nuanced religious differences. To call this situation “farcical” seems reductive.
There is a similar feeling in his assessment of sectarian murals in Belfast. His point that the paintings on the gable-ends of terraces in the city point to the “minor cultural differences between Protestants and Catholics” underestimates the power of this apparently banal typology. There are two ways of thinking about the universe in Belfast, but the creation of the city’s architecture has been one-sided – lacking in public places for religious festivals, without ornamentation or narrative, and driven by capitalism.
Unlike his subtle observations on the vernacular forms of Muslim housing in Israel, the Victorian-developer typologies of Belfast are perhaps not remote enough to seem politically charged. It would be interesting to hear Bevan direct his attention closer to home.
For the most part, though, this riveting book prompts discussions rather than objections. The Destruction of Memory is not a book about function, programme or construction technology. It is concerned with the fundamentals of architecture – what buildings mean.
The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War by Robert Bevan, Reaktion Books, £19.95