Collateral Damage in Architecture

The phrase “collateral damage” generally means the innocent victims of war–people who got in the way, didn’t understand orders shouted in a foreign language, or those in the wrong place at the wrong time. I hate the word, it makes me cringe. It makes killing the innocent seem somehow accidental and explainable.

Another senseless outcome of war is the destruction of historic buildings. Beautiful, graceful buildings that hold sacred memories, prayers, and art, smashed to dust in seconds.

I’m not interested in knowing that the destruction was necessary or that war is awful. That’s a given. Ask anyone who remembers Kristallnacht, November 8 and 9, 1938, as the Germans smashed their way through Jewish neighborhoods.

The hallways of the Great Mosque of Aleppo.

The hallways of the Great Mosque of Aleppo.

The buildings I’m talking about are in the Middle East, the uneasy part of the world we don’t want to think about. The Tomb of Jonah, sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, is now just rubble.

The Buddahs of Bamiyan, giant statues hewn out of a cliff in the year 500 were bombed to dust by the Taliban in 2001.

Another one that breaks my heart is the Great Mosque of Aleppo. The architecture was breathtakingly beautiful. The complicated vaulted ceilings begged the eye to look up into the heavens.

The legend is that the mosque holds the remains of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist. It was built in the eighth century. It is a house of prayer.

syria_aleppo_great_mosque4The land it stands on has been under siege from one faction or another forever. War is as old as the emotion of fear and anger. Religion has been used as the excuse of hatred for as long as formal (and splinter) religions have existed.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo as it looks now.

The Great Mosque of Aleppo as it looks now.

I don’t have an answer to collateral damage. I just mourn that along with people, so much art, so much history, so much spiritual growth is ground to dust under the boot heels of war.

–Quinn McDonald knows that art describes the rise of culture and the destruction of art brings the destruction of culture.


16 thoughts on “Collateral Damage in Architecture

  1. The curious thing about war is that it is a kind of a parallel world that physically overlaps with the space of the ordinary life but is mentally beyond this world. War is an illogical, bizarre state of mind that manifests in the real world as both acts of heroism and utter destruction. I don’t think we can understand, not even perceive, how the mind works in the state of war; it is a paradoxical conundrum. Have you heard or read about the obliteration of Dresden during WW2? It is possible to comprehend that the Allies’ people in charge deemed the bombing necessary and that they knew what it would do to the city and its population but what is, to me at least, inconceivable is that they ordered the attacks despite of that knowledge or possibly even because they knew. They were good, decent folks who did it, those in charge and those in the bombers. And those in the receiving end too. I truly believe no creature is born evil or even bad, and that ordinary people do unthinkable evil everyday. Even now, right at this moment. And that is the saddest thing of all. What went wrong in their lives? How did we as the human society fail them?

    All these beautiful, precious things and places are gone now. They brought delight, joy and contentment to the world and uplifted the human spirit while they existed. In their passing they bring sadness and awaken us to the horror of war. They might be all rubble now but they are not lost. Maybe one day enough people see the rubble and see the inhumanity of war in it. One thing is sure though: all things rise and fall but nothing is lost if we meet it with compassion. These sacred buildings may have been destroyed but the war has not destroyed the sacredness of the places where they once stood – unless we let it.

    • I love the way you think. My parents lived through the bombing of Dresden and still emigrated to America, not hating those who bombed them. What I deeply fear is that America has been at war for so long and so many of our soliders come home emotionally and physically damaged, that we (the public who sends them) become enured to war. Think that it is a part of everyday life, think that without it, we would not be safe. I’m afraid we are heading to a way of life where we don’t value anything about war except winning some sort of victory that is neither moral, ethical or justified. Because we are afraid.

      • Thank you. I’m glad you like my thinking 🙂 It means a lot.

        We humans, like most beings, are creatures of habit and we have to pay attention to what habits we develop and maintain. War as a state of being is possibly the most destructive one, and it is a really, really difficult habit to break. Just think about Israel and Palestine: that’s been going on for so many generations and hundreds of years (in one form or another) that there are no simple solutions to it any more. The state of confrontation has become the norm instead of, well, living. Anything can become the norm. We do have to be mindful of the words we use and states of mind we promote. I grew up listening how my uncles (my oldest uncle was born 20 years before my dad who was born 1940) and their comrades form WW2 told and retold to each other stories about the war they had experienced. They told all kinds of stories, happy ones, strange ones, and ones that were so sad that they told them without speaking much. I don’t remember the stories, I was far too young for that, but I remember the feeling, the atmosphere in the room. There was never hatred in there, as strange as it may sound to some, nor much heroism, just strange kind of resolve and compassion. I think now that every time they gathered up to talk about the war they were resolved to put it behind and keep it there. Those nights were the special moments set aside for looking back and remembering and understanding and putting everything back into perspective. I’m sure many of them suffered of PTSD in some form but together they found a way to deal with it. Goes to show the power of coming together.

        • Oh, and an afterthought: We humans are big on rebuilding but maybe, on some occasions, we should not rebuild but instead leave the destruction as it is. What if Dresden had not been rebuilt? Or Hiroshima? What if we had left some of those wounds open on purpose and had faced the pain they cause?

          • A sight that brought me to tears in Horoshima was the Genbaku Dome . . . yes, the area was rebuilt and there are plaques and modern monuments but none had the effect of the dome. I saw several people standing and gazing at it with tears in the eyes. Shame, fury, deep sadness, helplessness, I don’t think it matters what caused them . . . mine were all of those.

            Like you I wonder about the need to sanitise and rebuild as if a tragedy had not occured.

  2. I am often glad to know what you teach us here…but today’s lesson sickens me. Someone once said there would never be wars if mothers were in charge. It’s true! So sad.

  3. I took an entire year of History of Architecture in college – in the dark ages before personal computers. The professor used slides to show us the wonders of the world. While he did have some professional slides, many were ones he took himself in his world-wide travels. He taught us the sacred light and shadow, the breadth of ambition and power, the hubris of some designers. All in architecture.

    I was in Prague and Brno in the Czech Republic back in May, and was so very thankful that neither the Axis nor the Allies bombed the cities during the Second World War. It felt like a religious experience viewing everything. At times it was overwhelming. And beyond words. I wanted to photograph everything, but realized that it was more important to experience it. So I do have pictures, but so much more in my heart.

  4. I’ve seen first hand, vandalism of priceless art work in Turkey. In Capadoccia where caves are often used as dwellings, their are places of worship with saints depicted . . . all without their faces. So sad, this lack of talerance for others beliefs. And it knows no boundaries.

    As for removing the human face from war, when I heard people in the armed forces being referred to as ‘resources’ I was almost sick . . . I choose what news I take in these days. When the men and women are referred to as something so expendable, what hope is their for architecture?

    So sad on this sunny spring day . . . I think I’ll go listen and dance to Joe Cocker.

  5. Living in New England, I have a huge affection and love for the buildings around here. Even after living here just about all my life, I’m still awed by the historic placards on homes dating them to the 1700s – which is far from ancient by the standards of the rest of the world. I was heartbroken by the destruction of the Buddhas, and I’m saddened to learn about Aleppo. I’m not well traveled – money doesn’t exist for that – but even so I admire buildings from far away. My mother endured the bombings in Berlin and I remember seeing photos of the destruction of so many buildings. I’m angered by the willful destruction of history and, yes, art in the name of ‘progress’ and even hatred. So, to use a worn out cliche, I feel your pain – because I do.

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