Culture | Architecture at war

How the destruction of buildings during conflict threatens cultural identity

In July 1937, Pablo Picasso’s mural Guernica was unveiled at the Spanish Pavillion during the Paris international exhibition. He was moved to create the painting in response to the unjustifiably violent bombing of the Basque city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War by the German air force. The painting’s melancholic hues, thrashing lines, and pained expressions impact the viewer today as deeply as when it was first displayed, over seven decades ago. While Picasso used the painting to address the unjust suffering inflicted by war on civilians, this passionate portrayal extended beyond the atrocious massacre of people, to also encompass the destruction of their homes, cultures, and national identities.

Guernica represents a reaction that has been felt countless times by innumerable people around the world: war is truly an unfair tragedy. The loss of life that accompanies war is calamitous in itself, however there are many other repercussions of war that do not garner the attention they deserve. Alongside the death of people, war often inflicts a parallel death in their cultural legacies, through the destruction of the cultural capital that is expressed in architecture.

Architecture is what makes up the physical landscape of a city, and is therefore a vital component of its identity. Buildings define the skyline that citizens wake up to every morning and say goodnight to every evening – the face of the city they live in. Paris would hardly be Paris without the Eiffel Tower standing loftily over the rest of the city. As a result, when architecture is destroyed in war, so too is the spirit of the city in which it once stood.

One of the most infamous examples of architectural devastation is the bombing of Dresden from February 13 to 15, 1945 by the British and American air forces during the Second World War. Because of the civilian casualties it involved, the justifiability of this event has been heavily debated. Aside from the high civilian death toll, however, the bombing physically obliterated a city renowned for its beauty. Since the 17th century, Dresden had developed into a cultural capital of Europe. With this artistic flourishing came a blossoming of significant architecture, with buildings such as the Lutheran Dresdner Frauenkirche and the Catholic Hofkirche churches, and the Semperoper Opera House. All these buildings became synonymous with the aesthetic culture of Dresden, and all were severely damaged or destroyed during the fire bombings of World War II.

As Frederick F. Clairmonte explains in his article “Dresden: From Death to Resurrection” the city has “with infinite pain…been largely reconstructed spanning a period of two generations.” An appeal made in 1990, known as the “Call from Dresden,” was implemented by prominent citizens of the city in order to bring attention to the cultural crisis brought about by the destruction of architecture, in particular the obliteration of the emblematic Frauenkirche. Numerous charitable projects were established in order to help raise funds for the long and arduous task of restoring Dresden’s iconic architecture. Despite substantial success in the efforts to re-build, it is difficult to say whether the traumatic effects of architectural destruction due to war can ever be fully overcome. As Clairmonte writes, “After more than forty years, the final word has not been said on freeing Dresden from the clutches of destruction.”

One needs not look back as far as the second World War, though, to witness the effects of architectural destruction. The war in Kosovo in the late nineties is a startlingly recent example of extensive cultural destruction in war. What makes this example even more tragic is that the art and architecture destroyed in the conflict was not mere collateral damage, but was a tangible component of the ethnic and cultural confrontation between Kosovo’s Albanian and Serbian factions. According to scholars Andrew Herscher and András Riedlmayer who wrote on the subject in their article “Monument and Crime: The Destruction of Historic Architecture in Kosovo”, “[t]he situation in Kosovo…can be distinguished by the degree to which culture, and specifically, architecture, was – and remains – the symbolic centerpiece of Serb Nationalist claims to the province.” Similar cultural destruction has been characteristic of past ethnic and cultural conflicts in Croatia, including the devastating siege of Dubrovnik in 1991.

Many efforts have been directed at reducing the effects of war on architecture, and at salvaging what damage has been inflicted in past conflicts. The American Institute of Architects, for example, hosted an exhibition titled “The Destruction of Art and Architecture in Croatia” in order to draw attention to and memorialize the cultural losses suffered by the nation in conflict. Certain guidelines and conventions have also been incorporated into international treaties, which are meant to prohibit combatants from specifically targeting culturally significant buildings and sites. Organizations like the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have also played an important part in the protection and maintenance of architectural cultural capital.

Even in light of these initiatives, the threat of architectural devastation lingers today. In fact it may be even greater than in the past. As Kosovo and Croatia illustrate, the increasing frequency of ethnic conflict has lead to the view of cultural emblems, such as architecture, as targets in themselves. Other poignant examples of cultural targeting can be seen outside of conventional warfare, such as in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre towers in New York City. In these confrontations, destruction of cultural legacies is a primary goal and therefore architecture is destroyed with calculated purpose, rather than as a component of collateral damage. This is a dangerous development in international relations and warfare which threatens the survival of cultural monuments globally.

For this reason it is crucial, more so today than ever, that the protection of architecture and cultural capital be made a priority in the face of violence. The loss of a nation’s citizens in war is devastating in itself, and is only compounded by the disappearance of its national identity brought on by architectural destruction.


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