When buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction
Architecture is not only concerned with physical space. Buildings can express ideologies and shape social life. They can mirror human desires or reflect the impossibility of their realisation. And as there is an architecture of power there is also an anti-architecture of resistance. In his book Body, Memory, Architecture (1977) Charles Moore claims that architecture acts primarily on a symbolic level; however, the way people perceive it is based not only on their ability to read shared cultural signs but also on their own personal experience. For Moore, architecture is not simply physical but also psychological. In taking possession of a space, a building’s inhabitant finds confirmation of his or her own identity in symbols of individual and historical memory.
‘The important things for my work are the signs of events… I’m interested in seeing and reading the signs,’1 explains Ahlam Shibli. Behind their apparently documentary approach, her photographs are in fact highly analytical and politically engaged. Shibli focuses on the way history marks lived experience. In the series The Valley 2007–8 and Goter 2002–3, her investigations into how individuals relate to their environment reflects the political restrictions to which they are subjected.
The Valley explores conditions in the village Arab al-Shibli, where Palestinians living under Israeli jurisdiction face extreme limitations when building their houses. Goter looks at the lives of Palestinians of Bedouin descent from al-Naqab (Negev). The images were taken in townships, constructed by the Israeli administration for Palestinians displaced from their lands, and in unrecognised villages inhabited by those who refuse to be relocated. As a consequence, this latter group live in places not marked on official maps, where they are denied the right to build permanent structures. Several pictures show provisional buildings made out of precarious materials. Their temporary character contradicts the rules of permanence and strength adhered to in the classical definition of architecture. Through Shibli’s lens, these makeshift homes stand for the refusal to waive traditional rights, as symbols of denial and protest.
Constructing a new order often ends in the destruction of an old one. New architectural space shapes new forms of social identity. Therefore, those who purportedly seek to establish a new system first erase the existing historical texture of their territory, both physically and culturally, before marking it with their own symbols of power.
The ambivalent meaning of monuments is addressed in Cevdet Erek’s installation Shading Monument for the Artist 2009. Its substance is a collage of quotes from monuments commemorating the International Brigades of the Spanish Civil War (1936–9). Individually, each memorial constitutes a heroic image of the group and of the event itself. However, by putting fragments of them together in an unexpected context, Erek changes the message and manifests his scepticism towards the process of building historical narratives. The shadow thrown by the installation is impermanent and unmonumental. When it shifts, the text blurs and the message it articulates seems to evade the solid frame of any individual ideology.
For many years Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu has registered transformations in the urban landscape of his home city, Bucharest, particularly those that occurred under Nicolae Ceauşescu’s communist regime. In works such as Balta Alba 1979 or Beloved Bucharest 1977 the artist traces the disjunctions between forced modernisation and the disordered vitality of daily life. He records the emergence of strange new city spaces and observes human activity sneaking out from the bounds of strict urban planning. At the same time his films and photographs expose the discrepancy between megalomaniac utopian visions and their disappointing realisations.
After the political changes of 1989 Grigorescu’s field of vision remained a battleground for ideology. Again, the city’s architecture seemed to project failure instead of triumph, which led the artist to the bitter conclusion: ‘the Bucharest which was being built in 1954 for 1974 and the chaotic 1994 Bucharest mark two defeats, two retreats towards the ruin.’2 The words of novelist W.G. Sebald come to mind: ‘somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.’3
Architecture is a trigger for the mechanism of remembering. Buildings are landmarks in the topography of collective memory. Ruins connect us to the past. Decay and entropy, however, reflect the concerns and priorities of the present as much as the history of a site.
Hrair Sarkissian, a photographer of Armenian origin, grew up in Syria surrounded by mythical narratives about his parents’ homeland. When he finally visited Armenia, its greatness appeared to be imaginary; the map given to him in family stories was imprecise. The incompatibility of his relatives’ memories and the physical reality of the ruins of the Soviet empire caused him to experience profound disorientation. In his series In Between 2007, Sarkissian juxtaposes abandoned, monumental constructions and the epic unchanging landscape. The contrast poses a question about the foundations on which national or cultural identity can be built.
Charles Moore sees architecture as a projection of human experience and its basic task as the reproduction of ‘the inner landscape of human beings.’4 In different ways the artists in Out of Place reveal physical space to be imbued with meaning. One of Sebald’s characters, an architectural historian travelling in search of his roots, articulates this evocative potential of the built environment: ‘I felt that the decrepit state of these once magnificent buildings, with their broken gutters, walls blackened by rainwater, crumbling plaster revealing the coarse masonry beneath it, windows boarded up or clad with corrugated iron, precisely reflected my own state of mind…’5
- 1. Ahlam Shibli, Interview with Joanna Mytkowska, in The Anxious: Five artists under the pressure of war, (exhibition catalogue), Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris, 13 February – 19 May 2008, p. 59.
- 2. Ion Grigorescu, A Version of Memory, January 2007, translated into English by Alex Moldovan, IDEA arts + society, no. 25, Cluj, 2006, p. 43.
- 3. Winfried Georg Sebald, Austerlitz, Modern Library 2002, p. 26. I borrowed the title of my essay from this excerpt.
- 4. Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory from Vitruvius to the Present, Princeton Architectural Press, 1994, p. 442.
- 5. Sebald, op. cit, p. 143.