THE REALITY OF THEORY
The question of how theory relates to practice has come up several times related to previous posts. The Electrical Management (Elektroprivreda) Building in Sarajevo, Bosnia, gives us a good chance to consider the issue.
First, a brief (as possible) history. Sarajevo is the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which in 1991 was one of the six republics incorporated into Yugoslavia, an independent Socialist Federation founded in 1945. With the end of the Cold War in 1990, Yugoslavia began to break up and the republics became independent countries in their own right. In the case of Bosnia, this was accompanied by massive violence, and a war raged on its soil from 1992 to 1995, which the so-called Dayton Accords ended. Tens of thousands were killed and the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust was carried out by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. The city of Sarajevo was under blockade and military siege from 1992 to 1995, during which time it had no normal supplies of food or water, no electricity, gas, or heat, and no telephone links. It was almost completely cut off from the outside world.
The UN flew in canned food and basic medical supplies. Journalists were allowed to fly in and out on UN relief flights. A few cultural figures—prominently Susan Sontag—became ‘journalists’ and came to Sarajevo during its darkest hours to give moral support, stage theater performances, and other gestures to encourage people generally, but particularly Sarajevo’s world-class artists and intellectuals. The city was dark and cold and under constant artillery and sniper fire.
The Bosnian Serb army surrounding Sarajevo had in mind to humiliate the people in the city, to punish the city for its cosmopolitan character and traditions. As much as anything, the siege was a terrorist act, a war on diversity and urbanity, an attack on the very idea of city. Thankfully—because of the strong spirit of its people—the terrorists ultimately failed.
In November of 1993, I went to Sarajevo—as a ‘journalist’—at the invitation of Haris Pasovic, head of the Sarajevo International Film and Theater Festival, who was aware of my work from a lecture I have given in Sarajevo two years earlier. I was accompanied by another architect, Ekkehard Rehfeld, who fully participated in all conversations and events. I brought with me forty freshly printed copies of “War and Architecture” (Pamphlet Architecture 15) and a roll of photocopy enlargements to make an exhibition. My goal, put simply, was to help architects there begin thinking about the role architecture would play both during and after the siege. I was able to see first-hand what the people were enduring and many damaged buildings.
The Electrical Management Building, along with the Post Office, Parliament, National Library, mosques and churches were symbolic of the civic life of the city, and therefore were especially targeted by the besieging Bosnian Serb army. I met the architect of the building, Ivan Straus, one of the most respected architects in Yugoslavia, who was also very supportive of my presence and ideas. It was he, during a later visit, who asked me to design a reconstruction of the Electrical Management Building.
In this and other reconstruction projects I proposed for Sarajevo, my theory was clear: the siege, and the four-year-long war, changed everything. Socialism was out, and an uncertain privatization was in. The city was losing its ethnic diversity, as Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and anyone who could left and, for a while, before the city was completely surrounded, Muslim refugees poured in. The infrastructure of utilities and services was severely damaged, with no idea of where the money would come from to repair them, or when that would even be possible. Buildings vital to the social and economic functioning of the city were damaged and unusable without extensive reconstruction, but, again, how this would be financed was unclear. More than all this, the people of the city had suffered years of deprivation, terror, and uncertainty, and many would be transformed by it. How, I asked, could architecture play any positive role in all of this?
My answer was that architecture, as a social and primarily constructive act, could heal the wounds, by creating entirely new types of space in the city. These would be what I had called ‘freespaces,’ spaces without predetermined programs of use, but whose strong forms demanded the invention of new programs corresponding to the new, post-war conditions. I had hypothesized that “90% of the damaged buildings would be restored to their normal pre-war forms and uses, as most people want to return to their old ways of living….but 10% should be freespaces, for those who did not want to go back, but forward.” The freespaces would be the crucibles for the creation of new thinking and social-political forms, small and large. I believed then–and still do–that the cities and their people who have suffered the most difficult transitions in the contemporary world, in Sarajevo and elsewhere, have something important to teach us, who live comfortably in the illusion that we are immune to the demands radical changes of many kinds will impose on us, too.
The design for the reconstruction of the Electrical Management Building is a case study in the application of this theory. Most of the building would be restored to accommodate corporate offices of the known kind. However, in the space that had been literally blasted off by artillery fire, would be constructed a freespace, to be inhabited by those who, in the reinvention of ways to inhabit space, would open the way to the future.
Architects are idea people. We have concepts and make designs that embody or implement them. We present them as clearly and openly as possible, and can only hope that others will find them useful to their ends, and build them. In the case of the Electrical Management Building in Sarajevo, my theory and design were not used. This does not mean that they are wrong, or a failure. Nor does it mean that those who elected to ignore them were wrong to do so. More challenges await us, and the ideas may yet become useful, in ways that I could never conceive.
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- February 6, 2008 / 3:22 pm
- Lebbeus Woods