this piece explores themes of trauma, recovery, memory and sustainability by contemplating the affects of war on architectural bodies. the intersection of war, architecture, and art provides an alternative way of understanding trauma. whether it’s the reconstruction of buildings or the recovery of bodies, the challenge is always– how to begin again?
during the winter of 2014 i witnessed city-wide protests that culminated in the burning of the president’s palace in sarajevo. the inertia of government activity along with high unemployment resulted in a situation that was no longer sustainable for the people of sarajevo. the assault upon the president’s palace, an architectural body with symbolic power, was reminiscent of the bosnian war over two decades earlier, which marked the longest siege laid upon a capitol city in modern warfare. was this an abreaction, a delayed feedback, of lingering affects from years earlier? however you want to parse it, the protests were an expression by those who had not forgotten the past, and enacted their power of memory to dissimulate the present of any fantasy of modern progress.
a body can only take so much // limits remain unconscious until they are crossed // one knows not how much one can take until one can take no more // such is the challenge of sustainability // to anticipate a breaking point without squandering potential // to sustain passion without crashing // the body is capable of much enduring // of much suffering // until it can no more // past this threshold– this limit of one’s capacity to be affected– is the experience of the ineffable // where the binary and linear inertia of language is surpassed to reveal a phenomenon more elemental // fiery eruptions of displaced excess energy // an abreaction that reinvents and remixes the past with the present to reveal a future that already will have been
the past imprinted on the present.
when i first visited sarajevo in 2014, i didn’t anticipate the kind of impact it would have on me. i had never seen a city’s architecture so…scarred. over 20 years had passed since the bosnian war, yet affects of the war could still be felt throughout the city and seen on its buildings. i wondered if there were ever plans to tear down and reconstruct buildings that were ridden with bullet holes, with chunks torn out the side of buildings by mortar shells. that the buildings have preserved these marks of war, serves not merely as a reminder of the past, but as a way of mourning and moving on from trauma.
front facade of the b&h army hall in sarajevo. riddled with scars from artillery fire.
reconstruction as mere repetition.
from an architectural perspective– in terms of the phenomenon of place– letting the scars live on [in] buildings creates spaces where it is possible to mourn and heal from the trauma that affected such scars. this kind of warchitectural preservation keeps open a line of affectivity to the past. to efface such scars amounts to repression, and even denial.
think of it this way: after the twin towers were brought down on 9/11, nyc wasted no time in cleaning up the mess and erecting a brand-new shinier and taller building, repressing and burying the trauma of 9/11 in the name of freedom, progress, and commerce. the ‘freedom tower’ inspires no awe, just a premonition of looming fears, while ground zero serves as an opportunity for tourists to snap selfies. that the zadroga act has gone through so much drama is telling of how quickly some are to forget trauma, or how effectively they repress it. the process of recovery, or reconstruction, often results in the repetition of the same. reconstruction risks effacing the materiality of traumatic history, rendering it banal and without the transformative power that it otherwise could have.
this is how the philosopher jacques ranciere describes the function of the police. at the first sign of trauma, or any disruption in the status quo, their purpose is to draw lines and boundaries– as they say, “nothing to see here, move along”– all the quicker to re-establish order. everything in its place, everything according to its proper category; to everything, an identity. for what can be identified can also be easily policed, catalogued, and surveilled. but traumatic pain is ineffable, it escapes police enforcement because it is without definite form; it is unidentifiable in binary terms precisely because it eludes linguistic expression. the best the police can do is replace or cover up the object of the trauma but not the affect/pain itself. indeed, often we police our own traumas as a way of defending ourselves from reliving pain. but such repression often leads to the melancholy of being unable to mourn for that which is quickly replaced from memory by ever new distractions and commercial edifices.
the following are images from the aftermath of the night before when demonstrators set fire to the president’s building in sarajevo. we see the police and the lines they set up:
how to sustain [a] movement when there exists an opposing [inertial] force that functions to erase any memory of the movement’s affects? was the movement a moment of catharsis, of energy that required release, and nothing more? indeed, to stay on the front lines, to endure such a duration of heightened intensity…is unsustainable. the thought, “we can’t keep this up” is not an admittance of defeat, it is the recognition of limits, and a challenge to be creative. to mix things up. to explore different relations and connections, in order to increase the capacity of what a body can do. such is the process of mourning– it’s coming to terms with the ways in which one’s body is affected, and understanding how prior ways of being are no longer sustainable.
to transition out of the feedback loop of repetitive reconstruction, to a new plane of existence where one can re-begin free of the initial trauma, requires a second trauma– creation. to create is to re-enact trauma constructively, freeing buried affects from policed repression to understand the pain not as loss, but as an indication of change and the potential for transformation.
this is the difference between a remix and a replacement. or between artists and the police. a remix does not dismiss the ‘old’, but gives it new life. but swapping the old with the new is what consumer culture (another policing mechanism) conditions and encourages us to do; we replace phones, shoes, partners on the regular. things become interchangeable so they become meaningless. we don’t just value things less when we know they’re replaceable, but when we already intend on replacing them the moment we get them. we wage war on the very things we desire; the cycle of accumulation and waste just amounts to warmongering. this creates a groundhog day effect, of being trapped in dead repetition, haunted by timelessness. the cathartic potential of transforming traumatic scars is inhibited by this neurotic binary attitude that is hell bent on eliminating all traces of pain. we want to alleviate suffering and loss before they can occur; indeed, we have an entire industry dedicated to this– risk management. it’s not that tension, discomfort, or pain itself is insufferable; but the mere thought of any of these is anxiety inducing. because pain is an indicator of change, by eliminating it, nothing changes and everything stays the same, repeating itself in an endless loop. but this is not as much so in sarajevo, where buildings still bear the scars of war.
warchitecture: a rupture in the fabric of society and one’s self.
when we think of casualties of war we typically imagine heaps of dead bodies piled atop each other. but amongst the first casualties in any war must include a city’s buildings and the violence aimed at a city’s architecture. buildings and dwellings make up the materiality and physical body of a city– and violence is always acted upon a body. in war, dead bodies appear within the horizon of dead architecture– rubble heaped upon rubble, concrete and steel upon flesh and bone.
the destruction of architecture, the desolation of a population’s connection with its native space– or extended body– is a tactic that both physically and psychologically seeks to crush a people’s spirit. to see one’s cultural symbols defaced or destroyed is accompanied, not only with a loss, but with an offense against one’s cultural identity. but this severance between identity and a symbol that functions to territorialize one’s identity need not be negative. what the horror of the loss does not expose is the nihilistic meaning associated with such symbols. one mourns for what is destroyed but melancholically searches for what was repressed in the original acceptance of these now defunct symbols. we may mourn for the object of the loss, but we actually mourn for ourselves, that we deified such objects in the first place. that we invested our identity in them. the loss of such symbols can be tantamount to a loss of the self. if memory is tied to place, the destruction of place doesn’t necessarily imply the destruction of memory, but worse– what is destroyed is one’s connection to memory. instead of losing the memory altogether, one is haunted by a memory that cannot be placed.
that buildings tend to be preserved, or become landmarks, is testament to the vital role architecture plays for a society’s identity. but one need not be overcome with negative affects in their destruction; decomposition is just the reconfiguration of energy from one form to another (principle of conservation of energy)– it is a process of change. but change, the transition from an old norm to a new one, can be potentially traumatic. trauma discloses itself as a rupture in the status quo, is an indicator of change and indicates how a state of being has become unsustainable. similarly, pain is your body letting you know that some part of you has been pushed beyond its threshold– its max capacity– to be functional, that the current status quo is no longer tenable. the challenge is not to eliminate the pain by restoring the prior state of being– if standing outside in the cold got you sick, it is foolish to think a return to such a state would change things for the better. progress is not had by merely replacing what came before– a conversion is always simultaneously a repression. in terms of evolutionary biology, an organism’s survival depends on its ability to adapt and create a new norm; maintaining the prior status quo will only lead to its extinction. the challenge is to build that which will sustain the newfound increase in complexity and affectivity, while also being conducive to mourning that which has been left behind or no longer is. by taking what has been broken and repurposing it in new and creative ways, one courageously announces: we will not be defined by attachments to binary notions of life and death, of loss and lack.
artillery fire ridden building on the outskirts of sarajevo. the scars and physical manifestation of an ineffable trauma. but so much potential remains.
the challenge– how to rebuild? how to begin again?
“architecture is war” is what the late architect lebbeus woods wrote 25 years ago while he was in sarajevo. this was 1993, when sarajevo was in the midst of what would eventually be the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. for 4 years serbs laid siege to the city, surrounding its hills, blockading the entire city, bombarding it with mortar and cannon fire. an untold number of human rights violations were perpetrated. woods saw how architecture, or a certain philosophy of architecture, was complicit in the evil that occurred there. he wrote:
i am at war with my time, with history, with all authority that resides in fixed and frightened forms. i am one of millions who do not fit in, who have no home, no family, no doctrine, no firm place to call my own, no known beginning or end, no ‘sacred and primordial site’. i declare war on all icons and finalities, on all histories that would chain me with my own falseness, my own pitiful fears. i know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments, and forms that appear with infinite strength, then ‘melt into air’. i am an architect, a constructor of worlds, a sensualist who worships the flesh, the melody, a silhouette against the darkening sky. i cannot know your name. nor can you know mine. tomorrow, we begin together the construction of a city.
— LEBBEUS WOODS // SARAJEVO, NOVEMBER 26, 1993
i came across lebbeus’ work years earlier at an art exhibition and it has had a profound influence on me ever since. he expresses what all non-binary subjects feel and know all too well– that to be free is to simultaneously be at war with all that which seeks to control you by giving you a name, a label, an identity. but what is striking about his words above is the paradox of a challenge he presents– how to begin again? without a clearly defined starting point– no identity, no home, no name– how does one reconstruct a new world from the rubble and ashes? a world that could avoid the ill fate of its predecessor? one wonders if this is even possible. but sustainability is not to be confused with eternity. nothing lasts forever, nor should it. at least, not everything as it was originally intended, nor in its original form. for a thing finds new life when it is repurposed, when it undergoes a remix. such is the process of sustainability, of the recomposition of architecture, of rebuilding worlds– understanding the material conditions for inertia and establishing the empowering connections that augment a body’s capacity to evolve and create new norms. all of which, for better or worse, requires a traumatic break from the veneer of a conflict-free existence.