Professor and ACT Director Azra Akšamija was recently interviewed by the Architectural League of New York, where the complex role of culture in war and other crises was explored.

Excerpt from the interview:

In life-or-death scenarios like war and forced migration, architecture and other cultural phenomena would seem to be at most marginal concerns. But as the work of Azra Akšamija demonstrates, culture can be used both as a powerful weapon and as a tool to empower the vulnerable. As an artist, designer, and architectural historian, Akšamija has spent her career reflecting on these issues. The League’s Alicia Botero and Sarah Wesseler spoke with her about her work.

Sarah Wesseler: Can you tell us about the development of your interest in using art and design to address conflict and crisis? How has your engagement with this theme evolved over time?

Azra Akšamija: My engagement with this topic is driven by my personal experience of war in Bosnia, going from happy life and coexistence to the destruction of everything I knew and the shock of a whole society turning into enemies. It was something that affected me not just on an emotional and personal level, but in terms of intellectual curiosity. I wanted to understand how it is possible that the power of ideology and nationalism can be stronger than your personal experience and your connections with family members and friends.

This is what happened in Bosnia, and especially in Sarajevo, my hometown, in the ’90s. When the war came, people turned on each other—the husband would leave the wife and go up the mountain to shoot at his own family and friends. I wanted to understand why and how this happened.

And since I was interested in art and design, I was particularly struck by how culture was weaponized during the war in Bosnia. I wanted to understand what about architecture and culture was so powerful in the eyes of warlords. Seeing the destruction of architecture gave me an understanding that these are powerful tools to turn people against each other, eradicate their history, uproot them, and also humiliate them.

So during my PhD here at MIT, I focused on the destruction of architecture during the Bosnian war, focusing particularly on the genocide against Bosnian Muslims. What I uncovered was that it was systematic, purposeful, and deliberate. It also happened on a really large scale: More than 1,400 mosques were largely or completely destroyed in Bosnia, as opposed to 200 Catholic churches and a smaller number of Orthodox ones.

And the targeting of architecture went beyond just pure destruction. It was really about humiliation and sadism toward architecture: The way you torture buildings parallels the way you torture people. These are heavy subjects, but it’s important to understand the weight and the potential of this issue. Why would someone take the trouble to plant bombs, shell a particular historic building, then do days and days of labor to excavate the rubble and even the foundation stones and carry them to an unknown location and bury them?

The full interview can be found here.