Andrew Herscher


On his book Violence Taking Place: The Architecture of the Kosovo Conflict

Cover Interview of August 01, 2010

In a nutshell

What if the destruction of architecture was understood to be just as complicated, just as culturally resonant, and just as open to interpretation as architecture itself—or, indeed, as any other cultural form?  This is the question that Violence Taking Place considers.

The salience of the question emerges from dominant perspectives on destruction, in public culture and the social sciences alike, which often insist on it as either a simple rational act, reducible to the intentions of its author, or an irrational act, completely escaping interpretation at all.  What these perspectives each block, in equal but opposites ways, is consideration of the cultural labor that destruction performs—as a social performance, a spatial practice, an object of narrative and a figure of collective imagination.

Violence Taking Place focuses on the former Yugoslavia and, in particular, Kosovo, where the destruction of architecture has been a prominent dimension of political violence.  When this destruction has been registered, it is typically understood as a response to architecture’s status as a representation of ethnic or religious identity, territory, or history; destroying architecture becomes, then, a way of symbolically destroying what architecture stands for. Mosque in Reti e Poshtme, Kosovo, dynamited in March 1999.  Photograph by Andrew Herscher.

The problem with this sort of interpretation, however, is that it assumes that what architecture stands for can stand alone, without need of architecture or other “representations” to conjure itself into existence. By contrast, I see architecture as a necessary supplement to identity, territory, history and the other phenomena that architecture is typically seen to simply represent.

Violence Taking Place thus suggests that architecture is not so much destroyed in order to destroy what it stands for, but rather to make architecture stand for something in the first place.  From this perspective, destruction becomes not a mere epiphenomenon to the forms and forces that make history, but crucial to the constitution of those forms and forces, a constitution which, I suggest, invokes the need for an architectural history of destruction.

The history described in Violence Taking Place places the architectural and urban destruction inflicted during the 1998-99 Kosovo War in a larger context that encompasses modernist urban renewal, structural underdevelopment, refracted colonialism, nationalist conflict and neoliberal reconstruction. In each case, I see destruction as an indispensable component of a historical process.

I also see destruction as a link between historical moments usually perceived in distinct isolation from another.  Violence Taking Place thus relates modernist and neoliberal structural violence with transacted forms of political violence, posing new architectural and urban continuities between historically-differentiated periods of “war” and “peace.”