Urbicide by Martin Coward

Review of Coward, M. (2009) Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction, Routledge: Abingdon, pp.  176.

PDF Versions: Author’s Introduction by Martin Coward, Review by Antoine Bousquet, Review by Selina H. Stenberg, Review by Sara Fregonese, Author’s Reply by Martin Coward.

Author’s Introduction by Martin Coward[1]

Introduction: Thinking Otherwise about Violence against Cities

It is a great pleasure to have been invited by the editors of Global Discourse to participate in this discussion of my recent book Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction (Routledge, 2009).  I would like to thank them for all their efforts. The opportunity to reflect on a manuscript I completed in the spring of 2008 from the vantage of two further years of research and thought has been simultaneously enjoyable and uncomfortable. Like all books, it represents a snapshot (albeit one with a long exposure time) of thought at a particular moment. There is thus much that I would change were I to recompose the argument now. Interestingly, though, there is much I would not change, much that retains an essential fidelity to the intellectual impulses that gave rise to the argument in the first place. Perhaps, then, by way of introduction to this discussion of Urbicide, it is worth sketching out these initial impulses so that readers can better understand the basic outline of my enquiry into the widespread and deliberate destruction of urban fabric.

The basic problematic of Urbicide was conceived in the context of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. In the course of the violent unmaking of Yugoslavian political and social life, the violence against cities was particularly striking. From the assaults on Vukovar and Dubrovnik to the sieges of Sarajevo and Mostar, the urban fabric of the former Yugoslavia was subject to a sustained attack. Reflecting on this violence I discerned two interrelated questions that required further thought: how is violence against material objects (such as buildings) integral to a political formation such as ethnic nationalism?; and what consequences would any answer have for our wider understanding of political violence? These questions are derived from three inter-related provocations arising out of my observation of the assault on Yugoslavian urban fabric.

Firstly, the violence against cities such as Sarajevo or Mostar demonstrated a pattern of widespread and deliberate destruction of urban fabric. Though I hesitate – for reasons discussed in Urbicide (pp. 44-46) – to use the term ‘intentional’, the destruction of buildings was both deliberate and not confined to certain iconic cases. Beyond the mosques, churches, museums and bridges, the mundane architecture of Bosnia was widely and deliberately targeted. That this is the case can be discerned from the patterns of violence catalogued by reports compiled by, for example, The Association of Architects of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1993).  Understanding that this destruction was both widespread and deliberate served as a provocation to consider what kind of violence it might comprise.

Secondly, this widespread and deliberate destruction could not properly be comprehended according to extant understandings of political violence: as assaults on cultural heritage, as collateral damage, as a symbol of wider cultural formations, or as a component of genocide. The partial ways in which the destruction of some buildings were understood according to these schema meant that the widespread destruction of mundane architecture was overlooked. That is to say partial treatments of aspects of urban destruction effectively elided the totality of the widespread and deliberate destruction, preventing the scale and nature of that violence from adequately appearing.  Contesting this elision meant, to my mind, acknowledging attacks on urban fabric as a distinct form of violence beyond the existing categories available. Hence, my interest in the term ‘urbicide’ which directs our attention precisely to the destruction of the urban as a distinct form of violence.

It is worth noting here that I have never suggested that we should focus on urban destruction to the detriment of understanding violence against persons (i.e., that we should focus on urbicide not genocide). On the contrary, it seemed to me to be an error to regard attacks on buildings and attacks on persons as in some way separate (and to prioritise one over the other, the latter over the former).[2] The assault on the urban fabric of Yugoslavia seemed – in its widespread and deliberate nature – to be an assault on the communities of Bosnia. Concentrating solely on violence against the person, however, neglects this violence (or reduces it to a subordinate status). Thus it appeared to me that academic discussions of such violence could only have a partial understanding of the political violence witnessed in the dissolution of Yugoslavia if they neglected the widespread and deliberate destruction of urban fabric. Since understandings of this violence feed into wider understandings of political violence per se, neglecting the urban dimension means impoverished understandings of political violence. This will have an impact on discussions and understandings of other extant and emerging cases in which political violence had a significant urban dimension.[3]

The recognition of the failure of extant schemas to comprehend the widespread, deliberate nature of urban destruction gave rise to a third provocation: specifically, to think through what the urban fabric comprises such that targeting it represents a distinctive form of violence. This could be summed up as a series of interrelated, but basic, questions:  why attack buildings?; what role do buildings play politically that make them worth destroying?; and what is lost when buildings are gone? Put differently, the question could be phrased as ‘why do buildings so offend certain attackers that they deploy massive violence against them?’ As already noted, present accounts of urban destruction seemed unsatisfactory. In particular none of these explanations saw urban destruction as a problematic in its own right. Rather each saw this destruction as a subsidiary part of another kind of violence, a means to another end.[4] This suggested that I had, therefore, to think the destruction of the city otherwise than it had previously been thought. As such, the investigation of the nature of urbicide is a conceptual problem, not an empirical one. It is not a case of cataloguing violence, but rather thinking through the conceptual contours of an understanding of what the extant record tells us about why buildings might be a target as well as what this tells us about the role of materiality in political violence. As such this is a political-philosophical problem.

Briefly put, Urbicide outlines two responses to this political-philosophical problem. On the one hand I argue (via the early work of Martin Heidegger) that buildings are the condition of possibility of a shared spatiality. That is, existence is ineluctably plural because of the way in which it is gathered by/around buildings. Destruction of buildings is thus a destruction of the conditions of possibility of the heterogeneity of existence. It is a form of violence deployed by homogenising political formations such as ethnic nationalism in order to disavow such plurality. The consequence of understanding existence in this manner is that we note that what it is to ‘be human’ (i.e., to exist, plural, in the world) is bound up with the non-human.[5] The latter is not merely equipment for living, but constitutive of the nature of life.

On the other hand, this gives rise to a contestation of two key dimensions of much extant political philosophy. Firstly, the argument that buildings are constitutive of an existential heterogeneity contests the idea prevalent in much political theory – especially that referred to as ‘liberal’ – that plurality is a secondary or ancillary aspect of existence forced on individuals as a consequence of having to share the world with others. My understanding of the role played by buildings in constituting existence as always already heterogeneous means that we must think of plurality as primary. Secondly, my argument provides tools for contesting the anthropocentrism of much thinking about violence.[6] Instead of regarding the destruction of buildings as a regrettable, but replaceable, loss we must consider it to be integral to the destruction of human communities. My argument is, therefore, that we cannot have a full understanding of the violence done to human existence without understanding the role played by buildings in constituting that existence. The two (buildings and the human) are thus ineluctably bound up. Anthropocentric accounts of political violence fail to understand this and view the two as largely separable.[7] Overall, then Urbicide is a philosophical account of the manner in which buildings are constitutive of heterogeneous existence and the way in which recognising this should bring us to question anthropocentrism.

In concluding this introductory overview, it is worth saying two further things. Firstly, thinking violence against the city otherwise than it is already (mis)understood leads to certain counter-intuitive proposals. I make no apologies for this. As scholars we have to begin from the premise that our intuitions (which are only the product of sedimented social habit) are not necessarily correct. Sometimes to see a problem anew requires us to grasp the counter-intuitive. Secondly, any conceptual (or philosophical) enquiry requires a specialised vocabulary. As Martin Shaw remarks in What is Genocide?, ‘serious concepts must be used coherently’ and thus require substantial elaboration (Shaw 2007, 12).  That said, as Eltringham (2004, 7) notes, concepts are only an ‘approximation’ of reality. The point of offering a conceptual account of Urbicide is not – as I note in the preface – to dictate how reality must be viewed, but rather to provoke others to think otherwise than they were already doing about the destruction of urban fabric. That they might come to other conclusions than I do is, I hope, a very real possibility. Given the centrality of heterogeneity to my formulation, it would be inconsistent to expect that conversation to consist solely of agreement with my analysis. As such then, Urbicide is a provocation to further – heterogeneous – thought about the role of materiality in political violence. I hope, therefore, that my conceptual account of urbicide is part of a wider conversation about the problem of the destruction of urban fabric: a type of political violence that demands urgent attention as we move into the ‘urban millennium’ (UNHABITAT 2006, 4).


Association of Architects of Bosnia-Herzegovina (1993) ‘Warchitecture’, ARH: Magazine for Architecture, Town Planning and Design, 24.

Eltringham, N. (2004) Accounting for Horror: Post-Genocide Debates in Rwanda, London: Pluto.

Nancy, J.-L. (2000) Being Singular Plural, translated by Robert D. Richardson and Anne E.O’Byrne, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Seckinelgin, H. (2006) The Environment and International Politics: International Fisheries,Heidegger and Social Method, London: Routledge.

Shaw, M. (2007) What Is Genocide?, Cambridge: Polity.

UN-HABITAT (2006) State of the World’s Cities 2006/7, London: Earthscan.

[1] Martin Coward is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, UK. He blogs at http://www.marticoward.net. Email: martin.coward@ncl.ac.uk

[2] See my comment in Urbicide on this matter (p.47): ‘urbicide is not counterposed to genocide…Identifying the destruction of the built environment as urbicide does not preclude identification of the simultaneous occurrence of genocide. Insofar as instances of political violence are…complex, many forms of violence (not to mention other forms of social relation) might co-exist together.’

[3] Here I echo Shaw (2007, 170) when he notes – with regard to genocide – that ‘[i]f a broader, more sociologically coherent conception becomes accepted not just in academia, but in public debate, then decisions about intervention…will be less easily avoided’. The converse, I take it, is also true – partial conceptions in academia will resonate with partial conceptions in public debate, allowing evasion of full understandings of, and responses to, political violence.

[4] For a full account of the problems with extant accounts of violence against urban fabric see Urbicide, pages 17-34.

[5] This conception of ‘what it is to be human’ is heavily influenced by the other thinker central to Urbicide: Jean-Luc Nancy. Specifically, it draws on his notion of ‘being singular plural’ (See Nancy 2000).

[6] My thinking regarding anthropocentrism owes much to Sekinelgin (2006)

[7] A misunderstanding Stenberg perpetuates in her review of Urbicide when she wrongly argues that my argument rests on the presumption that ‘buildings have a value independent of their contribution to human well-being‘. That Stenberg’s reading of Urbicide is mistaken can be seen by noting my argument that ‘contestation of the ‘anthropocentric bias’…does not represent a turning away from concerns with the well-being and security of those affected by urbicide’ (Urbicide p. 120). On the contrary, noting that ‘there is more to humanity than humanism can comprehend’ Urbicide argues that buildings are constitutive of, and hence inseparable from, human existence. This is something anthropocentrism fails to understand since it sees things as mere ephemera and judges the only proper focus for questions of well-being and security to be the individual human. As such it cannot comprehend the complex ecology of human and non-human that is constitutive of a political subjectivity such as ‘individual human’.

Review by Antoine Bousquet[1]

When major war returned to the European continent for the first time since 1945, it took a somewhat surprising form. Not of the expected inter-state conflict between Eastern and Western blocs but, rather, of the protracted ethnic strife of the soon-to-be-former Yugoslavia. The resulting shock and bewilderment was not only that of the policy-makers who struggled to formulate a coherent or effective response but also that of scholars, who until then, mostly fixated on superpower confrontation. New categories and lenses of analysis were summoned to account for the specificities of the conflict such as the widely popularised notion of “new wars.” The widespread destruction of the urban environment, notably during the lengthy siege of Sarajevo, also prompted talk of “urbicide” as a deliberate policy enacted by combatants. However, to my knowledge, the term has up till now received only limited and passing scholarly attention. This is likely to change with the publication of the present volume and what must be considered a major theoretical contribution to the understanding of this form of political violence.

Martin Coward develops in Urbicide: The Politics of Urban Destruction a sophisticated philosophically-informed account of what he calls the “logic of urbicide”. This is understood as “the destruction of the conditions of possibility of heterogeneity” (p. 43). His reflection on urban destruction evidently has its roots in the ethnic conflicts of the 1990s and particularly that of Bosnia-Herzegovina since this forms both the springboard and the main evidence base for his study. The emblematic destruction of the Stari Most bridge in Mostar in 1993 opens the book and recurs throughout as a model case of the urban destruction that the work seeks to grasp. Coward is particularly keen to understand urbicide as an attack on the built environment as that which made a multi-ethnic Bosnia possible while consciously departing from accounts that treat such destruction according to merely symbolic or logistical considerations. This ultimately entails a conceptual displacement of “the individual as the principle figure of political analysis” (p. 126). In its place it allows  an engagement with buildings as constitutive of human subjectivity and social collectivity, the required heavy theoretical lifting being attempted through a reading of the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Coward departs from an anthropocentric understanding of being that, at the very least implicitly, conceive of humans as pre-existing the world in which they are situated is salutary and I would largely follow him here. Writing in a different vein, Bruno Latour has persuasively argued that our modes of social existence are produced and stabilised by the networks of objects that orient and frame our interactions and act as so many distributed sites of agency.[2] Greater attention to the role of all these objects, while eschewing any return to crude technological or material determinisms, is one of the tasks that still urgently awaits social and political theory today. Coward makes his own contribution to this endeavour by flexing all his Heideggerian muscles to show us how the built environment reveals the world to us, rather than simply straddling it. The work is to be commended, accordingly for its sophisticated reframing of political violence.

Yet it is also in this respect that I find myself raising my main objection to the thesis articulated therein. In defining urbicide, Cowards tells us that it is “the destruction of buildings as a condition of possibility of being-with-others” (p. 14), conferring to the built environment the peculiar quality of always enabling such a mode of being. Indeed he tells us that “it is possible to assert that since the spaces constituted by building(s) are already public and shared, the urban environment is a site of ineluctable heterogeneity” (p. 70). I accept the broad association of urbanity with heterogeneous collectives and recognise, in accordance with the above discussion, the important role of buildings (among other objects) in enabling such forms of existence. However, I am much more circumspect about the assertion that the built environment is necessarily an agent of heterogeneity.

If public spaces and sites of interaction created by the arrangement of buildings and networks of roads, bridges and other thoroughfares can be seen as constitutive of social and political heterogeneity, is the built environment not also liable to select, segment and isolate individuals and communities? What are we to make of walls, fences and other enclosures, whether they be in Berlin, Gaza or at any number of international borders? Are both ghettos and gated communities not instances of architecturally-enabled homogenisation and rejections of alterity? Can even the most seemingly anodyne features of urban design not be insidiously recruited to keep undesirables at bay?[3]

Indeed we already have significant scholarly resources that illuminate the myriad ways in which the built environment can be a conduit for power and an apparatus of domination. Foucault’s celebrated analysis of the Panopticon revealed how arrangements of masonry and light could serve to exert persistent and uniform surveillance and disciplining of the carceral population and thereby regulate and restrict interaction between its members.[4] In his remarkable Hollow Land, Eyal Weizman has discussed the political and security roles of architecture in Israel. He explored the layout and placement of the settlements erected in the occupied territories or of ensuring an erasure of the heterogeneous make-up of East Jerusalem.[5] Heidegger himself seems to argue that different buildings enter into distinct relations with the world when he contrasts a wooden bridge spanning the Rhine with a hydroelectric plant drawing power from the same river.[6] Is any assessment of whether the built environment is a source of heterogeneity therefore not ultimately an empirical question that needs to be answered for each and every case? Should we really see urbicide and assaults on heterogeneity every time the built environment is attacked, including when the structures targeted appear to be supporting exclusionary or segregative practices?

I suspect the likely line of defence to these objections will be that, regardless of the uses that buildings are put to (and of course these are to a certain extent open and liable to being contested and subverted), buildings are nevertheless always shared by virtue of the irreducibly heterogeneous character of being.[7] I am however sceptical of what is gained by such an argument beyond an injection of circular reasoning. For one, if heterogeneity is indeed a fundamental ontological feature of being, it is unclear why buildings should be afforded such an exclusive and automatic privilege in revealing it. Coward argues that buildings play a particularly important role in orienting our understandings of space (p. 129) but this merely begs the question of why all such spatialities should necessarily be open to heterogeneity. More importantly perhaps, the suturing of buildings and heterogeneity provides little by way of explanation of the different ways in which the latter does (or does not as the case may be) come to be instantiated – after all, ethnic cleansers and génocidaires live in houses and cities too.

It may ultimately be that the case study that so obviously stimulated this rich theorisation of the nature and logic of urbicide is also constitutive of its limitations. The analysis offered does appear particularly apposite to the events that took place in Bosnia in the 1990s where a diverse multi-ethnic society had to be unmade to make way for ethno-nationalist fantasies of purity. Coward makes important inroads into a fuller understanding of the ways in which violence was exerted in the effort to achieve this. This is in itself no small achievement. How widely the notion of urbicide thus theorised can be applied to less paradigmatic instances is more uncertain.[8] Although arguably this is a difficulty shared with the appellation of genocide, which has not prevented the latter’s widespread currency and enshrinement in international law. Of greatest concern to this reviewer is that, in seeking to indict urbicide, we end up taking such a benign and monolithic view of the built environment that we deprive ourselves of the tools of analysis necessary to fully apprehend the multifarious ways in which such structures are constitutive of individual and collective modes of existence. Perhaps buildings are heterogeneous too.

[1] Antoine Bousquet is a lecturer in International Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is the author of The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (Columbia University Press & Hurst Publishers, 2009). Email: a.bousquet@bbk.ac.uk.

[2] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] The artist collective Survival Group has documented a variety of arrangements of the urban environment designed to prevent loitering or rough sleeping (http://www.survivalgroup.org/anti-site.html).

[4] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (London: Penguin, 1991).

[5] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation (Verso, 2007).

[6] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (1949).

[7] Indeed Coward states that “regardless of the presence of the built environment, Being-in-the-world is always already constituted in relation to things […] and these things always entail a constitutive relation to alterity.” (p. 128).

[8] The briefly discussed cases of Palestine and Grozny would merit further consideration.

Review by Selina H. Stenberg

When I agreed to review Urbicide, I thought I would be well suited to the task, having a background in both International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies. At first glance, I understood Urbicide to be intended as a means of examining and highlighting an often underestimated and neglected aspect of modern conflicts. However, it soon became apparent that the book is more a philosophical and, to a certain extent, existential justification for the author’s Heideggerian definition of the concept of urbicide as the material destruction of the possibility for heterogeneity.

The book begins with a discussion of the link between the concepts of genocide – the deliberate destruction of a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group – and urbicide – the deliberate destruction of an urban environment. Coward argues that, although beneficial to understandings of the logic of urbicide, the relationship between the two forms of violence is not direct. Other writers on the subject, such as Shaw, argue that urbicide is integral to genocide as, by destroying buildings, the aggressor destroys the basis of a people’s livelihood. Coward rejects the ‘anthropocentrism’ of this view, claiming that it is not humans, but buildings, which are at the centre of (the motivation for) urbicide. For Coward, buildings are important because they represent the material foundations of heterogeneity:

With respect to the crude stereotyping of violence against cities such as Mostar and Sarajevo as a ‘revenge of the countryside’, it is important to note my comments with regard to Shaw’s confusion of the target of urbicide. In my account of the logics of urbicide, it is the built environment that is the target, not any specific form of urban life. Thus, if urbicide is a condemnation of anything, it is a condemnation of the destruction of buildings. (p. 51)

Coward appeals to Heidegger’s concepts of time, space, being (Dasein) and dwelling to demonstrate why the city is in essence heterogeneous. Just as the individual is characterised by an existential quality of ‘being’ – existing in the moment (Dasein) – buildings represent a way of ‘being with’ in relation to other Dasein. For this reason,

Spatiality must be understood not as a medium, but rather as a way of being. Spatiality is thus not something into which either Dasein or the objects it encounters are placed, but rather a way in which such entities exist. It is to an explication of this way of existing, predicated upon the em-placed nature of Dasein. (p. 57)

As urban life predicates, people share their spaces with other Dasein, and must, therefore, be heterogeneous. Since buildings and spaces between buildings are, according to Coward, ultimately shared spaces, they are also public. As he puts it, ‘The town is not a private map, but a public horizon that makes the locations of all the places within it (and the equipmental wholes that occupy these places) available to all’ (p. 61). Thus, for Coward, an attack on these spaces is an attack on heterogeneity itself. For this reason, ‘The destruction of the built environment is an end in itself’ (p. 48). This end, according to Coward, is characterised by the creation of homogenised enclaves which, in the case of Mostar and Sarajevo, was based on ethnicity. This interpretation seems, however, empirically contentious. The Allied destruction of German cities in World War II was, in a very real sense, an attack on homogenising forces. By destroying the very cities in which Nazism had arisen, the Allies created the conditions for heterogeneity. This suggests that socio-political forces are, as much as buildings, responsible for the possibility of heterogeneity in urban spaces.

This example leads into a more general problem with Coward’s presumption of heterogeneity, with much of the definitional work excluding what appear, prima facie, to be important aspects or interpretations of the city and urban life. Cities are often systematically divided into homogenized enclaves based on such factors as socio-economic status and ethno-cultural affiliation. They are, or become, exclusive, privatised spaces. Coward’s equation of dwelling with being neglects, in particular, the socio-economic foundations of that being, such that, ontologically, all residents of a city are seen to have equal status as part of a heterogeneous region:

A built environment can be seen as both a region and an equipmental whole. On the one hand, as a region the buildings comprise the environment that orients all possible places or things within it: a public horizon that gives intelligibility to a variety of equipmental wholes. (p. 61)

This appears to be counter-intuitive. Although inhabiting the same city, the wealthy ultimately dwell/‘be’ in radically different ways than, for example, homeless people. The former are far more able than the latter to exercise control over their space within the region. Coward does not appear to have any meta-ethical grounds for objecting to this disparity. Normative assessment is, though, essential, especially with regard to the nature of relations.

For Coward (p. 98), ‘space is not an abstract medium, or universal substance, but a set of relations established by the everyday concerns of being in the world’. In his scheme, these relations are in their urban form, pre-urbicide, characterized by their agonistic qualities which, post-urbicide, become antagonistic. However, gang warfare based on location, ethnicity and socio-economic status is a real phenomenon in many major, heterogeneous cities such as London and Paris. It is far from clear that our main objection to urbicide should be the loss of heterogeneity, when there are such pressing concerns as disparity, asymmetry or violence which may affect, much more directly, apparently innate human interests. The mere existence of heterogeneity does not ensure that human relationships are healthy or mutually beneficial.

Another, more practical, concern is Coward’s critique of anthropocentrism. The core of this argument appears to be the rejection of the notion that human dwelling and being is prior to the built environment. He states that,

In what follows I will, through an analysis of the destruction of built environment look beyond the anthropocentric horizons of contemporary understandings of political violence in order to address this fundamental political question of being-with-others. I will show that it is only if we understand the manner in which the material, built environment is that which constitutes the possibility of community, or being-with-others, that we understand the reason for its destruction: to eradicate such being-with-others in favour of being homogenous enclaves. (p. 14)

For Coward, moral objection to the destruction of cities must, necessarily, be grounded in concern for the maintenance of the conditions of heterogeneity. This is grounded in two presumptions: 1) that heterogeneity is necessarily valuable and 2) that buildings have a value independent of their contribution to human wellbeing. However, without humans, there is potential neither for cities nor heterogeneous human figurations. His ‘anthropocentric’ argument also appears to be full of internal contradictions in its relationship with Heidegger’s Dasein. Ultimately, being and being with represent human relations and aspirations. By emphasising the ontological priority of human beings to assessments of human conditions we may come to challenge Coward’s related claim that

anthropocentrism cannot admit that, in each and every case of destruction of buildings, the conditions of heterogeneity are under attack. Rather it is limited to assessing each case of destruction in order to determine whether some person or group has suffered an assault on their identity through the destruction of cherished buildings. It is precisely in this way that no one mourns the loss of ugly buildings, since their loss is not thought of as important for any person’s or group’s identity. (p. 113)

Might we interpret apathy towards, or support for, the destruction of ugly buildings, not in terms of categorical concern for identities but, rather, in terms of normative accounts of the way in which humans should dwell and be? Operating under the materialist premise that heterogeneity of buildings provides the basis for desired heterogeneity of forms of dwelling and being, Coward fails adequately to address the quality of those forms. Ugly buildings are seen to produce ugly forms of life – their destruction is seen as a form of emancipation.

A final thought concerns style. From the perspective of someone with very little knowledge of Heideggerian thought, the existentialist abstraction inherent in this type of monograph seems both unnecessary and exclusionary. Instead of opening up a subject Coward regards as politically neglected, his focus on asserting a particular, existential definition of urbicide appears as an attempt to suppress debate and to employ esotericism in order to score points off those other academics engaged in the topic. In addition to the esoteric, jargon-heavy style found in many post-structuralist and post-modern works, the attempts to impose definitions appear somewhat dictatorial, leaving the reader alienated from the debate and, ultimately, the monograph. A clearer, more engaging style would do much to improve the appeal of the monograph and awareness of this neglected topic.

Review by Sara Fregonese

When confronted with information about the blockade of building materials into Gaza, or the attacks to houses in Osh’s sectarian conflict, it becomes clear how timely this book is. It is so, because it expands the implications of international politics beyond the elite level and populates it with the everyday: bodies, things, but above all: buildings.

Urbicide: The politics of urban destruction collects and integrates the numerous essays Martin Coward has published since the early 2000s and proposes ways to understand “the politics of destroying buildings” (xii). The term urbicide, incepted during the 1960s’ urban restructuring of North American cities, was reused to indicate attacks against the material fabric of cities during the 1990s Balkan conflicts, and eventually revived, mainly by Coward, within the Anglo-Saxon scholarship on the implications of cities in contemporary global politics and conflict.

At least two aspects make this book needed as well as an intriguing read. First, it outlines a philosophy about why anything material and built is relevant to a conflict. In so doing, it widens the traditional field of reflection on political violence towards a “non anthropocentric humanism” (121) that includes the material surroundings of community life and heterogeneity as part of targets of violence. Second, it provides thinking tools for understanding these material elements of conflict as political, by delineating “an ecology in which the constitutive role played by things in political subjectivity is acknowledged” (136).

There are also at least four themes for critical reflection and that point to further avenues of possible enquiry.

Firstly, the book genesis outlined in the acknowledgments positions Urbicide within a growing inter-disciplinary interest among critical IR as well as political geography for “the little things” (Thrift 2000) and the everyday sphere (Megoran 2006; Pain and Smith 2008) of global politics: the mundane, bodily and material dynamics of conflict and most importantly the complex and non linear connections between ‘wider’ geopolitical trends and the everyday lives of communities around the world. Coward deems the material ecology of conflict and international politics necessary in the post-cold war world where intra-state conflicts are soaring and which is “defined by the ubiquity of the built environment” (136) due to the growth of slums and the concentration of war in cities.

These disciplinary trends prompt a second observation about the geopolitical nature of this ubiquity. Coward notes how “the destruction of the built environment in intra-state conflict has captured the attention of international observers” (9) and as it “seem to represent a particularly vicious, form of warfare that had novel distinguishing features” (37), we therefore need to understand “the assault on buildings, logistics networks and communications infrastructure” to understand the post-cold war world (121). The soaring of intra-state and ethnic conflicts is undoubted even before the end of the Cold War (Gurr 1994). It remains to see whether the increase of intra-state and urban conflicts around the world coincides with the appearance of an extended and wilful destruction of cities. The nature of this novelty of urbicide is not simple to determine. Thus, largely unexplored remain also attacks to built environments prior the end of the cold war (however, see Bevan 2006) or even pre-1945. Among familiar examples are the Christian quarters in Damascus ravaged in 1860 (Tarazi-Fawaz 1994) and the several houses, groves, wells and representative buildings attacked and/or burnt down during fresh sectarian fighting in the mixed villages at the border of the two Druze and Christian provinces in what was to become Lebanon in the 1840s (Makdisi 2000). Whether and how these and similar events – and their strong colonial implications – should be interpreted as past urbicides, remains a large window for enquiry.

This leads to a third, methodological reflection about the importance of case studies and fieldwork for understanding the politics of place and connecting the comprehensive urbicide philosophy to particular everyday consequences and memory of present and past conflict. Coward clarifies that the book is not purely a collection of empirical evidence, but constitutes a theoretical engagement with an idea, in order to be able to adapt its tenets to different contexts. However, the author also states that the book “considers several well-documented cases of widespread and deliberate destruction of the built environment: Yugoslavia, Chechnya and Israel/Palestine…to illustrate a set of conceptual reflections on the nature of such destruction” (xiii). The treatment of these case studies is, however, brief and comes at a rather advanced point in the book. The issue of the relationship between theory and empirical cases is a crucial one and could be strengthened by the theoretical bases of the book. Coward’s purpose of opening up research in international relations and studies of political violence to “the role played by materiality in political subjectivity and thus in political violence” (137), needs to also lead to methods useful to identify the grounded mechanisms of destruction and address the questions that a non-anthropocentric perspective opens on the material and the mundane,

Far from being a blank canvas where battles unfold or a local context waiting for the top-down application of wider geopolitical codes, the city then shows itself as a geopolitical machine in need of investigation. This leads to a fourth item for reflection about its applicability to various types of built environment that relate to the city, but are – at least legally and biopolitically – not part of the city. In Coward’s words “buildings are constitutive of heterogeneity insofar as they are constitutive of a fundamentally public spatiality” (54) therefore they are destroyed. This idea deserves to be expanded and integrated by reflections on other ‘destroyable spaces’ like refugee camps, blockaded areas, informal settlements and other sorts of demonised urban or non urban areas.

Finally, urbicide poses deep geopolitical questions about the role of cities, their materiality and built environment in assembling the connections between global discourses and specific, grounded practices of territorial and political contestation. In Coward’s words, “the space established by buildings would be the crucible of politics, the place in which a plurality of identities negotiate the multiple boundaries of self and other” (48). The importance of this crucible, the other-than-symbolic links between ‘elite’ geopolitics and everyday consequences of conflict is one that this book starts to tackle valuably and certainly deserves expanding.


Bevan, R. (2005) The destruction of memory: architecture at war. London: Reaktion Books.

Gurr, T.R. (1994) Peoples against states: ethnopolitical conflict and the changing world system. International Studies Quarterly 38 (3), p. 347-377.

Makdisi, U. (2000) The culture of sectarianism. Community, history, and violence in Nineteenth-century Ottoman Lebanon. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Megoran, N. (2006) For ethnography in political geography: Experiencing and re-imagining Ferghana Valley boundary closures. Political Geography 25 (6), p. 622-640.

Pain, R. And Smith, S. (2008) Fear: critical geopolitics and everyday life, Aldershot: Ashgate).

Tarazi Fawaz, L. (1994) An occasion for war. civil conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860. Berkeley: University of California Press

Thrift, N. (2000) It’s the little things. In Dodds, K. and Atkinson, D. (eds.) Geopolitical traditions, p. 380-387. London: Routledge.

Author’s Reply by Martin Coward


I would like to thank the reviewers for taking the time amidst the multiple competing pressures of their academic lives to read Urbicide and provide thought-provoking responses. I have greatly enjoyed reflecting on and responding to their critical provocations. I cannot do justice to the richness of their comments in the space available to me here. Rather I will pick out and respond to what I perceive to be themes or points of particular interest. This may make for a slightly disjointed response. I also apologise in advance if I fail to address some of the more searching questions raised.

On Heterogeneity

Broadly speaking the principle critique raised by both Antoine Bousquet and Selina Stenberg revolves around the priority accorded to ‘heterogeneity’ in my argument. Bousquet questions whether ‘the urban environment is necessarily an agent of heterogeneity’, while Stenberg notes that ‘[c]ities are often systematically divided into homogenised enclaves’.  Bousquet’s supposition that I have a ‘likely line of defence’ for these comments rightly anticipates that this is a familiar response to Urbicide. The argument that buildings are constitutive of heterogeneity seems at first glance to be contested by the various forces of homogenisation and exclusion that characterise our contemporary experience of the city (e.g., privately guarded shopping malls, gated communities, peace lines). Indeed, I take it that this is what Stenberg is indicating when she notes the ‘disparity’ between different modes of experiencing the urban fabric. Of course, the experience of the city is often one of exclusion in which areas of the city become homogenised and various mechanisms of control seek to prevent access to buildings. As such this experience appears to contradict the contention in Urbicide that the city is characterised by heterogeneity.

However, if we look further, I would suggest that we will find that the contradiction is apparent rather than real. In the first place, we should ask why such effort is put into homogenising and controlling the urban environment. My suggestion would be that such effort is only necessary because a) buildings are fundamentally shared objects and b) such sharing entails an agonistic heterogeneity, a constant provocation. Let me expand.

Bousquet reverses my argument when he supposes that I regard buildings as being ‘shared by virtue of the heterogeneous character of being’. This reverses the priority between being and buildings. It is not that buildings are shared because being is heterogeneous, but that being is heterogeneous by virtue of sharing buildings. Why is this important? Firstly, Urbicide does not conceive of buildings as things that can be wholly possessed by an individual. Indeed, I describe buildings as surfaces or points from which relations unfold. In this sense the building is never yours, mine or anyone’s property. Rather it is a point around which relations are gathered.  This understanding originates in Heidegger’s idea of horizon but is ultimately shaped by Jean-Luc Nancy’s understanding of the constitution of political subjectivity.[1] For Nancy, identity is not something that arises out of a relation across open space between I and you, us and them. Rather identity unfolds precisely where I and you share a common boundary. This sense of identity and difference unfolding from a shared boundary is provocative not least because it suggests that what we share can neither be owned nor denied by either one of us exclusively. However much I think my identity is secure, I can never ignore the boundaries (however stable they are) where I am differentiated from my other. Because these boundaries are shared, the other is always with me and there is always the possibility that the boundary will be renegotiated. As such identity is always with alterity, or heterogeneous. More importantly, that alterity is agonistic. Its constant presence incites us – as Foucault noted – to attempt to draw the boundary tighter, to control the unruly other. Identities thus do all kinds of things to try and rid themselves of their other, some of them violent. But underlying this is the ontologically priority of a provocative, agonistic heterogeneity. While that heterogeneity might be successfully denied, the effort put into such a denial is only made because of a pre-existing agonistic provocation.

How does this relate to buildings? Buildings are precisely a common boundary, a shared line where my world and its spatial relations and your world and its spatial relations both meet and are differentiated. While there are of course all kinds of ways in which identities can be formed, one of the key aspects of urban identity is spatial orientation – where I am. My inhabiting of the city gets meaning from not being yours. And my inhabiting of the city consists in the ways in which my triangulation of myself in relation to various urban coordinates is different to yours. And I encounter that difference in the possibility that someone else might take the building to be a coordinate in a very different form of life. As such the building is both fundamentally shared (and thus existence is heterogeneous) as well as provocative (insofar as it always suggests the possible presence of other forms of life). It is for this reason that vast efforts – culminating in destruction – are undertaken to control the possible ways in which the other might constitute themselves in relation to buildings.

As such then I think that Bousquet’s critique is understandable, but fails to grasp the ontological priority, and agonistic nature, of heterogeneity. I also think that setting out the relation between sharing and agonism disputes (though may not fully dispel) the charge of circular reasoning. Buildings are shared points of reference in the city. And sharing means that they are ineluctably open to alterity (thus establishing urban life as heterogeneous). It is worth noting two things: 1) buildings are not privileged per se, but since the question is ‘what is distinctive the role of buildings in urban life’ they are accorded a certain priority; and 2) Bousquet is right, this point ‘provides little by way of explanation of the different ways in which [heterogeneity]…come[s] to be instantiated’. But then again this was not the question asked by this enquiry. The question was: what is the role played by the destruction of buildings in a political formation such as ethnic nationalism? As such this project did not set out to detail how heterogeneity is empirically instantiated, nor the micro-politics of exclusion. Rather it set out to understand why massive force is deployed against urban fabric to unmake extant plurality. In this sense it is ultimately inductive, taking ethnic-nationalism’s homogenising character as a clue to why buildings might be attacked and then asking how we might see buildings as a force for heterogeneity such that homogenisers might attack them.  Whether this mode of thought is circular would require a longer examination of method in the social sciences (which often inductively take empirical detail as the provocation for deductive reasoning) which I do not have space for here.


Three other issues related to the theme of heterogeneity are also worth responding to at this point. Firstly, contra to Bousquet’s supposition, the city need not become monolithic when refracted through my account of urbicide.  Indeed, I make much effort to move away from talking about ‘the city’ (see Urbicide, pages 49-53). I am interested in sketching out an ‘urbanity’ that pertains to built environments. Beyond that it is for others to sketch out how that urbanity plays itself out in empirical contexts.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, this understanding of urbanity does not valorise heterogeneity for its own sake in the manner supposed by Stenberg. Indeed, I do not suggest that heterogeneity is valuable in itself. Rather – to follow Derrida – it simply ‘is the case’.[2] No more, no less. There are myriad ways in which heterogeneity is disavowed, but these stem from the fact that – according to my analysis – it is, ontologically, the case. Whether heterogeneity is valuable per se is not discussed, nor is it a question that in the abstract seems to me to have much promise. That said, I do argue that since heterogeneity is the case, attempts to disavow it will be violent. This does not intrinsically value heterogeneity, it says, rather, that trying to elide it is a form of violence. Whether heterogeneity is valuable per se and whether disavowal of heterogeneity is a form of violence are, thus, separate issues. We do not have to value heterogeneity over all else in order to acknowledge that diminishing heterogeneity is always – in some form or another – violence.

Of course, there are grades of such violence. In Urbicide I note that it would be a mistake to argue that all attacks on buildings comprise urbicide.[3] It would be a conservative gesture to protect all buildings qua buildings. This is why I stress that urbicide is widespread and deliberate. Other forms of violence against the urban fabric may not share this defining characteristic. It is, of course, possible that some forms of violence might even be valuable – for example the destruction of poorly constructed social housing to make way for better quality accommodation. But I cannot agree with Stenberg’s notion that ‘[u]gly buildings…produce ugly forms of life’, nor that the loss of such buildings is ‘a form of emancipation’. I would contend that the residents of architecturally unremarkable blocks of apartments in Sarajevo, Grozny and Gaza neither led ugly lives nor felt particularly emancipated when their homes were destroyed.

I would add, finally, that I find it difficult to agree with Stenberg’s suggestion that ‘Allied destruction of German cities in World War II…created the conditions for heterogeneity’. While I skirt around the nature of attacks such as that on Dresden in Urbicide, I don’t see it as giving rise to heterogeneity if we understand the latter as arising through the shared nature of buildings. The analysis is complicated because of the strategic logic also operative in attacks on cities (as logistical centres) in World War II. However, the attack on Dresden (and other cities) seems to be an attempt not to allow otherness to flourish on the European content, but to annihilate the enemy by killing large numbers of civilians. I take it that this is why the logics of area bombing and genocide are seen by some authors to be difficult to disentangle.[4] I am afraid, therefore, that it is too much of a stretch of my imagination to see the immolation of thousands of civilians as generating heterogeneity. It seems on the contrary that the loss of the urban fabric and those that inhabit it is a decrease of difference.

On Method

The other principle theme in the reviews is one of method. Here there seem to be two issues at stake: style and the role of empirical cases. Stenberg’s final comments raise several points that are worth briefly responding to. On the one hand, it is worth pointing out, again, that Urbicide is at heart a provocation to think the destruction of cities otherwise than extant understandings allow. Moreover, it is a contribution to political philosophy and, as such, is embedded in the latter’s conceptual and linguistic economy. Though conceptual elucidation might be, as Weber once said, tedious, it is nonetheless necessary if we are to recognise and give due weight to phenomena that are otherwise overlooked.[5] Moreover, complex ideas will often require complex terminology. That said, I am sure I could streamline some of the prose. However, Stenberg’s accusation of a dictatorial definitionalism seems to me worth contesting. Ironically the accusation that the style of Urbicide ‘suppress[es] debate’  is immediately followed by the dismissal of ‘many post-structuralist and post-modern works’ for being ‘esoteric [and] jargon-heavy’. This casual dismissal of approaches to political thought that are perceived as conceptually and linguistically dense entails its own suppression of debate. Moreover, despite decrying the definitionalism of Urbicide, there is no concrete, positive suggestion from Stenberg regarding how we might think through the meaning or consequences of assaults on urban fabric in the contemporary period. It is this lack of what William Connolly (2008, 5) would call ‘generosity’ at the heart of Stenberg’s closing comments that I find troubling. Beyond Stenberg’s own ‘points scoring’ over style, the question still remains: how are we to understand this violence and respond to it? On that point, her review is simply silent, ending the discussion not participating in it.

With respect to the question of the role of empirical cases in Urbicide I am grateful to both Bousquet and Fregonese for some very perceptive critical comments. Bousquet is right that the empirical material afforded by the Bosnian case study profoundly influenced the development of the conceptual argument. In that sense it is valid to critique the inductive method at the heart of the project. That said, I think it is possible to generate similar ideas from observations of other empirical material – Grozny and Gaza are two that come to mind. As such, I am not convinced that urbicide is limited to Bosnia. That said, I do think that it is possible that urbicide is limited to political formations with similar dynamics to those exhibited by ethnic nationalism. I find it harder to generate the same conceptual framework for consideration of forms of violence against the city that do not share the homogenising dynamics at the heart of ethnic nationalism. For example, I would not find it easy to generate this theory of urbicide from observations of US urban operations in Iraq. As such then urbicide might be linked to a very specific form of politics. That said, genocide is linked to a specific form of politics (a form of annihilatory nationalism) without blunting its conceptual or juridical utility.

Fregonese makes a more intriguing point: specifically that Urbicide ‘needs to also lead to methods useful to identify the grounded mechanisms of destruction and address the questions that a non-anthropocentric perspective opens on the material and the mundane’. In other words, insufficient weight is given in Urbicide to the empirical material and thus my professed concern with ‘materiality’ is undercut.  This is a provocative comment and raises a question I am currently concerned with: how do we give materiality a voice, how do we know it other than in discourse? I have no particular answer here, but accept that the question is one that needs urgent engagement if a non-anthropocentric theory is to avoid simply failing back on the rationality of anthropos as its primary discourse.

Questions for the Future

Finally, by way of conclusion, let me turn to Fregonese’s final question regarding ‘other ‘destroyable spaces’ like refugee camps, blockaded areas, informal settlements and other sorts of…urban or non urban areas’. This is, I think, a very interesting question in an era where urbanity is proliferating. The composition of such urbanity is plural from global cities to favelas. Urbicide largely concentrates on assaults on a very particular form of metropolitan urbanity. Can we extend its observations to slums, favelas, and the informal zones of the megacities that are increasingly the urban future of the global south? Here I am not sure I have an answer. Perhaps this is where Bousquet is right: Urbicide tells us little of the different ways in which we build urban areas. As such then, its main contribution would be a provocation to think urban violence otherwise – to recognise it and the ontological priority of heterogeneity it implies. However, that provocation would require that we then take up Fregonese’s challenge and begin to examine the various empirical ways in which particular buildings constitute particular existences.


Connolly, W. (2008) Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, London: Duke University Press

Derrida, J. (1990) ‘Some Statements and Truisms about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasitisms, and other small Seismisms’, in Carroll, D. ed., The States of ‘Theory’: History, Art and Critical Discourse, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 63-94.

Graham, S. (2010) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism, London: Verso

Heidegger, M. (1993) ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’, in Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, edited by D. F. Krell, revised edition, London: Routledge.

Markusen, E, & Kopf, D, (1995) The Holocaust and Strategic Bombing: Genocide and Total War in the Twentieth Century, Boulder, CO: Westview.

Shaw, M. (2007) What Is Genocide?, Cambridge: Polity.

[1] Indeed, as I note in Urbicide (p.67), Heidegger argues that ‘‘Horizon’ should be understood in the Greek sense of horismos, not as something at which an entity ends but, rather, as a point from which something unfolds (Heidegger 1993, 356)’.

[2] Here I am echoing Derrida’s observation that; ‘Deconstruction is neither a theory nor a philosophy. It is neither a school nor a method. It is not even a discourse, nor an act, nor a practice. It is what happens, what is happening today in what they call society, politics, diplomacy, economics, historical reality, and so on and so forth. Deconstruction is the case’ (Derrida 1990, 85)

[3] Cf p. 131: the ‘logic [or urbicide] cannot, to my mind, be extended to cover the demolition of buildings that occurs as part of the everyday renewal of the city. For renewal to become urbicide, destruction must be widespread and deliberate and accomplish the territorialisation of an antagonism. Urban development projects such as the original construction of the World Trade Center might decisively alter the aesthetic, social or economic patterns of the city…but they do not comprise the disavowal of agonistic heterogeneity. As such, although my argument expands the field of instances that could be considered ‘urban’, it retains the concept of urbicide for a specific type of violence.’

[4] See in this regard Markusen & Kopf (1995).

[5] Weber quoted in Shaw (2007, p.x12)