Listening to the Wounded City

by Misha Lepetic

Memory is the medium of past experience,
as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred.
~ Walter Benjamin

OldbuildWhenever I live in a city for a particular amount of time, I find myself increasingly subject to a peculiar desire. It is perhaps not so much a desire as, in fact, a sense of responsibility. When something disappears, I try to remember what was there. This holds true for the merest mom-and-pop shop as it does for an entire city block. I play the role of casual historian-observer to the ongoing drama – whether tragic or comic – of the development and elaboration of a city. What does the disappearance of a façade tell us about what might have been there before? When an entire block is demolished to make way for a building or set of buildings, who remembers its antecedents, and why should this kind of remembrance be important?

Being the casual sort, I have never felt the need to record these memories in any formal way. Nor do I consider this an exercise in sentimentality – the point, if there truly is one, is to deepen my experience of the ground of a place, and as a result the act is entirely selfish and self-contained. The end result of eleven thus-far years in New York is a private catalogue of jinxed restaurant locations, dearly departed graffiti, and equally unmourned Modernist and corporatist passings. I have always mystified my friends with a need to recall these things, and have little sense of restraint in either quizzing or boring them with said catalogue while walking down the street.

But this assumes a stately pace of destruction and renewal – if we entertain the metaphor of the city as a body, it is old cells dying and being replaced by new ones. What happens when the city becomes truly injured? When vast chunks of it are gouged out of its topography, its very identity, if not threatened, then decisively knocked about and re-shuffled?

A recent conference sponsored by Columbia University, entitled Injured Cities/Urban Afterlives, sought to take up that question. One of the most thought-provoking presentations, by Eyal Weizman, concerned itself with the idea of a forensic architecture. Rubble, like bones, has a story to tell, and the manner in which that narrative is elicited and disseminated tells us much about who we are, and what we might expect of others, and ourselves.

8In the words of Bruce Sterling, to whom I will return, “an object is a frozen set of social relationships.” But the object itself cannot speak – it seeks its interlocutor, and the interlocutor in turn seeks a forum. In Weizman’s conceptualization, this is the essence of forensic architecture – it is the presentation of architectural objects to the forum that is interpreting the causes and consequences of these events. A prime example for Weizman is the 2008 invasion of Gaza by Israel, or more accurately, its investigative afterlife. According to Weizman:

The Gaza War killed almost 1,400 people and destroyed or damaged about 10,000 buildings. A lot of the people who died, died in or because of the destruction of buildings, lacerations from flying debris, or people crushed by their own homes. The city is not only the site of the violence, it is also the means of the killing. Most people died in their own homes. And after the attack ended, and this conflict moved into the legal domain, it was the rubble itself which stood as a testimony of what had happened. This created the rather unique situation in which forensic scientists were now called upon to arbitrate on that conflict. Whereas a lot of previous analysis of conflicts has been more skewed towards human interviews and testimonies of victims and others, here you see a massive shift towards the “speech of things”. In the Goldstone Report this is very much the case, and you are told that it is the case because, “ things do not lie”. There are 188 testimonies by Gazans in that report. But if you look, you will see that these are only there to corroborate what is leading the research: the material forensics evidence.

Weizman is concerned with the shift from the classic mode of human rights reportage – that of eyewitness accounts – to an emphasis on material remains, and the ensuing need for expert interlocutors who will provide us with an “objective” interpretation of what transpired. It is our culture that is being called to bear witness to our own history. After all, we are now a culture inundated with expertise: DNA evidence establishes presence without a doubt (but perhaps not the further details of guilt or innocence); computer algorithms assure us if that stash of recently divulged Pollocks are faked or genuine; every äppärät-toting hipster is a documentary filmmaker on the order of Frederick Wiseman. Our media, represented by the CSI hydra, has superannuated the way in which Hercule Poirot ferreted out the real murderer – by gathering all the suspects in drawing-room and provoking the fatal misstep.

The sheer weight of our expertise implies that the objects around us can be made so concrete as to tell the truth, and that that truth is somehow inherently more reliable because of the presence of such expertise; as the forum, we need only listen. Weizman continues his description:

I like this image of Richard Goldstone presenting his findings, and in fact it has within it most of what I’d like to say…Let’s look at it: a man stands in front of the ruins of a tall building, and the microphones of places worldwide are in front of him. Since the rubble can’t speak, he seems to speak on its behalf, like an interpreter to an international audience. This is a perfect demonstration of how, spatially speaking, the principle of forensics assumes a relationship between a structure (or a thing) and a forum. In fact, in the absence of an international forum to account for war crimes, the ruin here assembles the forum around the object that is made to speak through its interpreter.

So the stage has been, quite literally, set. Which brings me to what is remarkable about Weizman’s example. Goldstone’s report was exceptionally critical of Israel’s actions and drew heavily on onsite forensic investigations conducted by Human Rights Watch. HRW’s principal analyst, Marc Garlasco, was certainly experienced in these matters. Prior to joining Human Rights Watch, Garlasco had spent seven years at the Pentagon, where his experience in evaluating and selecting high-value targets guided bombing campaigns meant to dispose of members of Saddam Hussein’s regime during the Second Gulf War. One could say that Human Rights Watch hewed to the old saying “It takes a thief…” when it hired him to take the other side. Interestingly, according to Weizman, Garlasco had never been to Iraq until he began his new career, when HRW sent him to evaluate the rubble, the creation of which he and his then-colleagues had instigated.

If we are then to infer that Garlasco’s arc is one of redemption, what of it? Reasonable people will maintain that a man ought to be able to change his mind, especially if it is deemed to be for the better. On the other hand, we may find ourselves cautioned by the fact that there are likely very few people in the world who are capable of this kind of analysis, and that they do not come by this expertise by taking online classes at the University of Phoenix. What does this then tell us about our expectations for the kind of reliability that is implicitly required for this expertise?

As a further wrinkle, Garlasco subsequently resigned from Human Rights Watch under a cloud of accusations that his interest in Nazi memorabilia (specifically, Luftwaffe medals, on which he published a scholarly reference book) obviated any possible objectivity in evaluating Israeli actions. Of course, Goldstone’s own recent recanting of much of his committee’s report only serves to obfuscate the matter further. In the meantime, we have moved far indeed from the material facts that were meant to be the objective basis of truth: the rubble that was 10,000 buildings in Gaza remains, in every sense. As for what this has meant to Gazans themselves, the ruins do not say – one would have to ask the question of the living.

Perhaps we can find a simpler, more cooperative example.

MOD_BGDuring the 1999 campaign to end the Serbian despoliation of Kosovo, NATO bombed several targets in Belgrade. Most well-known was its “accidental” bombing of the Chinese embassy, due to NATO’s apparent reliance on obsolete maps, or faulty information provided by the CIA. However, more interesting is the quite deliberate bombing of the Ministry of Defense’s headquarters in downtown Belgrade. A perhaps unintended consequence of the precision with which the cruise missiles partially destroyed this particular building was the fact that the ruins, to this day, remain standing and virtually untouched. Why? The destruction of a building that represents, depending on your point of view, the repulsive or merely embarrassing legacy of the authoritarian Communist and post-Communist regimes would, one might think, afford the opportunity to construct a response that would commemorate, or heal, or even erase such a memory. But whereas most cultures would settle on a memorial, a park, or at least a plaque, the Serbian ethos has chosen to let the building remain exactly as it is. (I have seen this building, and it is nothing short of astonishing – there are now trees growing on the upper floors.)

Bruce Sterling (I promised I would return to him, didn’t I?) gives us a potential answer. Sterling, a successful American author and one of the few futurists worth listening to, is married to a Serb and as a result spends much of his time there. He finds in Belgrade the perfect venue for his grumpily dystopic view of the world in whose direction we seem to be hurtling. In a fantastic talk improbably hosted on the Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club website, he ruminates on the kind of dysfunctional society required to preserve such a monument to its ignoble past. For him, what is at stake is the preservation of the Serbian “grievance narrative…where the act of being blown up is an expression of cultural solidarity.” As is so often the case of issues of national temperament, we can trace this back to multiple historical points: from the dissolution of the Yugoslav Republic in the early 1990’s, to the failure of Tito’s “Third Way” socialism by the early 1980s, or even all the way back to the founding moment – or perhaps more accurately the Rosebud moment – of the Serbs’ defeat at the hands of the Turks, in 1389, precipitating 500 years of occupation under the Ottoman Empire.

While Sterling doesn’t specifically concern himself with architecture and cities, it is accurate to look at his definition of objects – proxies for “a frozen set of social relationships” – and see that it applies equally well to the way a national temperament is reflected in its way of placemaking, and therefore its cities. In the case of Yugoslav society, “there’s a relationship to reality that is basically penitential…where everything is ritually degraded.” Contemporary Serbian society is simply the inheritor of this worldview. Thus it is not a question of indolence or indecision that explains the persistence of the Ministry of Defense headquarters in its current state, but rather an accurate representation of authenticity. There is, one might say, almost no other way in which that building could be conceived to exist: it must exist as a ruin. Serbia seems to be saying to itself that it is a defeated nation, and its Ministry of Defense, among other symbols and attitudes, is how it maintains this image, both to itself and to the world. There is, of course, nothing that decrees that this must be the case always and forevermore, but until some brave soul musters the support or willpower to raze the Ministry building and replace it with a park, a market, a shopping mall, or something, it will prove difficult to persuade the city’s inhabitants that these kinds of objects are only “avatars of a set of social relationships that no longer exist.”

Interestingly, during his time working at the Pentagon, Marc Garlasco was involved in determining high-value bombing targets during the NATO-led strikes against Serbia. Could he have been involved in the bombing of the Ministry of Defense? I would love to know the answer to this, if only to appreciate Garlasco’s unlikely Zelig-ness within the context of this brief and incomplete narrative. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. After all, it would probably require the opinion of an expert.