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Architecture Needs A Bigger Role In Conflict Zones

How design can help heal cities.

Architecture Needs A Bigger Role In Conflict Zones

In conflict, cities become targets of destruction. Strategic bombing during World War II reduced cities in Europe and Asia to rubble. Modern conflicts are largely focused on urban centers, too. By one estimate, three out of every four terrorist attacks in the last four decades have been concentrated in cities.

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Yet, as Nate Berg writes in Foreign Policy, “architecture has rarely been made a priority in the early, post-traumatic triage of reconstruction,” which usually focuses on getting basic food and aid to citizens and reestablishing political control. This approach doesn’t help heal the city, he argues:

When a city is built to separate conflicting groups or to fortify buildings against bombings–something that can be seen from Belfast to Baghdad–those separations are tacitly encouraged and the bombings expected. Allowing designers into the discussions earlier provides an understanding of the dynamics of urban spaces, and it can lead to the development of precise interventions to instill stability, functionality, and, eventually, peace.

Such lofty goals are rarely achieved. Architects can plop themselves into a conflict zone and erect buildings, but these projects can easily fall short of achieving world peace–or even good urban design. For example, Beirut’s central business district, rebuilt after Lebanon’s civil war to mimic the style of the French colonial and Ottoman-style buildings that once stood there, provides neutral spaces for the country’s Christian and Muslim populations to casually interact. But its faux-historical newness stands in contrast to the tangled streets of the rest of the ancient city, and according to Scott Bollens, a professor who studies urban planning in conflict areas, “by removing sectarianism and many of the memories of the war, it’s almost created this artificial place that has no memory and no essence.”

Flickr user Paolo Cuttitta

Groups like Architecture for Humanity often work with local stakeholders, and that bottom-up approach is important for helping architects understand the context and history of the place they’re rebuilding, but it isn’t always successful. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, where tensions between nationalists and unionists still linger long after the peace process of the 1990s, even the rebuilding process is partisan. A new community hub and sports field built on the remains of an old British army base, intended as a compromise of shared space between the two groups, has nevertheless ignited arguments over such issues as where access points to the facility will be. Integration of the two groups within the city is still a long way off.

Urban planning and architecture can’t work miracles in conflict zones, and a well-designed building or neighborhood can’t entirely solve thorny political issues. Nonetheless, as Berg points out, “without it, the future of a city’s recovery will mean little more than refugee camps and food aid.”

Read more at Foreign Policy.

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About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut

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