warchitecture: building out of trauma
this feature explores themes of trauma, recovery and sustainability by contemplating the affects of war on architectural bodies. the intersection of war, architecture, and art provides a new way of understanding traumatic pain. whether the reconstruction of buildings or the recovery of bodies, the challenge is always– how to begin again?
4 years ago from yesterday i witnessed city-wide protests that culminated in the burning of the president's house 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. but i'm not here to write about those events per se. (quick disclaimer) this is something that we will continue to reiterate here at MXDFLZ: we are not interested in beating the dead horse of binary-logic induced stories and concepts; you can find these anywhere else online. there's nothing new or interesting in regurgitating what's already been said ad infinitum. this isn't easily digestible click-bait. rather, we focus on exploring non-binary modes of expressions and these themes in hopes of creating positive affects and connections for our readers.
the past imprinted on the present.
4 years ago kruze was in sarajevo working on a film as lead editor. i was living in belgium at the time. when i went down to visit her i didn't anticipate the kind of impact sarajevo would have on me. i had never seen a city's architecture so...scarred. over 20 years later, affects of the bosnian 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 been preserved this way serves not merely as a reminder of the past, but as a way of mourning and healing from trauma.
reconstruction as mere repetition.
from an architectural perspective– in terms of the phenomenon of space– the scars left on buildings creates spaces where it is possible to mourn and heal from the trauma that left such scars. 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, taller, and more phallic 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 rebuilding, 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 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:
"the conflict has past. there's nothing more to see here. move along," they say.
how to sustain a movement when there exists an opposing 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? for sure, to stay on the front lines, to endure 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, to test what a body can do. such is the process of mourning. 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. 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 world that is hell bent on eliminating all traces of pain. we want to alleviate suffering before it even occurs; 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, the physical body, of a city, and violence is always acted upon a body. piles of dead bodies are given within a larger context 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 larger 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 with a loss, but with an offense against one's cultural identity. but this severance between one's self and a symbol that functions as an organizing principle for 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. the loss of such symbols can be tantamount to a loss of the self.
but one need not see death in destruction; rather, death is just the reconfiguration of energy from one form to another– it is a process of change. pain, a rupture in the status quo, is an indicator of change and how one's state of being has become unsustainable. 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. it indicates a transition from a prior state of being to a either a lesser or greater state of being. 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 merely replacing what came before– a conversion is always simultaneously a repression. rather, the challenge is to build that which is conducive to mourning. by taking what has been broken and repurposing it in new and creative ways that courageously announces: we will not be defined by attachments to binary notions of life and death, of loss and lack.
"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:
the challenge– how to rebuild? how to begin again?
i came across lebbeus' work years earlier at an art exhibition and it has had a profound influence on me ever since. but more about that for another time. for sure, he expresses what all mixed 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 reconstructive architecture, of rebuilding worlds– repurposing what came before. which, requires creativity. this is the work of artists.