Introduction: The Strategic Political Order Behind the Apparent Disorder of Debris

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Article published in The Funambulist 11 (May-June 2017) Designed Destructions. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

Welcome to the eleventh issue of The Funambulist Magazine, which can be read as the third installment of a trilogy about the territorialities and architectures of colonialism and postcolonialism. Issue 9 took us through indigenous, migrant, and demilitarization struggles in small islands around the world. Issue 10 examined colonialism as a process rather than an era; and in relation to its architecture understood as a spatial apparatus rather than an aesthetic system. As for Issue 11, it is dedicated to the precise and strategic political order behind the apparent disorder of debris and ruin.

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(top) Algiers’ Casbah before the French invasion versus Algiers’ Casbah today. (left) Diagram reconstituting the layer of dense urban fabric destroyed to create Paris’ Avenue de l’Opéra as part of Haussmann’s Great Transformations.

In the introduction to Issue 10, I alluded to the invading French army’s destruction of the Lower Casbah of Algiers in the 1830s as one of the founding architectural gestures of colonialism. The Casbah, both as a site of colonial transformation (replacing the buildings of the Lower Casbah with a Haussmanian architecture, naming the streets, numbering the houses, etc.) and as one of anti-colonial resistance (against the French invasion first and, more than a century later, through the weaponization of the dense and labyrinthine urban fabric of the Upper Casbah by the FLN during the famous “Battle of Algiers” between 1954-1958) crystalizes indeed the opposing architectural forces of colonialism and the resistance against it. The French military’s designed destructions of that time not only targeted the anti-colonial resistance abroad, but also the insurgent efforts of the Parisian proletariat “back home.” In this regard, it is no accident that Marshal Thomas Robert Bugeaud was active in both of these geographical contexts. After his involvement in the counter-insurrection of April 1834 in Paris, he was put in charge of “pacifying” the last anti-colonial forms of resistance in Algeria, in particular those led by Emir Abd el-Kader. Returning to Paris during the Revolution of 1848, he wrote a small pamphlet of counter-insurrection theory addressed to his fellow military officers. Entitled The War of Streets and Houses, this little treatise radically rethinks the conceptual framework of urban counter-insurrection. Instead of applying a large, heavily hierarchized body of troops, as was typical of the French army, Bugeaud advocated for a fragmented army in which the authority to initiate is dispersed among reduced squads, who should pursue insurgents by digging holes through the walls of neighboring buildings — a tactic notably put to use by the Israeli army in the siege of the Nablus (Balata) Refugee Camp in 2002 during the Second Intifada, as described in the work of Eyal Weizman (interviewed in this issue). Bugeaud’s theorization of counter-insurgency was contemporary with the notorious transformations of Paris overseen by Eugène Haussmann — legible as the materialization of the counter-insurrectionary agenda, both in the “digging” of large avenues through dense proletarian neighborhoods and in replacing the cobbles of certain streets with macadam, thus complicating the construction of barricades by potential insurgents.

A century and half later, the French State still operates through the same logic when it systematically destroys Roma villages or, more recently, the entirety of the town built by refugees and other displaced persons in Calais. In both cases, the State creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which those it persecutes are considered “nomadic” or “migrant” in essence, and have therefore no claims to hospitality or rights of any kind, including the right to urbanize as they see fit. This is where the struggles of refugees and other displaced persons find a strong echo in the indigenous resistance to settler colonialism in the Americas. Whether in the Gran Chaco lowlands in South America, as described by Gastón Gordillo in Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction (2014), or in the plains of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, where 200 Native nations assembled to resist the desecration of their land, the designed destructions of geoengineering are mobilized to construct colonial and capitalist industrial infrastructures.

The Caterpillar bulldozers used in the destruction of the sacred ground at Standing Rock are the same one historically used by the Israeli military to level Palestinian properties, which served as my entrance point to the concept of “designed destructions” during the research I undertook for a small book entitled La politique du bulldozer: La ruine palestinienne comme projet israélien (Politics of the Bulldozer: The Palestinian Ruin as an Israeli Project), published by B2 in France in 2016. Taking its cue from the work of Eyal Weizman and the research agency he directs, Forensic Architecture (see pages 44-51), my book argues that the Israeli army’s ongoing destruction of Palestinian houses and infrastructure since 1948 can be read in the same exact terms than for the design of any “constructive” architecture project. This research was considering five episodes of the history of Palestine as tragically illustrative of such method.

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(1) Palestinian housing building destroyed after the bombardments of July-August 2014. / Photograph by Shareef Sarhan (2) Israeli army customized Caterpiller D9 bulldozer near Gaza. / Photograph by the Israel Defense Forces (2011) (3) Palestinian house in East Jerusalem destroyed by the Israeli police as part of punitive demolition. / Photograph by Jacob Burns for Amnesty International (2015) (4) The last ruin remaining of the Palestinian village of Bayt Susin near Ramle, evicted then destroyed in 1948. / Photograph by Avi Nahmias (2008)Photograph by François Franck (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund)

Following an inverse reverse chronological order, the first episode examined is the massive destruction wrought by the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza in the summer of 2014, which killed 2,251 Palestinians in two months. Part of the design component behind these deadly bombings consisted in the Israeli army finding a way to construct a pseudo-legal and rhetorical framework that
would justify them. Every aspect of this framework contributed to a territorial and architectural vision in which it was almost impossible for a person to qualify as a civilian. Military propaganda posters asking “When is a house a home?” suggested that only a portion of Palestinian residences were used for actual living space, in order to devote the rest to weapons storage. Employing the euphemistically-labeled “knock-on-the-roof” tactic, a “low-yield” explosive charge would be dropped on the roof of a residential building to warn the inhabitants that their home would be destroyed a few minutes later, a practice the Israeli army considered sufficient to justify calling anyone killed in the ensuing bombing a voluntary “human shield.” On July 22, 2014, the 100 meter “kill zone” running adjacent to the walled border of the Gaza Strip was temporarily extended to a width of 3,000 meters, displacing 25% of the territory’s population and allowing the Israeli army to ‘legally’ destroy any building within this expanded area.

These legal apparatuses designed for war have an equivalent in the daily administration of the occupation. As described in my text on the practices of the Israeli police in Issue 8 (Police, Nov-Dec. 2016), the punitive demolition of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem (by the police) and in the West Bank (by the army) has been a recurring practice since 1967, deriving its legal basis from a short-lived piece of British legislation during the colonial Mandate of Palestine. This legal construction involves the judicial demolition of the family home of a person found guilty of an act of “terrorism,” thus enacting a form of (racially-based) collective punishment, a disciplinary measure specifically outlawed by the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel has been a party since 1951. Some of the most recent instances of this collective punishment have taken the form of filling apartments waist high with concrete to make them unlivable, eventually destroying the whole building under the unforeseen heavy weight. Such a cautiously engineered tactic says a lot about the deliberateness of these designed destructions.

Two other historical episodes illustrate the colonial influence a state like France may have had on Israel. The massive destructions orchestrated as part of the military invasions of the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Jenin in 2002, as well as in the so-called “pacification” of Gaza in 1971, are testament to the similarities between the two regimes. France had Marshal Bugeaud, Israel had General Ariel Sharon in 1971, who later became Prime Minister during the Second Intifada, which he himself provoked by visiting the esplanade of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2000. Both of these historical episodes saw the Israeli army’s bulldozers destroying several hundred Palestinian houses — sometimes with their residents inside of them in the dense refugee camps of Jenin (2002) and Rafah (1971) from which part of the Palestinian resistance was operating. Far from a random scheme of destructions, the Israeli bulldozers’ mission often matches the vision of a new urban environment, one where the streets of refugee camps are wide enough for Israeli tanks to penetrate any section of the town. Palestinians in Gaza in the 1970s certainly saw the colonial genealogy between the French and Israeli states, calling these new streets born from violent military destructions the “Sharon Boulevards,” a direct reference to Haussmann.

However, no designed destructions are more symptomatic of the strategic order behind the creation of debris than those of the Palestinian villages evicted and destroyed in the ethnic cleansing that enabled the birth of the State of Israel in 1948. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappé shows us, these systematic destructions began two months before the end of the colonial British Mandate, and thus before the beginning of the war between the newly declared State of Israel and the armies of the Arab League. The descriptions given by officers of the Haganah (the main Zionist paramilitary group that preceded the Israeli army) — this includes Sharon himself, who was only 20 years old at the time of independence — illustrate the methodical protocol designed for such destructions. A carefully determined amount of dynamite (usually 1kg) was detonated in the middle of each building to make it unusable, and mines were then laid to dissuade the return of Palestinian residents. But beyond this primary violent destruction, what is striking in the political history of the pre-1948 Palestinian villages in what is now Israel, is that their very ruins were themselves later demolished. Every ruin carries, through its architecture, the story of its past existence as a functioning building, as well as the story of its decay, including an accelerated one in the case of a sudden destruction. These two stories are fundamentally in conflict with the political narrative that not only justifies the Israeli apartheid, but sometimes appears as the only reason it exists: buildings are prevented to recount the existence of Palestinians in… Palestine, as well as to attest to the ethnic violence through which the State of Israel emerged in 1948. Many Palestinians ruins were thus systematically destroyed between 1949 and the 1960s, while others were covered by the forests planted by the Jewish National Fund, which took on this role in 1948, after it was no longer necessary to direct the funds collected from the Jewish diaspora toward buying land from Palestinian owners, as was its mission for the first half of the 20th century (for more on these forests, see “From the Blog: The Political History of Pine Trees in Palestine,” Issue 9 Islands, Jan-Feb 2017).

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The Vendôme Column, after its ceremonialized destruction on May 16, 1871 by members of the Paris Commune led by painter Gustave Courbet. Photograph by François Franck (Harris Brisbane Dick Fund)

Designed destructions are however not exclusively the prerogative of a state’s military and civil actions. For instance, Bugeaud had an alter-ego in the person of Auguste Blanqui, who also theorized (and applied) the transformation of the urban fabric to provide the optimal spatial conditions for insurrection. In Instructions for an Insurrection in Paris (1866), he provides information, with great precision, about the way insurgents should depave streets in order to construct barricades, as well as to demolish staircases and pierce holes from one building to another in order to maximize the movement of the insurrection and minimize that of the army:

The two lateral barricades are able to communicate by piercing the thick walls that separate the houses situated on the line of defense. The same operation is executed simultaneously in the houses on both sides of the barricaded street down to its end, then back to the right and left, along the street parallel to the line of defense in the rear. Openings are made on the second and top floors in order to obtain two paths. The work goes on at the same time in four directions. All the blocks of houses belonging to the barricaded streets should be pierced in their perimeter, in such a way that the combatants are able to enter and exit by the parallel street in the rear, out of sight and reach from the enemy.

At a more symbolic level, and in close connection to the text “Swarm, Demolish, Destroy” by Bhakti Shringarpure in this issue, the 1871 Paris Commune — the three-month long independent socialist republic of Paris — ceremonialized and celebrated the destruction of the Vendôme Column, erected in 1810 to the glory of Napoléon Bonaparte and French imperialism. More powerful than the simple withdrawal of the column, the spectacle of its demolition and the display of its fallen remains illustrate well the degree to which the design of destruction is highly political. The following articles, photographs, and projects deftly serve to prove this point. I wish you a good read.


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Léopold Lambert is a Paris-based architect and the editor-in-chief of The Funambulist. Since 2007, he attempts to raise questions around the politics of the built environment in relation to the bodies. He is the author of Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence (dpr-barcelona, 2012), Topie Impitoyable: The Corporeal Politics of the Cloth, the Wall, and the Street (punctum, 2016) and La politique du Bulldozer: La ruine palestinienne comme projet israélien (B2, 2016). Read more on his contributor page.