Dezeen Magazine

Destroyed buildings in Gaza

"There can be no doubt that this is urbicide"

As the conflict in Gaza enters its sixth month, Edwin Heathcote reflects on the impossibility of architecture criticism in the face of such devastation.

There are some things that are difficult to write. And there are some things that have become almost impossible.

Is architecture criticism one of these? How can you write about buildings, about houses, about thoughtful plans and neat details while cities are being levelled in real time?

Architecture is hard; construction is in constant conflict with gravity and economy, it is the result of hard physical labour. Destruction is relatively, at least physically, easy. What Eisenhower dubbed the military/industrial complex is a shadowy section of the economy devoted to the design and manufacture of the hardware to destroy buildings. It exists almost as the negative of the construction industry geared to build them.

The pace of destruction and the sheer intensity of the loss of life in Gaza have made it impossible to ignore

We are used to seeing the shells of works in progress, those naked concrete frames with deep, dark, shadowy spaces behind, buildings being born. But we have also become used to the reverse process: endlessly mediated images of skeletal structures, their rebars and cables hanging out like viscera, their floors pancaked, the dusty belongings of now flattened families punctuating the rubble (we are not allowed to see bodies, ruins must stand in for them as metaphors for death).

We see fragments of wallpaper and furniture, bathroom fittings, the detritus of everyday lives displaced. The streets are covered with the grey moondust of obliteration.

It started a couple of years ago in Ukraine (though, of course, it started in Yemen, or Beirut, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or back in Gaza the last time, or the time before that) but the pace of destruction and the sheer intensity of the loss of life in Gaza have made it impossible to ignore.

Whether this is genocide or not, there can be no doubt that it is urbicide; the deliberate destruction of cities as either collective punishment, pursuit of a single group, as a lesson to be taught or as a tactic. The Israel Defence Forces have used the destruction of homes as a form of collective punishment for decades; bulldozers have been among their most brutal weapons, more targeted and meaningful in their use than tanks. The destruction of homes is a cipher for expulsion, the obliteration of belonging.

Of course we understand that Hamas too used the city for its purposes, undermining, tunnelling, dispersing within it and we understand that the incursion on 7 October was a territorial and murderous act. It was an attack against the walls and fences currently so fetishised around the world as the solution to immigration or invasion – and yet so proving useless.

But this is not about the politics or the injustice. This is about the fragility of architecture and its incapacity to protect, and it is about the cultural infrastructure of architecture – the critics and the exhibitions, the profession, the advertising the media.

I have been profoundly struggling with this for months, the sense of dread and impotence

Not because critics matter – in fact precisely because clearly we do not matter. Our voices carry virtually no weight here. Architecture criticism? Really? How can we avert our eyes and write about beautiful homes or enriching museums? We do, because we are paid, that is our job. But it is with a sense of creeping irrelevance.

I have been profoundly struggling with this for months, the sense of dread and impotence. So much of the contemporary discourse is about decolonisation, about care, about belonging and identity. Yet here this thing is.

Part of the impossibility of writing about the impossibility of writing is that you become acutely aware that you are subverting the tragedy and making it about you. And it is an easy, unavoidable snipe. This is not about us, the critics and the writers, the journalists and the editors and the consumers of those media or the curators and academics who often have prominent voices and platforms.

But then how do we pretend that what we do matters? I am under little illusion that my writing can make a difference here. And that is the problem. This is an existential crisis for Gazans whose state is being flattened but if we avoid the question it is curtains for us. Gaza will be rebuilt, but how will we rebuild our discourse if we continue to ignore the destruction and see it only as news and not as culture?

The compartmentation of the media into these separate sections: domestic news, foreign news, business news, culture, art and design, creates a distinction that is logical but dangerous. The impossibility of traversing and subverting the sections amplifies the isolation and the inability of culture to address the crisis clearly.

As architects and critics, we are complicit in a way of thinking that posits architecture as a mechanism for improvement, a creation of a place in which lives can be lived and meaning constructed. When we see how casually it can be destroyed we become silent.

Whether in Bakhmut or Gaza, those cities of dust make our work more painful

Those images of Gaza haunt our dreams. The dark holes where once there were windows and shutters, the plumes of black smoke, the grey dust which obscures everything and makes the images appear in monochrome, cities stripped of colour as they have been denuded of inhabitants. The heaps of concrete, beams, blocks and bricks smashed and crumpled, the rubble that was once so crowded with life. Is this still architecture? Or has it become something else?

When all that's left is rubble, is that construction, destruction or archaeology? That grey dust coats everything. It metaphorically settles on our keyboards at great distances. Whether in Bakhmut or Gaza, those cities of dust make our work more painful.

And then, there it is. As soon as you do begin to attempt to write about the ruins, it becomes almost by default an aestheticisation, an objectification.

We spend our lives attempting to escape that objectification, to express something of the impossibly entangled nature of architecture as an expression of societal, economic, political and commercial currents, yet we find ourselves back at its most basic of cliches – buildings reduced to rubble. It is as reductive as the fact itself.

This is not intended as self-care or self-pity, though I admit it feels cathartic to write about the impossibility of writing. Rather it is about a reassessment of how, and why, we engage.

Can we write about this? How can we not write about this? And in writing about anything else other than this, what are we doing? And are we, in fact, always writing about this, even when we are not writing about this anyway?

Edwin Heathcote is an architect and writer who has been architecture and design critic of The Financial Times since 1999. His numerous books on architecture include Monument Builders, Contemporary Church Architecture and the recently released On the Street: In-Between Architecture.

The photo is by Shutterstock. Comments have been turned off on this story due to the sensitive nature of the subject matter.