Anniversaries of urban destruction: Berlin & Mostar

Yesterday marked two important anniversaries for the destruction of urban fabric. On the one hand there were prominent commemoration ceremonies to mark the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 9th November 1989 was the date on which border security was eased and freedom of movement across the wall was allowed. 9th November thus marks the date on which the wall’s dividing power – ostensibly the purpose that gave the structure meaning – ended. It is thus the anniversary of a symbolic destruction.

Of course, real destruction followed symbolic destruction. As the security that maintained the wall’s dividing power was eased individuals  (‘Mauerspechte’ or ‘wall woodpeckers’) chipped away at the wall, eroding the structure that had embodied the cold war division of Europe. Ultimately East and West German authorities removed large parts of the structure.  The wall was thus erased from Berlin’s urban fabric, save for some remnants that serve largely as a memorialisation of Cold War history.

Overall this is an anniversary that is viewed in a positive light: it is urban destruction as a politically progressive force. Conceptually, it represents a moment in which an urban edifice that prevented the establishment of a common political space (indeed, in relation to which two, separate and opposed spaces were constituted) was destroyed in order to give the possibility of rearticualting political space in an inclusive, rather than divided, manner. It is important to note that this stands as a rebuttal to anyone who interprets urban destruction as necessarily reactionary and undesirable. Sometimes destruction of urban fabric opens up important political possibilities.

This is worth bearing in mind as a counter to the conservatism that is sometimes perceived in the concept of urbicide. Some readers have perceived my argument – that buildings are constitutive of an existential heterogeneity – to imply that all buildings should be saved. That this is a mistaken reading is highlighted by the case of the Berlin wall. Urbicide is  a widespread and systematic destruction of buildings that seeks to disavow heterogeneity in a given urban environment. This is only one way in which buildings can be destroyed. It is important to remember, therefore, that not all cases of urban destruction are cases of urbicide. It is also possible that the destruction of a building – a wall, for example – might not be part of such a logic and might even open up new political spaces by changing the coordinates around which the networks of identity\difference constitutive of any society are oriented. The fall of the Berlin Wall is thus a reminder that urban destruction comes in many forms – of which urbicide is merely one.

On the other hand, 9th November also marks the destruction of the Stari Most, or Old bridge, in Mostar. As I have written elsewhere, this instance of destruction has much more affinity with urbicide. As part of the assault on the urban fabric of Bosnia, the destruction of the bridge by Bosnian Croat forces in 1993 was part of a wider attempt to disavow the plurality of Bosnian society. It was, thus, part of a widespread and deliberate destruction of buildings as that which is constitutive of heterogeneity. Often abstracted as a prominent example of the destruction of cultural heritage, the destruction of the Old Bridge is, I would argue, better seen in the context of the widespread destruction of Bosnian towns and cities in the 1992-1995 war.

Many observers have focused on the manner in which the destruction of the bridge could be seen as a dividing gesture. Indeed, much has been made of the supposed way in which the bridge separated Croat east and ‘Muslim’ west Mostar. Similarly, much is made of the symbolic impact of this prominent symbolic enactment of division – a televised performance of the central notion underscoring the ethnic nationalist politics that fuelled Bosnia’s war: namely that separate ethnicities could not exist in co-mingled communities and must, instead, occupy territorially separate domains.

Some commentators have pointed out the factual inaccuracy of regarding the bridge as a dividing point. They rightly note that Mostar itself was divided at the Bulevar Narodne Revolucije. This factual correction, however, misses the point to my mind. The destruction of the urban environment in the towns and cities of Bosnia sought more than simple division or separation of ethnically homogenised territories. Rather it sought to disavow the very presence of heterogeneity itself. In this light where the dividing line really was  – though not irrelevant – is not the main focus of attention. The main focus of attention should be the manner in which destruction of buildings such as the Stari Most was part of a widespread and deliberate destruction of urban fabric in order to disavow the heterogeneity they are constitutive of.

Of course, the Stari Most has been rebuilt. This should not, however, hide the attempt to destroy the urban fabric of Bosnia. Nor should it be construed as having reversed the ethnic nationalist program of disavowal of heterogeneity. Indeed, the persistent division of Mostar stands as a reminder of that program.

These anniversaries thus throw different lights on the nature of urban destruction and its role in the constitution of political space. While we celebrate the unification of Germany and the ending of the Cold War, we would do well to remember the urbicidal destruction wrought on Bosnia and the questions it continues to pose despite efforts at reconstruction and reconciliation.

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