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Urbicide: A Tale of Acid, Racism and War Crimes

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

By: Zarith Pineda, Founder of Territorial Empathy

Originally written March 9, 2020

“It was the attack of a madman who throws acid in a beautiful woman’s face and promises her a beautiful face in return,” was how former mayor of Belgrade and architect Bogdan Bogdanović described the maniacal delusion to destroy Vukovar, Sarajevo, and Mostar. Ancient cities whose cultural sites wove a tapestry of diversity and liberalism contradicted the sectarian and nationalistic Bosnian War of the early nineties. Bogdanović claimed the bombardments were “intentionally aimed at object[s] of extraordinary, even symbolic beauty.” A beauty violently taken, evaporating with it millennia of precious artifacts narrating a story of peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Jews, Orthodox and Catholics. The incomprehensible cultural loss of patrimony as a result of the said assault resulted in the creation and proliferation of the term “urbicide” or as Mayor Bogdanović put it, “the intentional attack on the human and inert fabric of the city with intent of destroying the civic values embodied within it – the very spaces for interaction where cultures are generated and shared.”

Postcard depicting the Bridge of Mostar before War (Left) Destruction November 1993

As Americans we fundamentally understand the notion that places embody civic values.

While we may not have the same sense of mourning for the Bridge of Mostar, a breathtaking example of Islamic architecture commissioned in the 16th century by Suleiman the Magnificent, we can conjure images of places that embody American values. Take for instance the National Mall, a familiar backdrop for many of the movements that shaped America. We can clearly place Martin Luther King, Jr. in front of the Lincoln Memorial delivering his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech. Or perhaps images of anti-war protesters, the aids quilt, and/or historic inaugurations come to mind. My own instinctive association with the area includes a sea of hot pink hats worn by millions of women coming together for the 2016 Women’s March defiantly marching past the White House and Capitol Building calling for gender equity.

Protesters in front of White House on May 29, 2020, Nicholas Kamm, AFP Via Getty Images

Now imagine the pernicious destruction of these cultural sites. Only chunks of marble, granite and gneiss scattered throughout the once pristine Reflecting Pool serving as reminders of a once proud obelisk dedicated to a President Washington. This action would surely constitute a severe aggression, an act of urbicide and undoubtedly provoke grave repercussions akin to the aftermath of 9/11. In order to avoid dangerous escalations of the sort, aggressions that target cultural sites are considered war crimes under a 1954 Hague treaty. The Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, of which the United States is an original signatory, set the international legal precedent for the protection and preservation of cultural heritage sites during conflict. It asks the parties to respect cultural sites,

“being convinced that damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”

and prohibits, “the use of the property for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict; and by refraining from any act of hostility, directed against such property.”

As a scholar of urbicide, the escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran earlier this year were quite alarming. In January, President Trump signaled he had identified and targeted 52 cultural sites of “very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture [to be destroyed],” via Twitter. He then went on to justify his threat by explaining, “they're allowed to kill our people, they're allowed to torture and maim our people, they're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people, and we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way.” Contrary to Mr. Trump’s false equivalence, it actually should work that way. The protection of a cultural heritage site rests on the aforementioned belief that damage to any cultural heritage intrinsically destroys the heritage of all of mankind. The political and nationalistic rationale to justify this threat is inherently flawed.

Even though we may not be as acquainted with the targeted Iranian sites as we are with the National Mall, their preservation still matters. Take for instance Persepolis with its inscriptions from around 500 BC written in several languages crucial to deciphering one of the earliest systems of writing: cuneiform script. These inscriptions tell the story of distant empires and strategic trade relationships with Ethiopia, India, and modern-day Afghanistan.

Its ruins silently witnessing the rise and fall of empires starting from the conquest of Alexander the Great, through the creation of nation states and the drawing of colonial borders, standing long before the Republic of Iran was a thought to be contemplated.

How could we ever reconstruct a site so instrumental to our understanding of the human enterprise? This would be like wielding a knife puncturing a self-inflicted wound. The mere threat of destroying any of the 52 sites is an affront to a remarkable intergenerational effort. An effort which prioritized our present enjoyment and experience above provisional quarrels.

Persepolis, Reza

As Persepolis can attest to, systems of government, empires and nations have had a temporal nature throughout history.

Contrary to our contemporary understanding of the world order, cultural sites represent a more enduring marker to our understanding of a people’s enterprise than the transient systems that erected them.

The collective agreement of the Protection of Cultural Property hints at this notion quite beautifully by acknowledging that, “each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world.” Not some people more than others, not some nations more than others. This key phrase shifts the responsibility from one actor to all actors to protect human patrimony in spite of national or political agendas. This is perhaps one of the most authentic and self-effacing historical efforts nations have contributed to, leading to innumerable preservation efforts domestically and globally.

Historic preservation departments, agencies, and organizations rely on a panel of stakeholders, experts, historians among others to evaluate the cultural significance of a site. There are carefully drafted guidelines to determine their protective status. For instance, to qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage Site the site has to comply with cultural relevance criteria. One of the criteria states that it must,

“exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology”

A clear recognition of the time/place specificity of human values. This unique argument not only advocates for historic preservation of cultural sites, but advocates for architectural innovation in the present and future. It tells us that as the human effort evolves, so too should its representation.

U.S. Capitol Building, Architect of the Capitol

Recently, a draft executive order by the Trump administration regarding architectural representation has been causing a pandemonium in the design community. Paradoxically called, the “Making Buildings Beautiful Again”, it defines a classical architectural style as the golden standard of buildings. A style modeled after democratic Athens and Republican Rome designed to symbolize the nation’s ideals. It references George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as amateur architects who personally oversaw the competitions for the Capitol Building and White House. A reference to enforce the proposed mandate: a classical style in Capital Region, federal courthouses, agency headquarters, and Federal public buildings. It then goes on to label architecture after the turn of the fifties including, “mid-century modernism and brutalism as uninspiring, inconsistent with their surroundings… and even just plain ugly,” quite literally determining what styles are desirable and which ones are offensive.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the first and only national museum dedicated entirely to the African-American experience. Civil Rights Trail.

In a seven-page document the current administration passed a verdict on the style that should represent the values of a nation of 327 million people decreeing that it,

“conveys the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of America’s system of self-government.”

Incongruous in its logic to reflect a system of self-government that dictates the form of its buildings. Anachronistic and arbitrary in its choice to reflect a style that was materially built by enslaved people. A conveniently omitted narrative of the American enterprise. There is no mention of the 607 slaves Thomas Jefferson owned and profited off to create the wealth that sponsored his political endeavors. He fathered six children with Sally Hemmings an enslaved woman who could not possibly consent to a relationship with her “owner”. Four of their six children who survived infancy were enslaved by their father until their 21st birthday.

Jefferson would only grant freedom to seven slaves during his lifetime, four of them his own children. This, from the amateur architect whose values allegedly represent the dignity and enterprise of America.

As his career as a statesman grew, Jefferson was tasked with fostering diplomatic ties with international delegations, many of them were hosted at Monticello. By then many nations had already abolished slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation (1862) took place almost a hundred years after The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was founded in Britain. And so, to conceal the birth defect of a nation founded on the belief that all men are created equal, Jefferson designed an elaborate system of gadgets to conceal the presence of slavery in Monticello. A tunnel connected the kitchen to the main house. The food was then placed on a revolving door with shelves which would then be rotated to the dining room for serving. If the wine ran out, dumbwaiters were used to lift bottles of wine up from the cellar directly to the dining room. All of these contraptions we operated by slaves.

Imagine the indignity of having to use such complex mechanisms whose sole enterprise is the erasure of your existence.

During a visit to Monticello, Frances Wright the Scottish abolitionist, called it quite fittingly, “gilding the chains of slavery.” One struggles to conjure a more vicious use of ingenuity in design. A premeditated evil demonstrative of Jefferson’s malfeasance and complicity.

A slave coffle passing the Capitol grounds, 1815 published in A Popular History of the United States, 1876. Library of Congress

There is overwhelming proof to support that enslaved African Americans provided a great part of the labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and early government buildings. The very same buildings that, according to the executive order, “command respect by the public for their beauty and visually embody America’s ideals.” The former is a narrative that is missing from the history books, and the latter, a pervasive representation of American liberalism. The obfuscation of such a problematic history prevents the meaningful interrogation of the ethics these buildings represent. Fortunately, the preservation of historical buildings like Monticello allow us to confront the problematic history they sheltered while allowing us to opportunity to expand of our understanding of the people who inhabited them. This is possible due to the evolution and inclusivity of our present-day values. Due to a growing intersectionality in academia, technology, and genetics, we can now uncover hidden narratives, like that of Sally Hemmings, and re-contextualize them in the sites where they took place. This effort would be jeopardized by the apparition of replicas of a two-hundred-year-old anachronistic style, without any thoughtful consideration for the values it represents.

Mabel O. Wilson, Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia GSAPP

Much has been made about the technical implications of this executive order but little has been discussed around the intent behind it. For the past four years, many political scientists, academics, and pundits have talked about the racial and misogynistic undercurrents of the “Make America Great” slogan. Perhaps it is time we consider similar implications for the “Make Buildings Beautiful Again” policy.

What time period is Mr. Trump’s nostalgia really longing for? And are we ready to let him take us back there?

Are we ready to abdicate our role and responsibility to design a representative environment? What will these new government buildings stand for? And who will build them this time? Surely, not crews of white men. They will be the most recent iteration of the marginalized and exploited – probably undocumented immigrants. People working for minimum wages suffering inhumane treatment, living in the shadows. People who are vilified for political gain yet oppressed daily to fuel the demand for cheap labor that this economy so parasitically depends on. Building the buildings that will be designed to remind us of the “dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability” of the American government.

Remarkably, this administration has no qualms about destroying cultural patrimony – a war crime – in the Middle East with one hand, while on the other mandating the adoption of a western classical architectural style domestically. This is perhaps one of the best examples of Trump’s America first policy - a blatant disregard for places “belonging” to brown people in the far east ignoring their universality and cultural relevance. Meanwhile, the case for the proliferation of a style evocative of a time of white supremacy, slavery, and misogyny rages on at home. Enforcing these facsimiles is the true attack on the built environment. Urbicide destroying the very notion of American self-determinism the order so desperately wants to portray.

The time to pretend architecture isn’t political is over. We can no longer sit idly by as our tools of practice continue to be weaponized to further advance racist political agendas.

Regardless of what the future has in store for this executive order it is time for architecture to take a more active role in these ethical ponderings. We must diligently investigate the past through the critical lens we’ve fought so hard to sharpen. Only through this exercise can we design a profession worthy of the future. A profession guided by diversity, innovation, and equity. The true representation of an American dignity worth striving for. Over is the time for devious assaults promesing a more beautiful, greater American future. The time has come for America’s face to earnestly portray its values.

Works Cited

Bevan, Robert. The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. Reaktion Books Ltd, 2016.

Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “The Criteria for Selection.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Accessed 9 Mar. 2020.

Gibson, Eleanor. “AIA Opposes Trump's Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again Proposal.” Dezeen, 10 Feb. 2020, Accessed 9 Mar. 2020.

“Monticello.” The Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson's Monticello, Accessed 9 Mar. 2020.

Myers, P. V. N. Remains of Lost Empires: Sketches of the Ruins of Palmyra, Nineveh, Babylon, and Persepolis, with Some Notes on India and the Cashmerian Himalayas. Sampson Low, Marston,

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