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Searching for meaning in uncertain times

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As the destruction of Serbia continues apace (who would have thought that the Luftwaffe would be in action against the country which tied down a substantial element of the German army in the Second World War), and while Serbia itself implements ethnic cleansing policies reminiscent of the German regime it once resisted, it may seem that architecture is a relatively trivial concern. We may regret a bombed building, a destroyed church, but that is the way of it. Cities recover one way or another, sooner or later, as the last 50 years in Europe have shown. Should we worry about the loss of heritage in Kosovo or Sarajevo or Belgrade? Aren't there more pressing concerns?

Heritage pales into insignificance, of course, compared to the tragedy being played out across the Balkans, to the sound of bombs sent from remote third parties (us). Having almost immediately arrived at the situation we entered the war to prevent, the human story is now all-important as relief agencies line up to deliver temporary succour to people whose chances of re-occupying their old homes look remote. When has such a return taken place in recent history? News stories focus on surface events, be it the dramatic airlifting of Kosovars to safety, or the (obvious) ability of our aircraft to fly in increasing numbers when there is no cloud about.

As with all wars, there is a tendency to lose a sense of perspective, historical, political and military. But in a week when European history seemed to be melting and reforming in an older, uglier image, we have also read of the nominations for World Heritage sites, internationally recognised areas of historic, architectural, landscape or cultural significance. This is not just a hunt for more palaces, but an attempt to define aspects of our civilisation which, given the perspective of history, we can see to have continuing importance. Architecture, as an encapsulation of the way we live and govern ourselves, has an importance which lasts beyond even the loudest guns of war.

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