Diplomacy by Design

September 5, 2014
A new generation of architects is using rail lines, shopping centers, and football fields to keep the peace from Belfast to Baghdad.

On a single day in July, when ambient tensions escalated, Palestinian militants fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, and the Israelis launched airstrikes against towns throughout the Gaza Strip. Dozens of Palestinians, most of them civilians, were killed. The order of daily urban life was disrupted, yet again, by warfare.

Karen Lee Bar-Sinai knows the psychic toll of this conflict all too well. For four years, she endured missile attacks, sometimes daily, on a kibbutz two miles from central Gaza. But this July, her focus was on the more granular details that underscored war's impact in Jerusalem.

The 37-year-old Israeli architect was frustrated to see how Palestinians had fixated on a rail line that runs along the city's Israel-Palestine border. As the fighting carried on, they responded by ripping tracks out of the ground, smashing traffic signals, and reportedly damaging or completely destroying a number of rail stations. What Israel had seen as a unifying infrastructure project just three years prior, some Palestinians had come to view as another arm of the occupation.

The railway "wasn't designed to really serve two capitals connected together," Bar-Sinai says. "This entity separates, whereas it's such a tremendous opportunity to actually connect." This latest phase of conflict revealed many things, including the limitations of designing for peace -- in Israel-Palestine and elsewhere.

The geographies of human settlement have become the modern theaters of conflict. "The search for national security is today a source for urban insecurity," writes sociologist Saskia Sassen -- an insecurity that becomes part of the environment, writ large, in upturned neighborhoods and toppled buildings. In terrorist attacks alone, cities were subject to more than 12,000 incidents and suffered more than 73,000 casualties between 1968 and 2008, according to urban-affairs scholar Hank Savitch in his book Cities in a Time of Terror. "Approximately three out of every four attacks and four out of five casualties occur in a city," he writes.

But though these numbers are indeed staggering, urban warfare and deliberate attacks on architecture are hardly new phenomena. From the widespread destruction of cities during World War II to the bombing of Hanoi to the 9/11 attacks to the invasion of Baghdad, the toll of war is both human and urban.