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Theory of Architecture, Memory and Peace-building 

Despite the criticism leveled at the liberal peacebuilding processes, it is still the principal approach to international peacebuilding, addressing a growing number of pernicious disputes which are contested on a local level between neighbours and community members across cultural lines of identity, impacting millions of everyday people. “In their wake, they leave a swath not only of destroyed infrastructure and ruined markets, but indeterminable social and psychological damage. Recently, as many countries’ fragile peace becomes more tenuous and violence threatens to reignite, the international community is taking a fresh interest in this critical post-conflict period” (Maynard, 1997). Today’s ‘New War’, represents “ethnic competition as a source of conflict” (Kalyvas, 2001) and as Hirst argues “is not just technique, a clash of forces the outcome of which is given by the capacity of the weapons on respective sides and decided by the resulting causality lists. War is also symbolic, and symbols affect the capacity of the soldiers and civilians to fight and to suffer. They also help them to understand war, both as conduct - to see models of bravery, competence and endurance - and in terms of placing themselves, knowing where they are and why" (Hirst, 2005, p191-192).

The built environment and the symbolism it evokes has emerged as an advantageous vehicle for the peacebuilding process in a post ‘new-war’ context. Conflict and architecture have always suffered an uncomfortable wartime association.

According to Murphy, architecture’s link to violence can be viewed through a number of lenses,

Architecture as an ‘instrument of violence’: segregation cells and prison camps.


Architecture as an Adaption to violence: refugee camps; pop up clinics; or shantytowns. (This reactive architecture is built in the footprint or on the fringes of architecture’s ruins, filling the holes left by shattered infrastructure)

Aarchitecture 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 governments and businesses have abandoned their citizens and workers” (Murphy, 2014).


It is this final role of ‘architecture as register’ that has gone on to help underpin an evolution to a contemporary role of ‘architecture as peacebuilder’. Driessen argues “the built environment provides cues for behaviour, meaning that architecture too is a means of nonverbal communication. Hence, because of its visibility and durability, architecture has often acquired a symbolism reflecting political, social and ideological aspects of society and it of course, takes prime position in all debates on inference or rank and status”   (Rapoport, 1976; Driessen, 1995), and therefore is a perfect medium to help promote modern liberal peacebuilding initiatives. Abrams and Driessen both acknowledge the built environment’s peacebuilding role, suggesting that, “architecture is hailed as one of the prime sources for reconstruction of socio cultural complexity and as a mode of creating and transmitting social statement” (Abrams, E. 1989; Driessen, 1995). Moreover, according to Schmitt, “architecture works through trauma: it invites us to bear witness to trauma; to reconsider collective trauma and our relation to it” (Schmitt, Sage, Pinder Holland, Austin, Berger and Wong, 2013), whilst Berger and Wong acknowledge that “material traces of conflicts” have become new witnesses. “They embody the multi functions of passing on difficult memories to new generations, imitating the indispensable process of re-appropriation needed to revise traumas and negotiate a new relationship between memory, place and daily life” (Berger and Wong, 2013 p10).

The relationship between memory, the built environment and how that combination might be expressed, is an essential consideration whilst engaged in liberal peacebuilding and exploring its ability to recognise, recount and address traumatic memories woven within the entangled emotions rife within post-conflict communities. Bevan however argues that “the built environment is merely a prompt, a corporeal reminder of the events involved in its construction, use and destruction. The meanings and memories we bring to the stones are created by human agency and remain there. These memories are, of course, contested and they change over time” [Bevan 2016 p28-27).  And Lowenthal continues, challenging the zeitgeist of memory and its potential to communicate peacebuilding narratives, suggesting that “memory is innately personal; it is always felt as having happened to ‘me’ even if, in actuality, it happened to someone else. ‘Nothing is so uniquely personal to a man as his memories, ‘Though we speak of sharing our memories with others’, notes a philosopher, ‘ we could no more share a memory than we could share pain’  (Benjamin 1956; Lowenthal 2015, p310). But despite reservations held by some theorists, “during the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, visible markers of the past – plaques, information boards, museums, monuments, have come to populate more and more land and cityscapes. History has been gathered up and presented as heritage of a meaningful past that should be remembered and more and more buildings and other sites have been called on to act as witnesses of the past” (Macdonald 2009, p01). Furthermore, peacebuilders continue to develop architectural programmes to memorialise and commemorate the struggles in post-conflict contexts. Forty and Küchler explains that, “the Western tradition of memory since the renaissance has been founded upon an assumption that material objects, whether natural or artificial, can act as the analogues of human memory. It has been  generally taken for granted that memories, formed in the mind, can be transferred to solid material objects, which can come to stand for memories and, by virtue of their durability, either prolong or preserve them indefinitely beyond their purely mental existence” (Forty and Küchler 1999, p2). A tradition that historian Pierre Nora claims has led to the development of ‘lieux de memoire’ (realms of memory), “places, rituals, symbols or texts, have become increasingly important to societies as ‘real’, ‘living’ memories communicated face to face in peasant cultures (where the past is part of their everyday life) have vanished in the mass culture of modern, industrial societies where memories are, by contrast, both distanced from individual and artificial, bureaucratized and institutionalised. History has accelerated and what needs to be remembered is beyond the scope of the individual” (Nora and Kritzman, 1996). However, for some like Cornelius Holtorf “cultural memory is not about giving testimony of past events, as accurately and truthfully as possible, nor is it necessarily about ensuring cultural continuity: it is about making meaningful statements about the past in a given cultural context of the present. (Holtorf, 2001). A potentially risky and precarious position to take when considering Berger and Wong’s suggestion that “violence renders memories ‘difficult’, a triumph for one group can be a devastating loss for another, and the shame and ambiguity associated with past wrongs can make memory traumatic, the pain of which produces silences of its own” (Berger and Wong, 2013 p04). Moreover, the frequent and uncomfortable reality is that after conflict it is those who assume ownership over the past, for example, place their own views on the way it is recorded and how it is represented and viewed. They dictate what is remembered and where. Ownership of memory has thus been labelled a hegemonic device imagined to influence our behaviour in the present and future. Consequently, those who control what is remembered equally control what is forgotten. A condition which is provocatively explored in George Orwell’s masterpiece ‘1984’ in which the ruling political party slogan, in order to achieve psychological mastery of its subjects, wilfully alters the past. “Who controls the past, ran the party slogan, controls the future - Who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell, 1949; 2003).


Therefore, whilst dealing with post-conflict communities subject to a transition from negative to a positive peace, individual and social, past and present memories, require empathy and trustworthy responses. Brewer shrewdly suggests that “the convergence of memory, nationalism and ethnic violence often constitutes an ‘unholy trinity’. Yet, he continues, “memory can also dichotomously play a pivotal role in the negotiation and realisation of peace in societies emerging from violent conflict” (Brewer, 2006). The current approach to managing memory through architectural projects frequently proves complicated and precarious, especially when you consider Lowenthal’s argument that “no absolute historic truth lies waiting to be found; however assiduous and fair-minded the historian, he can no more relate to the past “as it really was” than can our memories” (Lowenthal 2015, p235). However the potential benefits of working with memories successfully ensures a continued perseverance with regards developing approaches involving the built environment, addressing issues of trauma and fear, which helps reinvigorate a sense of place in fractured communities, fostering a feeling of contextual ownership within social groups and promoting a sense of resilience and tolerance. Therefore as McDowell and Braniff suggest “peace processes must look to the past, to the violence, divisions and origins of conflict, and construct (or deconstruct) it in such a way as to allow society to move forward” (McDowell and Braniff, 2014 p05). A relatively modern architectural approach has developed in the adaptive re-use of buildings that maintains or embodies cultural significances. This has been an approach that encourages culturally iconic buildings to rise from the ashes of conflict to help inspire and galvanise communities and nations and symbolise international alliance.  The ‘Reichstag Building’ for example, destroyed in WWII and reconstructed by architect Norman Foster to rehouse the German Parliament building is a national icon and a symbol of post war resurgence [fig2]. However the approach has expanded in an attempt to address an array of projects, such as smaller scale initiatives, like bunker 599, in the Netherlands that makes use and takes ownership of a WWII relict of occupation and violence. [fig3]

Fig2 (Matern, 2007)

Fig3 (RAAAF, 2012)

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