War damage leaves resilient ruins. We use the term ‘urbicide’ to refer to the deliberate destruction of cities to wreck the physical resources and the morale of the opponent, but contemporary metropolises seldom perish. Many ancient cities were unable to survive their destruction by enemy armies, natural catastrophes, or economic decline, and they have reached our days as archaeological remains or toponymic traces. Others, on the contrary, have risen repeatedly from their debris and their ashes to remain tenaciously in their place, and that is indeed the case of most medieval or modern cities. Even though romantic imagination or picturesque landscaping indulge in the nostalgic vision of the ruin as a stimulus for memory and an evocation of the past, city people have faced their ruins by rebuilding the traces and granting amnesty to the memory of the wound.
This stubborn will to heal explains that Lisbon continued to be Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755, that Chicago continued to be Chicago after the fire of 1871, or that Hamburg continued to be Hamburg after the bombing of 1943. My generation, witness of the destruction of the cities in the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan Wars, has also seen Mostar or Dubrovnik rebuilt in their physical fabric, and who knows if in their social fabric too, because the material traces of the conflict are more easily concealed than the communal lacerations caused by the mounting number of victims or by the displaced populations. The images of cities like Oms or Aleppo, devastated by the Syrian war, are more painful for what they hide than for what they show: those resilient ruins will be rebuilt like those of Beirut, but perhaps the humanity that inhabited them has been lost forever.
Anyone who has completed a building knows well the great effort involved, the huge amount of material, technical, and human means needed to raise it, and the energy and talent such endeavor demands. All this makes architects especially sensitive to urban destruction, and in fact they are always the first to tackle reconstruction works, often while the ruins are still in smoke. Cities, however, are not just ensembles of buildings but tangled webs of people, closely woven tapestries of habits, and luminous labyrinths of affections. When we contemplate the dramatic and symphonic photographs of those ruins we know to be resilient, we should not feel reassured by the hope of their reconstruction, but understand that those silent skeletons and empty sockets depict a social landscape of broken links and an abyss of human suffering.