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Non-buildings of Cultural Significance

These beguiling images of the built environment are from an exhibition called, 'Facades', by French photographer Zacharie Gaudrillot-Roy. He explains, "The façade is the first thing we see, it’s the surface of a building. It can be impressive, superficial or safe" (here)

However, if we would leave the analysis at that, we would miss the significance of these images when seen from a broader perspective. A perspective (almost) suggested by Colossal Magazine's write-up of the exhibition, stating that, "Gaudrillot-Roy started the project several years ago to examine what would happen when he digitally erased the possibilities that lie behind a building’s front door. In this world, the buildings have no tenants, which prevents any secrets from lurking behind the presented brick veneers". read more

These images resonate something more profound, they invite a more considered exploration of society, memory, a sense of place and the built environment. These facades represent a process of striping-back the built-environment, until only the memory and meaning remains. A process which helps imply the potential in using familiar architectural fragments to help address peace-building challenges in post-conflict environments.

These provocative everyday architectural signifiers that subconsciously staple together the social fabric of communities and neighbourhoods, provide the familiar social fuel to rekindle a sense of place and human orientation from which to build an identity and examine ones’ instincts to belong.

Question: What are we talking about?

Answer: Application!

Humankind has always been aware of the power of architecture outwith shelter and security from natural elements. It’s a social reference point, political tool, a method of persuasion and manipulation, expression of wealth and social sophistication...... the list goes on.

From a peace-building perspective, it’s well documented that architecture and violence have a close accord, Michael Murphy suggests that there are three categories of their relationship, "Architecture as a register of violence: Architecture is an enduring record (a palimpsest) of the violence we inflict on one and other. This is the architecture of ruins; of churches and mosques decimated by bombs; of buildings decayed in neighbourhoods where government and business have abandoned their citizens and workers. Architecture as an adaption to violence: This is a relative (and often, ephemeral) architecture of refugee camps; pop up clinics; of shantytowns. This reactive architecture is built in the footprint or on the fringes of architectures ruins, filling the holes left by shattered infrastructure. Instrument of violence: Segregation cells and prison camps." (Michael Murphy 2014)

However, the built environment and its peace-building potential struggles in comparison to its adaptability to support activity during conflict. Supposedly, there are many financial or practical reasons for this, perhaps however, it’s mainly because after the fog of war lifts, those involved are not so keen to acknowledge their behaviour and the depths at which they stooped during the desperations of conflict. More likely though, it’s due to the exodus of many of the social elite and the middle-class establishment, members of society which will later return to their country of origin and begin building their idea of a new Nation, a critical part of society who are confused about the actual trauma they watched unfold from their positions of relative safety. Positions far away from, the front-line fear and the true horrors of human behaviour in conflict and the significance of the built environment surrounding them. These emotionally and morally nuanced people, watching war dynamics unfold from afar, whilst developing a diasporas pride for an imagined identity and sense of struggle, amplified by their guilt as they exploit their privileged status abroad. This diaspora will eventually return (some reluctantly) with the support of International peacebuilding communities desperate for connected, potential middle-management, personnel, who are familiar with western values and education, locally acquainted with the culture and language or the area.

An essential part of the current peacebuilding demographic and dynamic, connected with local government and business, only to happy to adopt Western values (mostly adopted a long time ago, having been educated in the West or western orientated local schools), receiving and managing millions of peacebuilding $ to build a new locally unfamiliar Nation, relatively naive to the broken lives of those that remained and their relationship with their broken built-environment.

The naivety means that, the built environment suffers from post-conflict, peacebuilding responses that seem offensively polite, trite and lacking the authenticity and impact in comparison to the ways in which they were used during the conflict. Flaccid museums to state enforced amnesia, buildings stating empty statements such as “Never Again”, failing to encourage local ownership, with their unfamiliar, empty and sanitised spaces. These western orientated gestures of compliance, which are geared to nation building and a clumsily imported version of liberal democracy, seemly disconnected from the everyday people suffering the traumas of their ‘modern’ war. Whilst others build monuments, museums, plaques and statues to reiterate and reinforce reason and remedy to loss, interventions that seem illegitimate and have little resonance with local communities caught within a messy, dangerous and confusing transitional space, between a negative and a positive peace.

As the new architectural statements of post-conflict peace and education are raise high amid international adulation and applause…. many nondescript and uncomfortable buildings which could embarrass the modern-post-war, nation-builder’s notion of sophistication and civilised behaviour are manipulated, camouflaged or raised to the grown.

The remnants of these culturally important buildings and their spaces with negative meaning or that hold traumatic memories are often happily swept under the carpet (non-buildings of cultural significance )…….and like all things ‘swept under a carpet’, the harder you try to disguise the unaddressed bumps and lumps, the more they are to draw draw the attention for those in the environment and the longer they stay under the metaphorical carpet, the more likely they are to evolve and intensify their past meaning, often supporting a contemporary significance used to elicit future revolt.

These non-buildings of cultural significance, unaddressed and hidden, become vulnerable to manipulation and re-appropriation. A political vehicle drawn from folk-law, gossip, post conflict myth which easily becomes fuel for a resistance, revolt and an uprising.

The approach to post-conflict peace-building using the built-environment and its ‘appropriate’ buildings of cultural significance isn’t …………(Read More)

Images by Gaudrillot-Roy

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