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A Violent House Triptych

Three structures from three separate conflicts, the architectural ‘Ordinary Men’ of incredible violence and trauma. All three given the same unsettling term ‘house’. In Beirut, there is the Yellow House (A sniper's nest), in the Philippines the Red House (a WWII, comfort house for Japanese soldiers) and in Bosnia and Herzegovina the White House (a torture chamber and death camp building ran by Bosnian Serb forces).

Have these ordinary structures a valid role in contributing to a peacebuilding process, despite their horrific past?

The Yellow House is the only building from the three that has been rescued from demolition, it has already begun a new chapter as a museum and research centre, “hopes are that in forcing its visitors to confront the past, it can help build a better future”. Despite its architectural merit and the admirable efforts of all those that worked to create the museum, the building’s success as a peacebuilding tool is unclear.

An uncertainty mainly due to the uncomfortable feeling that the Yellow House has been designed inside-out or the wrong way around. In other words, the design seems to glorify the snipper’s position, sensationalises the views out of the building across the killing range, sensualises the snippers power from within their line of sight and amplify the catastrophic impact emanating from within the structure as a tool of war. Rather than, representing the past horrors dealt from the building, signifying the threat to the everyday person. Recognising the vulnerability of open spaces and the false comfort sought by ritual, superstition or ‘magical thinking’ “today I wore my anti-sniper shoes” (Maček, 2009) in range of the building, ever conscious of the violence lurking within the darkness of the building’s bleak voids.

In simple terms, the traumatic impact the snippers had on the public, the memories and symbolism radiating from the building was represented, it appears, from the perpetrators perspective.

The Red House In contrast from the Yellow House represents an internal iteration of a non-lethal horror, a traumatic sequence of long term, terrible abuses, still easily recalled and traumatising for the victims. (read further)

The Red House, is a house where some of the Philippines' forgotten 'comfort women' were held. “Hundreds of thousands of women and girls across Asia were raped and forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during World War Two. Some have been offered a direct apology and compensation from the Japanese government - but not in the Philippines. The last survivors there want their suffering to finally be acknowledged” (Jane McMullen)

The building still stands derelict and untouched since the war. Should this building be rescued, left to rot or destroyed? If the idea is to keep the building, will its continued existence perpetuate the trauma? Should it then be left in a state of ruin, leaving it to the natural processes of ruination whilst developing ways for the building to reconcile the victim’s trauma as much as possible. By retaining the building, perhaps the victims are afforded an unscripted monument to their suffering, an object perhaps more authentic and powerful than a plaque or statue representing reimagined memories, flaccid gestures often used to ensure a premature and convenient silencing of an uncomfortable truth. Moreover, the to destroy the building could have counterproductive effects on the victim, as Harvard Psychologist Danial Wegner explains, “experiments usually show a “rebound effect”: they later think about the forbidden subject more often and intensely than they would have if they had never attempted to suppress thinking about it in the first place. “Although not thinking about painful thoughts may seem like a reasonable coping strategy to adopt” “trying to forget might not only prolong the misery, but make it worse”. (Wegner and Gold, 1995). Danial further suggests that “Re-experiencing a traumatic event in an otherwise safe context can take out some of the sting. Repetition of just about any stimulus or experience will result in what researchers call habituation – a reduced physiological response to the stimulus” (Wegner and Gold, 1995)

The Red House might then remain, perhaps even, like the Yellow House, it maybe reused as a symbol of the traumatic experiences suffered by these brave women. Taking this notion further, could the building be reintroduced to the society (lieux de memoire) warts and all, re-used but easily read. A vehicle for healing and hope, rather than the destruction of humanity through despicable means? Schmit after all suggests, “Architecture works through trauma: it invites us to bear witness to trauma; to reconsider collective trauma and our relation to it” (Scchmit 2013).

Finally, the ‘white house’ a humble structure now belonging to a mining company in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the past, it witnessed some of the most horrific acts of the Bosnian War. While in the case of the yellow house, the violence was felt outside the house, and in the case of the red house the initial violence was felt inside the house and continues to resonate within the victims, the relationship between the ‘white house’ and its associated violence is different. The violence was perpetrated inside the building and those victims that entered rarely returned alive. In 2005, the BBC reported that a memorial was to be built to the victims of the camp. “But what is different about this memorial is that, for the first time, members of all three communities - Muslims, Croats and Serbs - are involved in the design of the project” however there was no mention of the role required of the White House.

What is to become of the notorious white house, should it be used to acknowledge and amplify the entangled emotions of post conflict trauma. An ordinary building with an extraordinary message.

For all three houses, it seems, amnesia is not an option.

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