A Private Army
Weeks later, the firepower lingers. Out of the barrage of coverage from the war in Iraq, one graphic image stands out: that of the young soldier triumphantly draping the head of the statue of Saddam Hussein with the American flag. His actions, those of an exuberant young warrior reaching the capital, have provoked conflicting reactions in viewers, depending on where you stand in the world. While to some in the United States, the message is of liberation from a repressive regime, to many in the Arab world and beyond, the semiotic message is mixed, including humiliation in defeat and occupation by a superior force. How America and its allies act in the following months will determine the true meaning of our arrival in Baghdad.
What this war has proved, once again, is America’s dominance of the world scene. While we have no specific territorial ambitions, since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and the subsequent opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 (featured in this issue of architectural record), the United States finds itself in a position of inarguable military hegemony, economic prowess, and cultural ubiquity. Witness our virtual empire in which the English language is widespread, almost universal; our media blanket the farthest islands of the South Pacific, a situation only broadened by the Web; Eminem and Big Macs rule in Philippine villages.
With all our might and reach, a cautionary note is in order. Think of the numbers: From a global population of 6.286 billion, the United States comprises 290 million, or only 4.2 percent of the total. Yet despite a challenging year to the economy, America’s gross domestic product of $10.82 trillion overwhelms Japan’s, our closest competitor’s, by three times. As Michael Hastings pointed out in a recent issue of Newsweek, though we may be the premier world economy, we represent a minority of the world’s population, and powerful minorities can become easy marks for resentment. Experience shows that towers can become targets.
That’s where architecture enters the picture. Architects are frequently the advance guard, the first emissaries, called forth by clients around the world, not for their power, but for their skills. International governments and private entrepreneurs seek American expertise in organizational management, in planning and building. Sometimes they employ us for our art. Rather than fearing us, our disparate partners place their trust in us, commissioning small- and large-scale enterprises, from housing to whole cities.
If our related professions played an active role in dismantling Iraq, while failing to protect the country’s—indeed, the world’s—irreplaceable cultural patrimony, our primary emphasis as architects in the coming days will lie outside of battle, as we articulate vision or strive to house populations. At this tenuous moment, our ambassadorial role calls for us to open our eyes and ears. Then we can avoid the imposed solution (bypassing architectural imperialism, if you will), assimilating the history of culture and place as we translate our clients’ specific languages into physical form.
Today, despite the ongoing war, we American architects continue to meet clients in boardrooms in the United States and to travel abroad to pursue new work. This small airborne population of dedicated, intelligent women and men constitutes a private army of intellectual power, armed not with weaponry but with something stronger—the power to build.
While we all have been transfixed by the events in Iraq, regardless of personal opinions of the war, building always supercedes destruction. Throughout human history, it is our structures that have endured, whether in the Muslim world or in Western democracies. We are needed in the aftermath, to repair the diplomatic and physical damage that has been done and to plan for a new day, replacing firepower with brainpower—offering architecture as a step toward improved international relations for a world rich in individual cultures straining toward expression.