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The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War


By Robert Bevan.

Reaktion, 2005. 224pp. £19.95

If you ever wonder whether architecture is actually as important as your tutors at architecture school told you it is, reading this book may dispel that doubt. The proof is rather perverse, but compelling: the value of buildings to their owners is demonstrated in wartime by their owners' enemies destroying them.

Financial value is the least part of it. More important is what those buildings represent to their users in conveying their cultural, religious or ethnic identity. By destroying architecture, the enemy seeks to undermine the fundamental beliefs and characteristics that define the lives of those who use the buildings. It is as if architecture is not merely the product of identity, nor even the symbolic representation of identity, but has become the physical embodiment of that identity - flesh made stone.

Robert Bevan has travelled widely in his research, and his book is a sorry encyclopedia of the targeted demolition, shelling and aerial bombardment of architecture in the 20th century.

The story journeys to Palestine, Berlin, Bosnia, Cyprus, Tibet, Belfast, Afghanistan, Iraq and other places where, in various grades of war and conflict, mosques and synagogues are bulldozed, houses are fire-bombed and cathedrals and libraries dynamited.

Some of the cases are very familiar - the destruction of the World Trade Center by al-Qaeda; the bridge at Mostar by Croatian gunners; Dresden by the RAF; and the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban - but Bevan assembles an enormous and diverse amount of documentary detail to make his case. His thesis - that architecture is a proxy by which ideological, ethnic and nationalist battles between people are fought - is a bit of a no-brainer. If you are setting out to destroy the Jewish race, where better to start than by burning down all synagogues?

But the sheer volume of documentation is impressive.

The structure of the book is thematic, rather than geographical or historical, which makes it slightly hard going. A typical chapter starts with Bosnia in the 1980s, then goes to Poland in the 1940s, Russia, Ukraine, Germany, New York, and back to Bosnia.

Bevan also introduces the theme of civil urban destruction in the name of social revolution, by such autocrats as Mao and Ceauçescu. This distracts somewhat from his central theme, because while terrible in its social and architectural consequences, this is not war, but planning - different only in degree from the post-war comprehensive redevelopment in British cities.

Bevan's tone throughout, while reporting never-ending horror, is commendably even and factual. But sometimes, particularly in describing at length the actions of the Israeli state against towns in Gaza and the West Bank; the systematic destruction of Palestinian houses, shops and factories; and the simultaneous illegal building of up to 200 Jewish settlements, one senses his anger seep out between the lines. This is to his credit.

Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer in Birmingham

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