Designing peace

Peace & Security01 Jul 2010Gerd Junne

Architecture has long served the powerful and prosperous. But it is in a unique position to help reconstruct post-conflict societies by building stability and uniting divided cities.

A great deal of (re)construction takes place in the aftermath of war. Can this be done in such a way that it creates more peaceful relations among inhabitants in the future? Is an ‘architecture of peace’ possible? This was the central question at a conference of architects and social scientists at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) in May 2010. 1

The physical environment influences social relations. Chairs in a room arranged in a circle will generate a different discussion than if they were arranged in rows. More street light makes people feel more secure. People hardly get to know each other in large apartment blocks and remain anonymous. Public space is needed for people to intermingle, just as offices need coffee corners and copy machines for people to meet and interact. So the question is not whether architecture and city planning influence social behaviour, but how and to what extent. How much influence can architecture and city planning exert towards shaping a society torn apart by conflicts or just emerging from large-scale violence?

Post-conflict situations are even more complex than situations following an earthquake or a tsunami. Natural disasters tend to unite people (though different groups tend to be affected differently). Societies that have just experienced large-scale violence, however, remain deeply divided, even after the shooting has stopped. Every step of reconstruction is evaluated, whether it favours one side or another. Security problems abound. Weapons are everywhere, and a culture of violence persists.

The most mobile and educated will have left the country. 2 Money is only in the hands of those who profited from the war situation (by smuggling, looting, running protection rackets and human trafficking). Warring factions contest the leadership. Civic institutions cease to function. Popular participation in decision making suffers from mutual hatred. In addition, decision makers are under severe pressure to introduce immediate improvements. Failure to do this could cause the country to relapse into war. This happens within five years in about half of all violent civil conflicts. Any ‘post-war’ situation may easily turn into a ‘pre-war’ situation. The question is to what extent can architecture, in the broad sense of the term (including city planners), contribute to reducing the chance of violent intra-state conflict?

To utopia and back again

Most remnants of historical constructions are either relics of an ‘architecture of war’ (fortresses, city walls, watch towers), Herrschaftsarchitektur (power architecture), or ruling-class architecture 3 (palaces, castles, courts) or religious buildings. They were built to impress, subdue, enforce, intimidate and defend. Historically, architecture has always served the victorious and the powerful. The question of whether architecture can also serve another purpose has only been asked recently. Why can’t architecture contribute to emancipation? Why can’t it be used to uplift people, to empower them, to contribute to equality and facilitate peaceful interaction?

This question was first seriously considered following World War I, when architects became ardent proponents of modernism. They were convinced that a new, classless society could be built on the foundation of rationally designed constructions that provide space for living, studying and recreation for everyone. The interest was short-lived. It quickly gave way to a new wave of ‘imperialist’ architecture, which also took root under fascism and communism. But the interest revived after World War II, especially in cities with a social-democrat leaning, and intensified with the cultural revolution of the 1960s.

But when the general belief in a ‘manageable’ world faltered in the 1970s and 1980s, so did the confidence of architects that they could re-engineer the world. It gave way to aestheticism or functionalism – until some architects realized that their profession might well have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. 4 Though the idea of architects creating a new world by designing better buildings (and towns) was utopian, this did not mean that they had no influence at all. The devastation in many war-torn countries in the 1990s in particular stimulated a new way of thinking about how architects could contribute to conflict prevention or the healing of ‘wounded cities’. 5

Role of architects

One of the first institutions to take up this challenge and put the contribution of architects into a broader political, economic and social context was the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) of the University of York, United Kingdom, founded by Sultan Barakat in 1993. One of his first students at PRDU, Esther Charlesworth, followed his lead and started Architects Without Frontiers in 1999. However, architects actually play only a marginal role in post-conflict development. 8 Most of them only regard peace as a favourable condition for architecture, not as a condition which itself can be designed. 9 Given their specific competences, they could be playing a more meaningful role in the following areas:

  1. Architecture is about the organization of space. Architects can assist by designing spatial arrangements that are more conducive to stability and peace.
  2. Architects focus on the future. They build for future use. Conflicting parties are often prisoners of their past. They blame each other for past atrocities. Architects can turn their attention from what has been to what should be.
  3. Architects are trained to give human needs – such as shelter, protection, comfort, rest, interaction – more weight than ideologies and beliefs.
  4. Architects work in an interdisciplinary way, and it is their daily task to mediate between different stakeholders (owners, users, neighbours, authorities, customers, visitors) and find compromises in the face of different exigencies.
  5. Architects have a natural sense of sequence: the second floor cannot be built before the first. This ability can also help to formulate post-conflict development strategies.
  6. Architects are used to complexity and trained to understand the interaction between a building’s different components, materials and types of use (systemic thinking).
  7. Architects want to build something solid and lasting – something that lasts for at least a while. They aim for stability, which is highly desirable in a post-conflict situation.

Preventing urbicide

One of the major concerns of architects, in addition to human suffering, is the conservation of cultural heritage that has been threatened or destroyed during war. Attempts at ethnic cleansing do not only aim to chase away other ethnic groups, but also to eliminate all artefacts symbolizing a group’s roots in a given territory. It is routine during conflict for one group to consciously target sites that are historically significant for another group. This basically comes down to eradicating another group’s cultural monuments. 10

Destruction, however, often goes further. It is not only the monuments of the ‘other’ that are targeted. Cities as centres of urban life are hit too. Many conflicts around the world have a background of conflict between urban civilizations and their rural environment, one that has played itself out from Cambodia to Bosnia, and from Iran to Sierra Leone. In his essay ‘Urbicide and Chances for the Reconstruction of Balkan Cities’, Milan Prodanovic argues that cities symbolize ‘the coexistence of a variety of interrelated ethnic and cultural groups’. He points out that the former mayor of Belgrade used the term urbicide to describe attempts to virtually and symbolically ‘murder’ cities, resulting from ‘archetypal feelings of hostility on the part of rural society toward the rise of cities’. 11

One of the victims of urbicide was Mostar. It also provided a famous example of the high priority given to the restoration of a historical site, namely the restoration of the old Ottoman bridge across the Neretva River. This bridge connected two sides of the town, inhabited by Muslims and Croats respectively. 12 For foreigners, the bridge became a symbol for re-uniting the fighting groups. But when it was finally rebuilt, hardly any of Mostar’s inhabitants used it.

Divided cities

Uniting divided cities has been a great challenge for architects, from Belfast to Nicosia, 13regardless of whether these cities have been divided by walls or by barriers in the minds of their inhabitants. The longer the division continues, the more the different communities arrange their life around it. The border areas that could function as meeting grounds for people to interact with each other become a peripheral wasteland for both sides. Architects and city planners could do a great job in such situations to revive these border territories – as long as the political situation allows it. But they do not have to wait for this to happen. Attractive plans for these areas might generate the political will to realize such plans.

These mental borderlines in the minds of people are difficult to bridge by architecture. They can try to assist in overcoming these mental barriers by constructing buildings with high symbolic value. But rebuilding after a civil war (or after a revolution, like the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa in 1994) often does not only aim to restore destroyed sites. It intends to build something new on the ruins of the old regime to symbolize the change that has taken place.

A building in South Africa that symbolizes the fundamental break with the former era is the new constitutional court in Johannesburg, built on top of what used to be the country’s famous prison where many of those who fought the apartheid system had been incarcerated. As a gesture, it is perfect. But unfortunately it does not directly affect the relationship between different groups in South Africa.

Another famous building that has been restored is the Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament in Berlin. It was once set on fire by the Nazi regime and heavily damaged during World War II. It was given a big glass dome on top of the rebuilt building, symbolizing the architect’s desire for transparency in politics. It is a fabulous construction, but critics point out that the ability to look inside a construction will probably not increase people’s ‘insight’ of it.

There was heated discussion in New York City about what should replace the Twin Towers destroyed in the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Suggestions to build a constitutional court, a parliament or a replacement for the Twin Towers are intended to symbolize unity, justice, transparency and resilience. But it is not yet clear what their direct impact will be for people who use it (or do not use it) or live in the neighbourhood. The buildings clearly have a message, but it is not clear who this message is intended for, nor what they are going do to with it. 14

The work on divided cities is not only extremely interesting for those cities that experienced a dramatic split or had high walls erected between different boroughs. ‘What happened here could happen anywhere else,’ according to a Beirut resident’s wartime memoir referred to in Jon Calame and Esther Charlesworth’s 2009 book Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia15 More and more cities have taken on a multicultural character. If no preventive measures are taken, initial tensions could escalate to such an extent that the list of divided cities becomes much longer. Actually, cities could be the arena for much violent conflict in the 21st century. 16


Not all post-conflict cities are clearly divided along ethnic lines yet. But practically all have to cope with a dramatic rise in the population, which often doubles or even triples within a year. 17 The reasons behind this population increase are insecurity in rural areas, dangerous agriculture (landmines), better access to basic public services and better (even if still slim) employment prospects.

Measures taken by foreign countries also contribute to sudden and sharp population rises in cities. When the war in Kosovo ended, for example, Germany sent 96,000 refugees from Kosovo back to the country, 11,000 of which were forcibly deported. 18 Many of them cannot or dare not go back to their original homes (which may be devastated, occupied by others, situated in an unsafe environment or have few employment opportunities). So they stay in the capital – or on the fringe of the capital.

Post-conflict cities go through the same problems as expanding cities, only at the speed of a bullet train. The sudden acceleration of activity leads to a multitude of spontaneous building activities. This creates heated conflict about land rights, which poses tremendous challenges for the planning of infrastructure and basic services. Public authorities are in no way able to channel these activities according to any demonstrable plan.

Planning authorities are often decimated in such situations. Their offices, which may have employed 40 or 50 civil servants prior to a conflict, may only have a handful left following the conflict. Sultan Barakat pointed out in his presentation at the NAi conference that, ironically, local capacity is at its lowest when the willingness of the international community to provide means for reconstruction is at its highest, in the immediate aftermath of large-scale violence. 19

Urban authorities also struggle to (re-)establish themselves. They not only compete with private parties and market forces, but also face rival agendas from provincial or national authorities, 20 and from the military, police or militias, all of whom view cities from a different vantage point. 21 This competition is not only a question of a legal division of tasks and responsibilities. 22 It is also an economic issue, given that the authority that issues permits for construction is an important source of legal and illegal income.

Perfect slums

HH / Nick Hannes

Even under ‘normal’ circumstances, construction cannot keep pace with a sudden population rise of such proportions. The city of Kabul, for example, in spite of its large-scale destruction, saw its population triple, with half of it now living in provisional settlements or slums. In Iraq, about 2.9 million people (or 17% of the population) lived in slums in 2000. In 2010, their number had increased to 10 million. 24

City planners face immense challenges. Top-down planning only leads to additional conflict. The self-organizing capacity of slum dwellers is often underestimated. In many cases it is probably better to provide inhabitants with the means to upgrade their quarters themselves. This would enable them to create neighbourhoods with a higher quality of life, without it leading to rent increases that would force many inhabitants to leave and create new provisional settlements elsewhere.
Many interventions have been planned to better integrate slum or favela communities into their surrounding neighbourhoods. But the real challenge is to find jobs and income for the slum dwellers, which would provide them with the means to improve their houses and stay there when prices rise.

Valley of thieves

Not all cities in conflict zones suffer from conflict. Some cities thrive. A good example is Goma at the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda. 25 In Goma, the rising trade and smuggling of minerals during the wars turned the city into a vibrant regional centre. It became a boom town, but its newly acquired status also gave rise to new land conflicts.

In other cities, it may not be the whole city that profits from the war situation. It may just be one area inhabited by war profiteers. The privatized coast along the Danube in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second largest city (which saw its population double after the war), is called the ‘valley of thieves’ by the local population. 26 If there is little improvement in other parts of cities, such tangible inequalities may just lay the ground for another round of conflict in the future.


Al-Harithy, H. (ed) (2010) Lessons in Post-War Reconstruction. Case Studies from Lebanon in the Aftermath of the 2006 War. Routledge
Bevan, R. (2006) The Destruction of Memory. Architecture at War. Reaktion Books
Charlesworth, E. (2006) Architects without Frontiers. War, Reconstruction and Design Responsibility. Architectural Press.
Hills, A. (2009) Policing Post-Conflict Cities. Zed Books.
Vöckler, K. (2008) Prishtina is Everywhere. Turbo Urbanism: The Aftermath of a Crisis. Archis.


  1. This question was discussed at the ‘Architecture of Peace’ conference at the Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) on 3 and 4 May 2010, organized by Archis Intervention, the NAi, Partizan Publik and the University of Amsterdam. A comprehensive report can be found on the website of Archis Interventions at
  2. Remittances from diaspora groups have a strong influence on reconstruction. See Vöckler, K. and Zerr, I. Translocal Urbanism – The Diaspora as Urban Developer, in Vöckler, K. (2008) Prishtina is Everywhere. Turbo Urbanism: The Aftermath of a Crisis. Archis, pp. 185-197.
  3. Cf. Kündiger, B. (2001) Fassaden der Macht. Architektur der Herrrschenden. Seemann.
  4. See Scott, J. (1998) Seeing Like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, chapter 4; Heynen, H. (1999) Architecture and Modernity. A critique. MIT Press; Henket, H.-J. and Heynen, H. (eds) (2002) Back from Utopia. The Challenge of the Modern Movement. 010 Publishers
  5. Schneider, J. and Susser, I. (eds) (2003) Wounded Cities. Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World. Berg Publishers.
  6. For more information on the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) of the University of York see
  7. Charlesworth, E. (2006) Architects without Frontiers. War, Reconstruction and Design Responsibility. Architectural Press.
  8. We asked the world’s largest 100 architecture offices for examples of their engagement in reconstruction after civil war – anything essentially that could be described as an ‘architecture of peace’. Only four responded, with three of the four examples only marginally relevant to post-conflict reconstruction.
  9. Ole Bouwman, director of NAi in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, at the Architecture of Peace conference on 3 May 2010.
  10. Bevan, R. (2006) The Destruction of Memory. Architecture at War. Reaktion Books.
  11. Prodanovic, M. (2002) Urbicide and Chances for the Reconstruction of Balkan Cities, in Ockman, J. (ed) Out of Ground Zero. Case Studies in Urban Reinvention. Prestel. ‘In the absence of urbanity, hostility toward cities flourished n the Balkan mountains and became part of the local collective memory,’ p. 145.
  12. A great deal of literature has been devoted to the efforts to rebuild the bridge. Reconstruction of the living quarters, however, has been more or less neglected, to say nothing of providing shelter for the thousands of refugees at the fringe of the town.
  13. See Calame, J. and Charlesworth, E. (2009) Divided Cities. Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia. University of Pennsylvania Press, and the presentation by Gert Breugem on Nicosia at the NAI conference in Rotterdam, 4 May 2010.
  14. Some memorials probably have an even more powerful impact. Among the most impressive are probably the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where visitors physically get on the slippery slope to slide into an ever deeper quagmire of war and the increasing number of casualties (though it only honours the American dead), or the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin just beside the Brandenburg Gate for the Jews deported and murdered by the Nazi regime. Visitors cannot but experience the disorientation and isolation of deportation and the massiveness of systematic extinction. These are not patriotic memorials glorifying past sacrifices, but overwhelming monuments to warn future generations. But they have no direct impact on conflicting parties. They are for visitors from far away, not for the people who live in their surroundings.
  15. Calame and Charlesworth (2009), p. 205.
  16. Hills, A. (2004) Future War in Cities. Rethinking a Liberal Dilemma. Frank Cass.
  17. Vöckler, K. (2008) Turbo Urbanism in Prishtina, in Vöckler, K. Prishtina is Everywhere. Turbo Urbanism: the Aftermath of a Crisis. Archis, pp.34-54
  18. Vöckler and Zerr (2008), p. 187.
  19. Sultan Barakat in his contribution to the Architecture of Peace conference in Rotterdam, 3 May 2010.
  20. Sultan Barakat in his contribution to the Architecture of Peace conference in Rotterdam, 4 May 2010.
  21. Hills, A. (2009) Policing Post-Conflict Cities, Zed Books.
  22. It can also be competition for the political allegiance of people. A good example is the reconstruction of Lebanon in 2006. The immediate action taken by Hezbollah, who razed damaged buildings and established registration centres to assess the needs of returnees, contrasted starkly with relatively passive role of the government. Hezbollah considered its reconstruction activities as another part of its ‘war of resistance’. Cited in Al-Harithy, H. (2010) Lessons in Post-War Reconstruction. Case Studies from Lebanon in the Aftermath of the 2006 War. Routledge, p. 9.
  23. The Perfect Slum is the title of a blog by Sytse de Maat, architect, inventor and photographer (see, who uses slums as a source of inspiration: ‘Architecture often deals with image, planning, codes, and aesthetics. The basics of practical use tend to be overlooked or forgotten. Informal dwellings are almost purely practical and are therefore an important source for good design.’
  24. UN-Habitat (2010) State of the World Cities 2010/2011. Cities for All: Bridging the Urban Divide. UN-Habitat.
  25. Vlassenroot, K. and Büscher, K. (2009) The City as Frontier: Urban Development and Identity processes in Goma, Crisis States Working Papers Series No. 2, Ghent, Belgium.
  26. Weiss, S.J. (2008) Beyond an Architecture of Troublemaking, in K. Vöckler, Prishtina is Everywhere. Turbo Urbanism: the Aftermath of a Crisis. Archis, p. 200.