Destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.

When Cities Fall: Urban Histories and Political Memory

Our experience of the present is shaped by our understanding of the past. By ignoring the urban narratives of  monuments, structures, city parks, memorials…what messages are we missing for the present? 


“The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


The importance of observing and thinking critically about the built environment and its place within our culture is an underrepresented field that deserves more attention. Through investigation of our urban past, we gain access to an untapped reservoir of answers within cities (both past and present) that are able to speak to us both as a collective society and as individuals. To quote an authority on architectural and urban history, “Architecture is a medium of cultural expression only to the extent that we are able to absorb its messages. The way we interpret the culture of a period or a nation through its architecture may tell us as much about it as about ourselves.”



People gather to look at the damage caused by explosions at judicial buildings in Benghazi July 28, 2013. Photo by Esam Al-Fetori.
People gather to look at the damage caused by explosions at judicial buildings in Benghazi July 28, 2013. Photo by Esam Al-Fetori.


In a Fall 2012 Vanity Fair article, a journalist shadowed Barack Obama and detailed his day to day routines as President as well as cataloguing Obama’s process of preparing public responses to conflict. Libya’s then Socialist Leader Qaddafi had just threatened to attack Benghazi, and Obama was put in the position to decide whether or not America would intervene. Obama consulted his top experts in the Situation Room. In addition to Biden and Gates, this included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (on the phone from Cairo), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, White House chief of staff William Daley, head of the National Security Council Tom Donilon and U.N. ambassador Susan Rice. One of the many questions Obama asked his team of expert advisors was, “What happens to the people in these cities when the cities fall? When you say Qaddafi takes a town, what happens?” Preparing a response to Qaddafi’s threat to “cleanse Libya, house by house”, might have benefited from revisiting the architectural history of Herzegovina, in which the ex-Serbian President Milošević led deliberate attacks on Bosnian homes in the name of ethnic cleansing, thus the invention of the term, “domicide”.


People gather for a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 29, 2013. Photo by Osman Orsal.
People gather for a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul June 29, 2013. Photo by Osman Orsal.


More recently, the riots and protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square have demonstrated the importance of public space to a city’s health and wellness. Even Stalin understood the sacredness of a city’s square, when he famously scolded his right hand advisor for presenting a plan of a reconstructed Red Square in Moscow that called for the demolition of a cathedral. “Put it back, Lazar”, he insisted. Aside from looking towards the past, perhaps we should consider what the present and future roles of public squares in cities on the verge of revolution are, especially those in the Arab world: Tahrir Square in Egypt, Change Square in Yemen, Bouazizi Square in Tunisia, and so many others.


The importance of the built environment needs to be not only considered in its past histories, but in its present monuments as well. Design observation offers an urban mindfulness that grounds us, forces us to actively look, and engage with our surroundings. Georges Perec, a great writer and believer in all that is routine, advised in his writings that we don’t give enough attention to what is truly daily in our lives. In “The Species of Spaces”, Perec was commissioned by an architect to explore ways in which we occupy space. “The problem isn’t so much to find out how we have reached this point, but simply, to recognize that we have reached it, that we are here.” My hope is to inspire a sort of architectural mindfulness, in which everyone, not just those involved in the design profession become more intimately involved with the observance of the details of their city.


Consider also the implications of architecture and memory. For when we observe the face of a city, we trace it into our minds, and the images of its skyscraper limbs and topographic curves are etched onto ourselves forever. Think of observing as a form of cognitive writing, and if we never record, we will never remember. I will close with the final passage of Perec’s, “Species of Spaces”, and hope that it will inspire a deeper desire to observe the architecture of whatever space you may find yourself in.



The Srebrenica and Potocari memorial for the Srebrenica dead in Bosnia.  Photo by Peter Nicholls.
The Srebrenica and Potocari memorial for the Srebrenica dead in Bosnia.
Photo by Peter Nicholls.


“Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds. To write: To try meticulously to retain something, to cause something to survive; to wrest a few precise scraps from the void as it grows, to leave somewhere a furrow, a trace, a mark or a few signs.”


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