How Cities Rebuild and Remember in the Aftermath of Conflict

THESE WALLS CAN TALK

When you think of cities like Berlin, Hiroshima and Beirut, their vibrancy is inevitably colored by their war-torn pasts. Cities ravaged by conflict face a unique challenge as they move forward and rebuild. To what extent do they work to commemorate these events, and to what extent do they focus on building anew? How do they balance past tragedy with plans for a more hopeful future?

Ammar Azzouz is an analyst with Arup, a London-based design and engineering firm. An architect by training, Azzouz’s doctoral research at the University of Bath focused on, among other things, the use of three-dimensional building information models (BIMs) to redesign and rebuild cities devastated by war.

Remains of wars help us to remember the past whilst looking towards a united future.

His interest in the subject isn’t just academic, however. A native of Homs, Syria, Azzouz has seen his home city torn apart by the country’s ongoing civil war. He’s currently managing a project at Arup, interviewing Homs-based architects to better understand urban resilience in the face of conflict.

He’s also using technologies like BIMs to help document the city and the destruction the war has wrought, as well as to imagine ways it might rebuild once the conflict has ended.

Rebuilding after wars or disasters is a process as old as cities themselves, and one that has seen a wide variety of approaches, notes Jeffry Diefendorf, a professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and an expert on post-war rebuilding.

One of Diefendorf’s main areas of study is European rebuilding efforts after World War II, which, he says, offers a number of examples for cities rebuilding today.

The village of Oradour-sur-Glane has left its ruins to commemorate…
Beirut’s Holiday Inn stands untouched after Lebanon’s civil war.
The Genbaku Dome has been preserved as a memorial of…

Such efforts “varied tremendously,” he says, even, at times, within the same municipality. He cites the example of West and East Berlin, which took starkly different approaches to rebuilding after the war.

“West Berlin tried to rebuild quite a number of damaged structures,” Diefendorf says, whereas East Berlin focused on building anew, placing little emphasis on restoring older buildings damaged in the war.

Decades after the city’s reunification, it continues to work to harmonize these two different approaches, he says. “They have been trying to reconstruct some of the [East Berlin] buildings that have completely disappeared,” he says.

There’s a larger issue, also central to debates about post-war rebuilding, of how and when to commemorate the conflict. “That’s a tricky kind of thing,” Diefendorf says.

But it’s an essential question, Azzouz suggests.

Preserving the scars of wars is an approach followed in many post-war cities.

He cites as examples the Berlin Wall and the Genbaku Dome in Hiroshima, which has been preserved as a memorial of the bombing of the city during World War II and those killed by it. In France, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane has been left in ruins to commemorate its destruction in 1944. In Beirut, Lebanon, a Holiday Inn that was largely destroyed during the country’s civil war has been left untouched.

“Preserving the scars of wars is an approach followed in many post-war cities,” Azzouz says. “Remains of wars help us to remember the past whilst looking towards a united future.”

Though his own country’s civil war is ongoing, he is looking toward such a future, particularly in his work. Azzouz is studying how the people of his hometown “are bringing structures of life to the ruined city.”

“How architecture could bring peace and help to bring people together is one of [my] main questions,” Azzouz says. “But it’s not only architecture. We need a multidisciplinary approach to heal the wounds of the war. We need art, literature, music to unite people. We need a creative approach.”

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