Despite of the fact that the following strategy has been regularly occurring in history, the notion of urbicide has been formulated by the former Mayor of Belgrade, Bogdan Bogdanovic after the wars in ex-Yugoslavia between 1992 and 1996. One could define it as the act of destroying buildings and cities that do not constitute any military targets. Urbicide is rather an act that is supposed to affect the very life of the population in such a way that war cannot be ignored by anybody and must be experienced on a daily basis by a nation’s civilians.
This technique has been used in symmetrical wars during the Second World War and the Blitz in England on the one hand, and the systematic bombing of German cities by the allies on the other hand. However, urbicide is also fully present in asymmetrical wars with the case of guerilla and governmental terrorism. The most well known example in the Western World is of course the terrorist attacks against New York’s World Trade Center in 2001 for its sudden and unexpected violence that was both perceived literally and symbolically. However, governmental armies also use this strategy to actively oppress a given population. That was thus the case of the Serbian army over the Bosnian population during the same Yougaslavian wars evoked above, and that also constitutes the daily life of the Palestinian population who has to suffer from the Israel Defense Forces’ domination.
One should not forget that buildings and cities are the most tangible element of a civilization since even the written heritage that composes a nation’s archive requires an architectural container. It thus happened that a civilization fully disappeared from history after having suffered from a combined genocide and urbicide.
Urbicide has been pretty much existed just as long as war. However, one can probably affirm that its surgical application and its insertion within a global warfare strategy of a highly sophisticated army are merely recent. Its implementation by the Israeli Defense Forces, for example, is very illustrative. We will see in the chapter Smoothing and Striating Space, how the Israeli soldiers have been destroying Palestinian homes in order to re-compose the battle field, but there are plenty of other applications of urbicide in this context. The way Arab villages in Israel have been fully destroyed after the Nakba in 1948 is highly symptomatic of this refusal from the Israeli authorities to deny the Palestinian existence in the past, in the present and of course in the future. The 2008-09 Israeli Operation Cast Lead that materialized in the three weeks long siege of Gaza, the killing of 1500 Palestinians and thousands of homes destroyed by the I.D.F. air stikes.
In that matter, Eyal Weizman observes the birth of a new legal discipline which places buildings as the main object of the judicial investigation. Weizman is then interested in the notion of Forensic Architecture that see war and building experts intervening in order to attempt to determine the technical means of destruction of architecture by external agents.
In this regard, he focuses his study on the person of Marc Garlasco who was one of the Pentagon experts in attacks design and during the beginning of the second Gulf War in 2003. He was named “Chief of High Value Targeting”. His role in the organization –Weizman uses the word ‘design’ in order to accentuate the architectural aspect of the job- of various attacks of buildings in order to assassinate several members of the Hussein administration or family.
The fact that Garlasco was allowed to include the death of up to twenty nine civilians in each attack is illustrative of the way Western armies are dealing with both military pragmatism and political communication. It also recalls the way Slavoj Zizek describes our current neo-liberal societies as the creator of symptomatic oxymorons. Just like the decaffeinated coffee or the beer without alcohol have been invented, the humanitarian war has cynically replaced the tautology of the just war.
Garlasco’s mission was therefore to design assassinations and for as many processes and softwares of positive design in architecture, there also exists some for the accomplishment of a negative architecture; an architecture that has been actively transformed by the mean of destruction.
That is how, from his job in the Pentagon, Garlasco ended up working for the organization Human Rights Watch as an expert of what Weizman now calls forensic architecture. Before being fired by this same organization because of the collection he owned of military Nazi objects, Garlasco studied the evidence of the 2008 Gaza siege. His conclusions, proving that war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed by the Israeli Army during this operation, were then confirmed by the United Nations’ representative, Richard Goldstone, in his report, then strangely retracted by the latter two years later.
Urbicide had thus become a scientific, surgical, military operation in architecture that either simply murders a civilian population by the means of architecture, or practically and symbolically destroys the organizational and cultural aspects of the city in a biopolitical attack on a population.