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  • ‘Urbicide’ Reconsidered
  • Martin Coward (bio)

Introduction: reconsidering the phenomenon of urban destruction

Amidst the violence that accompanied the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the fate of its buildings attracted a significant amount of attention. In the majority of cases, this concern with, or for, architecture concentrated on assaults on cultural heritage. The attacks on Dubrovnik, the Old Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar and the Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka offered iconic representations of the violence unfolding across Croatia and Bosnia.2 Underlying these iconic instances of violence, however, was a more widespread campaign against the buildings of the former Yugoslavia. In towns and cities across Croatia and Bosnia (and later Kosovo) the more mundane architecture that comprises the everyday built environment (houses, shops, squares, car parks) were also subject to widespread and deliberate destruction.3

Watching the deliberate and widespread destruction of such buildings in the cities of Yugoslavia a minority of observers contended that these attacks should be regarded as a distinct form of political violence. These observers - principally architects and scholars - argued that buildings should be understood to be a target in their own right and, as such, their destruction should be irreducible to the other, extant conceptual categories being deployed to understand the violence attending the dissolution of Yugoslavia. For example, Bogdan Bogdanovic, architect and former mayor of Belgrade, argued that the destruction of Vukovar was the work of ‘city haters’ who sought to extinguish urbanity through the destruction of the built environment.4 Similarly, the architects responsible for Mostar ‘92- Urbicid and Urbicide-Sarajevo, indicated through their catalogues of the destruction of the built environment of both cities that such violence should be regarded as an assault on urbanity and thus a phenomenon in its own right.5

This distinct form of violence against the built environment was referred to as ‘urbicide’. The concept of urbicide had a double efficacy in the discursive economy of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. On the one hand, the lexical kinship with genocide meant that urbicide could, by association, draw on a number of unstated assumptions underpinning the former category. Thus the use of the term ‘urbicide’ emphasised both the gravity of this destruction and the purported exterminatory logic that underpinned the assault on the built environment of Yugoslavia. On the other hand, despite lexical kinship with other categories of political violence, the introduction of unfamiliar terminology indicated that an urgent need existed to examine and understand a hitherto unacknowledged form of political violence. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms, unfamiliar terms are (re)introduced in order to signal the need for new avenues of thought. Indeed, such ‘concepts are...created and introduced as a function of problems which are thought to be badly understood or badly posed’ through existing conceptual terminology.6 It can be argued, therefore, that the unfamiliar concept of urbicide was introduced into the various discussions of violence in the context of the dissolution of Yugoslavia in order to indicate that the problem of violence against the built/urban environment was badly posed according to extant conceptual categories.

Despite being unfamiliar to many observers of, and participants in, the conflicts that marked the dissolution of Yugoslavia, urbicide was not a neologism. Indeed, both the concept of urbicide and a wider interest in the phenomenon of the destruction of the built/urban environment can be traced back through twentieth century writings on the city. However, the popularity of urbicide in relation to the Yugoslav wars revivified interest in both the phenomenon of the destruction of the built/urban environment and the various, albeit marginal, attempts that had previously been made to understand it.

This revival of interest in the destruction of the built/urban environment was amplified further by the perception that the post-cold war era was witnessing the emergence of a novel relationship between war and the city. In the literature concerning the evolution of forms of war in the post-Cold war era - especially that concerning the purported revolution in military affairs and its transformation of the cold war doctrine of air-land warfare - there was a sense that war and the city would become more closely entwined.7 According to this perception, as global...