Volume # 26: Architecture of Peace

A recent issue of Volume titled “Architecture of Peace” asks what role architects can play in promoting peace. This fearless issue makes the squabbling over Steven Holl’s extension to Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art seem rather trivial. Trying to promote peace in war torn areas like Israel, Palestine, Sudan, and South Eastern Europe takes far more courage or hubris than building onto an architectural treasure. The stakes are far higher and the critics far louder. That, however, did not prevent Volume from diving headlong into politically and emotionally charged issues. No single reader will agree with every article in this issue, but Volume’s willingness to openly discuss such volatile and critical topics is what makes this issue so intriguing and captivating to read. Failing to recognize the merit of this work because of disagreements would be an unfortunate error in judgment. At the same time, restraining personal dissent out of respect would be a disservice to this unshrinking issue. This issue begs for dialogue and respectful disagreement. I highly recommend our readers to pick up this issue and continue the dialogue on this very important topic. You might not agree with every article, but keep the dialogue going.

My personal challenge following the break.

In the spirit of civil discourse I wish to challenge a common misconception about the 20th century put forth in this issue. It is the belief that the last century was an exceptionally violent century in the human history. First appearing in the editorial it gives readers a lens in which to view all other articles. What makes this mischaracterization so damaging is that it perhaps leads to exactly what Arjen Oosternman, the editor, finds so unacceptable about today’s architects—their unwillingness to assert themselves on moral and ethical issues.

In the editorial Oosterman writes, “The twentieth may have been the most violent age in the history of mankind; it was also the moral age.” By moral age, Oosterman is referring to the idealistic 20th century architects who bothered not only with serving, but also with educating, changing and improving the world. He claims this moral compass was lost towards the end of the century. “Architecture no longer operates in name of The Future, no longer knows best; at its best architecture modestly or flamboyantly tries to solve problems and issues here and now.” Today’s architects, Oosternman says, think they should only listen and reproduce exactly what they have been asked to do.

Not to confuse my readers, I actually agree with Oosterman’s argument about the profession’s cowardice retreat from moral and ethical issues. What troubles me is the common misunderstanding of the moral history of the 20th century. If this can be righted then architects might feel more comfortable reasserting themselves on a more meaningful stage, play a larger role in promoting peace, and design once again for the Future.

The twentieth century wasn’t even close to the most violent age in humankind. By not even close I mean it was the least violent in human history—dead last, if you will. With figures like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, this fact is hard to swallow. Likewise, it would be foolish of me to describe it as peaceful. The savagery depicted in Jonathan Glover’s immensely powerful book Humanity: The Moral History of the Twentieth Century prevents any such notion. Horrific acts of violence and destruction laid waste to more people than any other century by far. So, it is easy to see why people commonly believe that it was the most immoral and vicious century. That, however, is incorrect.

One would be hard-pressed to find an evolutionary psychologist or biologist that believes our biological propensity for violence has changed dramatically in the last 100,000 years. However, our cultural tools for conflict resolution have changed. Armed with only a handful of ways to resolve conflicts, our ancestors were caught in far more devastating cycles of war and death. The death rate in tribal warfare far exceeded anything we see today. If the past century was fought with the same inability to settle disputes there would have been two billion deaths not a hundred million (see Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy, Michael McCullough’s Beyond Revenge and Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate).

We don’t even have to go as far back as our tribal days to make this point. Remarkably, this fact goes unnoticed in this issue even when Oosterman is told as much in an interview with Gerd Junne, a political science professor at the University of Amsterdam. Junne says, “the feeling of insecurity is prompted by a global situation and reinforced by global access of the media to everything that shoots (violence is news). I always compare it with the time of the Thirty Years War, when a third of Europe was killed off; compared with that, it’s paradise now!” Thus, it truly is a mystery why the myth of man’s 20th century fall from grace continues to propagate.

It might be hard to measure, but it would be surprising if the belief that mankind’s most disgraceful century coincided with the most idealistic age of architecture did not influence the profession’s timid retreat from moral issues. It is detrimental enough to think that no moral progress has been made since the Pleistocene, let alone believe it regressed during the 20th century. What could motivate an architect to improve the lot of man if s/he believes the great moralist architects of yesteryear had either no effect on how we treat each other, or if so it was a negative one?

An architect could justifiably champion relativistic and morally indifferent architecture if s/he believed the architectural environment had no effect. Likewise, if s/he felt 20th century architecture negatively affected human behavior, s/he could take a reactionary stance against all forms of modern architecture. That is why it is imperative to correct this misconception. We can’t throw out all the ideas that coincided with the most “peaceful” century in history.

This doesn’t mean all or even most contributions were beneficial. For many, we still know very little of their true influence. For example, there is still an intense debate on whether or not Corbusier’s ideas are partly to blame for the 2005 Paris riots (see p. 144 of ‘Architecture of Peace’). Twentieth century architecture unfolded like everything else in the last century. There were terrible mistakes and megalomaniac ideas. We cannot ignore them, but we need to place them within an accurate picture of the world if we truly want to make the world a more peaceful place. More importantly, we must be careful not to mix correlation with causation. Did architecture actually impact levels of peace? The most peaceful decades of this century are the ones that coincide with the type of architecture Oosterman chides as morally indifferent. Are we meant to believe that post-modernism and deconstructionism have brought about more peace, or are we overestimating architects’ impact on peace? I would go with the latter.

Still, including this disagreement, I cannot recommend this issue of Volume enough. We can always discuss the most controversial issues with civility and grace. The editorial decision to offset and join each article with images from Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity stresses this point beautifully. Dispersed throughout this issue are lighthearted images of people holding signs that read, “If your beliefs fit on a sign, think harder”, “Non-Violence by any means necessary” and “SHHHH…I’m listening to the opinions of others.” It is the perfect touch, and I applaud Volume for taking on such difficult issues while reminding the readers that what matters is how we disagree not what we disagree about.

Contents:
12 Editorial Arjen Oostermna
16 The Social Scientist: Did Someone Say Collaboration? Gerd Juune interview
20 Wars of the World Nik Dimopoulos and Timothy Moore
22 Provide and Enable: The Role of Architects in Post-War Recovery Sultan Barakat
24 The Architect: Keeping the Pace Esther Charlesworth interview
28 The Aesthetic of Ethic Rory Hyde
32 The Architect: Small Change, Big Result Malkit Shoshan interview
42 The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions Vincent Schipper
44 There’s No Such Thing as a Neutral State Nik Dimopoulos and Timothy Moor
46 Blue Fabric Pieter Paul Pothoven
50 Blue Voxpop
52 In the Service of Peace Nik Dimopoulous and Timothy Moore
56 Better Safe than Sorry: Everyday Life in Post-Interventionary Society Mark Duffield
66 The Lawyer: Title and Right Scott Leckie interview
70 Reclaiming Babur’s ‘Light Garden’ in Kabul Jolyon Leslie
74 Return to Nature Alessandro Petti, Sandi Hilal and Eyal Weizman
78 Peacebreading Arjen Oosterman
81 SEE Insert: Archis Intervention in South Eastern Europe
122 The Afgan Gordian Knot Allard Wagemaker
128 The Soldier: Positive Peace Allard Wagemaker interview
132 Thou Shall (Not) Lilet Breddels and Arjen Oosterman
134 The Emerging Cities of Iraqi Kurdistan Anna Wachtmeister
140 Working in a Palestinian Refugee Camp: Talbieh, Jordan Joumana al Jabri, Reem Charif and Mohamad Hafeda
144 It’s the Architect’s Fault Wouter Vanstiphout
150 Intellectual Disaster Tourism Edwin Gardner
152 The Distance Narrows Hannes Schmidt and Sophie-Therese Trenka-Dalton
160 Colophon

More information on distribution and suscriptions at Volume website.

Cite: Henry, Christopher N.. "Volume # 26: Architecture of Peace" 07 Apr 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Oct 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=125486>
  • bill

    Thoughtful little essay — I enjoyed reading it. I think Christopher Henry should start writing the Indicator.

  • ArchiREN

    I think the comment about “a lost moral compass” is off-base, or at least easily explained.

    The beginning of the century featured architects trying to lasso the tools of the Industrial Revolution to solve the world’s problems. Their moral compass came out and spoke once they learned to use the tools.

    This time around, it’s not the steam engine, or the curtain wall, but the computer which must be lassoed, and I don’t think the architectural community has learned the tools (parametric/truly-evidence-based design, what it means, how it helps), well enough for our moral compass to speak out yet.

  • http://www.archdaily.com Christopher Henry

    Some might disagree with Steven Pinker on why we have become more peaceful, but the evidence marshaled in Pinker’s new book for the decrease in violence is hard to deny. Check out Peter Singer’s NY Times book review http://nyti.ms/rFXoKC

  • C S

    Very much enjoyed reading it, thanks!

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