The Destruction of Memory

I recently read a fascinating book called The Destruction of Memory by Robert Bevan. It is a scholarly examination of how architecture is used in war; its destruction as a weapon, its construction as a defence. The devastation of buildings during war is often an attempt to break something far more resilient than concrete: the human spirit and the shared cultural memories of peoples.

He reaches back into the past for notable examples of this before the era of modern warfare. The French Revolution was the beginning of Reason’s slow march against superstition. The policies with regards to architecture were typically enlightened. The Place Bellecour mansion in Lyon was sentenced to death as an insult to the Republic’s morality and bell-towers were chopped back to size:

The first blow against the facade was struck with a ceremonial silver hammer by the people’s representative who shouted: ‘I condemn you to be demolished in the name of the law.’ Bell-towers were also threatened with demolition because ‘their height above other buildings seems to contradict the principles of equality.’

Revolutions around the world seem drawn to such vindictive treatment of bricks and mortar.

Figurative statues by their representative nature have similarly been subject to rough treatment, beatings and beheadings right up to the fall of the Eastern Bloc and Saddam Hussein. In a suburb of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, Republicans executed a statue of Jesus by firing squad.

In reality, such statue-demolition is a perfectly understandable (but still deeply regrettable) form of revolutionary performance art. The book is much more alarming when it turns to the description of how the destruction of the built environment is used to devastate the memories and cultural identities of entire people groups. Bevan writes about how the medieval ghettoization of the Jews was re-enacted by the Nazis, how and why the British carpet-bombed the militarily irrelevant medieval cities of Germany and in its most heart-breaking passages, details how the bulldozing of houses is one of the day-to-day straightforward ways that Israel keeps Palestine under its thumb.

To talk of the loss of architecture during a war might seem obscene. In the midst of the torture and rape and murder, who has time to worry about what roofs might collapse? There is a simple sense to that position but it fails to acknowledge the complexity of architecture, humans and war. On a very blunt level, to destroy someone’s house is to leave them homeless. No fraught moral calculus can render that irrelevant. And the way we build our houses is woven into the fabric of who we are. The wooden synagogues of central Europe or the traditional Kosovar fortress houses known as Kullas or the Buddhas of Bamiyan are not just treasures of human creativity but they marked out the identity of the people who built and used them. Their destruction is more than just vandalism, it is an attempt at cultural genocide. Bevan draws out the annihilation of the famous bridge at Mostar as the classic example of this, but it is well accepted that the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon were chosen as targets for just this reason. America without trade and America without its military would no longer be America.

Anais Mitchell is a folk singer who released a great album a few years ago called Hadestown, which is a folk opera retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Hades, King of the Underworld sings this beautiful song about why the town is surrounded by a wall:

HADES
Why do we build the wall?
My children, my children
Why do we build the wall?

CERBERUS
Why do we build the wall?
We build the wall to keep us free
That?s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

HADES
How does the wall keep us free?
My children, my children
How does the wall keep us free?

CERBERUS
How does the wall keep us free?
The wall keeps out the enemy
And we build the wall to keep us free
That?s why we build the wall
We build the wall to keep us free

Towards the end of the book Bevan turns from the destruction of architecture in conflict to its construction. Specifically, Bevan focuses on the building of walls. He tells us about the centuries old tradition of gated and walled micro-communities (pols) in the religiously diverse Indian city of Ahmedabad, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli “Seam” wall and most relevant for me, the “peace walls” that intricately vein through Belfast’s working class districts. The point Bevan makes about the Republican and Unionist communities in Belfast hit me hard:

Their two cultures are, at root, little different – especially architecturally. There is nothing to divide them environmentally, so the differences are literally brushed on to create threatening but superficial architectural war paint. This is not a dispute between minarets and spires. Churches are not especially useful either as symbols or as targets in this environment.

Superficial architectural war paint:

Belfast Murals

It is not a depressing book that leaves one lamenting over the future of humanity. The thing that might linger longest for me after this book is this anecdote from the siege of Sarajevo that reminds me just how much people treasure their libraries. Serb forces were shelling the National Library in Sarajevo. The long besieged Sarajevans were not willing to let this happen without putting up a fight:

Sarajevans dodged snipers to form a human chain to rescue books from the library. One librarian was shot and killed in the process. Water to the city had been cut off by the Serbs earlier that day and the firemen’s attempts to douse the blaze were further hampered by hoses split by machine-gun fire.

Lives were lost, the building destroyed and many valuable books went up in flame. Over 40 incendiaries hit the building after all. But the citizens of Sarajevo saved 300,000 items from the building before it burned to the ground.

Your Correspondent, Agrees that libraries are inherently acts of faith