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Urbicide and the Russian-Ukrainian war

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine graphically reminds us that wars often destroy cities.  This essay responds to the numerous articles that are applying the word ‘urbicide’ to describe the fate of cities like Mariupol, Kyiv, and Kherson.

The term ‘urbicide’ was popularised after the 92-95 Bosnian War and introduces the idea that ‘widespread and deliberate destruction of the urban environment’ is not just an inevitable effect of urban warfare, but that it ‘captures the sense that the widespread and deliberate destruction of buildings is a distinct form of violence’.  In particular, Coward argued that the intent of this violence is to reduce the heterogeneity and diversity of cities and thus render them moribund.

This essay is broken down into two parts; part one focuses on if the concept of urbicide can be applied to the war in Ukraine, with part two focusing on potential lines of effort that could save Ukraine’s cities and urban areas.

Part one concludes that it does not look like the Russians have a structured policy of urbicide that is targeting Ukrainian cultural and historical buildings.  On the contrary, Russian policies of destruction, looting and depopulation are an attack on the whole Ukrainian nation and culture.  Nonetheless, Russian actions left Ukrainian cities without infrastructure and population, and this can cause their demise.

Part two recommends three lines of action to save Ukrainian cities from dying: fortify the cities, rebuild their architectonical identity and re-signifying destroyed artefacts into positive elements.

Part 1: Is it urbicide?

They want to deconstruct us: it is urbicide!

An Economist article titled ‘Vladimir Putin’s war endangers Ukraine’s cultural heritage’ suggests that the destruction of cultural buildings and institutions is the result of deliberate targeting.  It reports the words of an architecture historian from Kharkiv who, after Russian bombings damaged the school of Economics of Kharkiv university, the Palace of Labour and other buildings on Konstytutsii square, claimed that ‘they want to deconstruct not just buildings, not just infrastructure, not just the Ukrainian state. They want to deconstruct us, the Ukrainian people.’

The idea that the Russians are deliberately destroying museums, universities and other places of cultural relevance is widely shared outside of Ukraine too.  Wendy Pullan, director of the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research, labelled these episodes as urbicidal in nature.  In addition, speakers at a series of online talks organised by the National Art Museum of Ukraine explained it by applying Coward’s definition of urbicide: an attempt to reduce heterogeneity in Ukrainian cities.  To test the validity of this assumption, we can check if the Russian military has consciously targeted these buildings or if their destruction is just an effect of how they wage war.

Was it intentional?

The bombings in Kharkiv, the destruction of the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, and the National Hryhoriy Skovoroda Museum offer us an opportunity to try and understand if the Russian Armed Forces have deliberately targeted these areas.

After the siege of Kharkiv, respected journalist David Patrikarakos interviewed Nataliya Zubar, Chair of the Maidan Monitoring Information Center.  In her experience, Russians target three things: administrative centres, communication and energy infrastructure, and emergency services.  Notably, she does not mention schools, museums, or other cultural sites.

The Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum was destroyed on the 27th of February while the battle of Ivankiv was still raging.  On the 28th of February, the village became famous because a 64 km long convoy heading there revealed the level of logistical disorganisation of the Russian army.  Noting this context, it is logical to suggest that the Russian Armed Forces had other priorities in those early days, and it is difficult to believe that Ivankiv’s museum was specifically targeted over and above other military targets.

The National Hryhoriy Skovoroda Museum was in the countryside west of Kharkiv and was destroyed on the 6th of May.  The museum was a solitary building in the fields, so its destruction would appear to be intentional.  Something to consider is that, in those weeks, the Ukrainian army was performing the first large counteroffensive of the war, forcing the Russians eastward of Kharkiv and liberating many villages.  The Russians had weeks to shell everything on the outskirts of Kharkiv but instead they waited until their positions became untenable to perform one last shelling before retreating.  We could interpret its destruction as a vindicative action and an attack on Ukrainian morale.  Alternatively, we can hypothesise that Ukrainian troops supporting the counteroffensive were close to the museum, the Russians spotted them but, because of unreliable tech or bad training, they instead hit the building.

Old tech and bad training’s side effects 

It is not possible to exclude that the Russians were not targeting the Skovoroda museum.  Nonetheless, the theme of Russian artillery and missiles’ imprecision is something to take into consideration when looking at the damage to the built environment.  Let’s consider, for example, the destruction of the Chernihiv Regional Youth Library, the Dnepropetrovsk House of Organ and Chamber Music, and the Mala Opera building in Kyiv.

These are some screenshots from Google maps. By searching for the names of these areas you can explore the surrounding areas discussed above and below.

Were they targeting the library or a stadium that can host hundreds of soldiers?

A music venue or a train station with massive warehouses?

A historical building or the Zavod Artem, a missiles production facility?

There is no final answer, but the doubt persists, particularly if we consider that the stadium was also destroyed, many buildings around the Dnipro train station were randomly hit on that same day, and the Zavod Artem facility was bombed too.

An attack on the Ukrainian nation and population

The past twelve months have demonstrated numerous episodes of missed targets, suggesting either poor intelligence or an inability to target accurately.  Russian lack of care towards safeguarding cultural and historical buildings is undeniable.  Nonetheless, it must be noted that they did not waste one single missile to destroy highly symbolic monuments like the Motherland statue, Saint Sophia Cathedral, or the Golden Gate of Kyiv.  It is difficult to argue that they have urbicidal intent with a structured policy and supporting processes to reduce the heterogeneity of Ukrainian cities through bombing. The destruction is an effect of Russia’s character of war: their organisation, technology, and military culture. Cities are where people live and thus where we can more easily see the effects of Russian attacks on the Ukrainian nation, culture, and traditions.

In conclusion, Coward’s interpretation might be valid to explain the destruction of cities in the Balkan wars, but there is not yet enough evidence to say that this also applies to Ukraine.

Russia’s attack is on the Ukrainian nation, not an attempt to kill its cities.  People claiming that Russians ‘want to deconstruct us’ and ‘destroy our culture and traditions’ are right, what is wrong is to call it urbicide.  Nonetheless, even if there might not be urbicidal intent, there is a potentially urbicidal effect, particularly for cities that suffered extreme levels of destruction and depopulation, like Mariupol. It is thus necessary to explore how to intervene to save those cities from dying.

Part 2: How to save Ukrainian cities

Before I proceed in this analysis, I suggest a very loose definition of what a city is: an architecturally materialised idea that exists at any instant as a snapshot of dynamic disequilibrium, and has the power to inspire its citizens to mobilise their energies and resources.  There are three corollaries to this definition. Firstly, a city is alive as long as there is a community that believes in that idea.  Secondly, architectural objects shape our identity, and thirdly, construction and destruction are cyclical events in the life of a city.

1) Saving the idea

A lesson from history is that some of the biggest threats to cities are geographical and environmental changes.  In Ukraine, the change is in the security environment: in Soviet times, the safest cities were in the east, while today they are in the west.  This is a considerable problem as many Ukrainians will have to decide between two fundamental aspects of their life: physical security against local and city identity and affiliation.  It is expected that many people will move away or will not return: they will abandon the idea for safety.  To save the cities in the east the government must thus make them safe against a future re-invasion.  In practical terms, border cities must be fortified.  This is not a popular idea, particularly between architects and political science scholars.  In their opinion, rebuilt cities should not be fortified as this would be a constant reminder of possible future destructions and remove the ‘open humane character’ that makes the city a place for a beautiful and better life.

It is a nice proposition, but Russia will remain a threat to Ukraine and Ukrainians will have to remain ready to defend themselves.  In WWII, unable to be defended, Paris surrendered to the Nazis to be spared from ‘urbicidal violence’.  We should not rebuild beautiful, unarmed cities and accept that we will have to hand them over when invaders come.

On the contrary, I urge designers to look, for example, at Israel’s aestheticisation effort of defensive architecture and how to make cities safe and beautiful. We widely welcome solutions to adapt cities to environmental and climate changes, and we must do the same for changes in the security environment.

2) Architecture and Identity

When addressing the topic of how to rebuild Ukrainian cities there is an overall common theme: reconstruction must move Ukraine to the frontier of green and sustainable architecture.  Furthermore, there are suggestions to rebuild them as techno production towns, green oasis cities, IT hub cities, agro-tech municipalities and fablab satellite municipalities.

These are alienating and urbicidal propositions.  People are nostalgic, are attached to their memories, and love the place where they grew up.  They are also traumatized because those places have been destroyed: if they want to rebuild their cities as they were, they should be able to do it.  Furthermore, rebuilding cities as they were might be crucial to saving the identity of their communities.  In 1943, the UK Government discussed the reconstruction of the House of Commons with a U shape, following the model of the European parliaments.  Churchill opposed this idea arguing that: ‘we shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us’.  What he meant is that our identity is shaped by our buildings and if we change them we will lose what makes us the citizens of our cities and nation.

Post-WWII Warsaw reconstruction is a good case to look at: the meticulous reconstruction of the medieval city centre was a show of national resilience that consolidated strong emotional links of the inhabitants with their ‘place on earth’, while the outer ‘modern’ socialist city is still regarded as alien.  Instead of imagining futuristic plans, I invite architects to research and collect how cities and buildings were before the destruction, particularly those of historical value.  Municipalities should encourage their citizens to share pictures, videos and 3D models of what their neighbour’s house looked like.  Finally, the introduction of alien objects, materials and technology into the urban fabric should be carefully considered and passed through a community discussion.

3) Reconstruction and re-signification

Cities cyclically experience destruction and reconstruction, and these are not mortal events, usually because of the scale at which they happen.  What remains is partly a selection of what is beautiful and useful, and partly the effect of chaotic events like fortuitous, natural, or manmade disasters.  Sometimes these two spheres meet: the community decides to keep a damaged urban piece as a memory of a negative event that swears never to forget.  We call this phenomenon memorialisation.  Many municipalities, organisations and artists are currently proposing the creation of these elements in Ukrainian cities.

Unfortunately, the desire to remember is a passing feeling.  People do want to forget negative events, and they should have the right to.  Furthermore, new people moving to a city are looking for a place for happy memories: a memorial with little meaning is just a tomb in the middle of the city, and no one likes to live in a cemetery.  There is a short-circuit between the need to remember death and the right to live in a positive and living city.  I thus suggest a very cautious approach to memorialisation that does not add a positive element to the city.  Selected ruins or objects can be preserved but need to go through a process of resignification. Ideally, the scar becomes a symbol of proud identity.  I exhort artists and architects to look for once-wounded cities with memorials that bring joy and life.  An example could be the flack towers in Wien as well as the adaptive reuse of military structures in many countries.

To summarize, to save their cities from the urbicidal effects of Russian destruction, Ukrainian decision-makers, architects and citizens must:

  • make eastern cities defensible through fortification.
  • rebuild cities’ architectonical identity.
  • resignify destruction into a positive element.

These are not easy or popular recommendations and they come at the end of an article that is challenging the current media driven accepted narrative.  I invite everyone to criticise the arguments, logic and conclusions as only through discussion and participation we can provide a solution to the destroyed cities of Ukraine.

Ares Simone Monzio Compagnoni

Architect and War Studies MA graduate.

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