Despots intent on cultural genocide know the importance of destroying buildings. That should tell developers and planners everything they need to know, says Martyn Evans

Martyn Evans index

Visiting Miami this week I googled “architecture tours”. On the first morning of our trip we walked for two hours in the sunshine around Miami Beach’s art deco district and learnt the story of Barbara Baer Capitman and her fight in the early 1980s to save hundreds of buildings earmarked for redevelopment in a failing part of the city.

For (light) holiday reading I’ve brought Rob Bevan’s The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War and just before I left home I watched the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City about Jane Jacobs and her fight to save the Lower West Side of Manhattan from Robert Moses’ plan to convert dozens of city blocks into a new expressway. My holiday mind is regeneration focused.

Bevan’s fascinating book has been uncomfortable reading. It’s an extraordinary piece of research and thinking in which he argues that the destruction of a culture’s built environment, quite apart from being an expedient instrument of war (bad enough…), is a highly effective tool for ethnic cleansing.

He argues that those who commit such cultural destruction should be open to prosecutions for genocide. He doesn’t draw a direct parallel but he does suggest that unthinking “regeneration” and “area improvement” projects could have a similar effect on the culture of communities in cities. Jane Jacobs led her battle to save Lower Manhattan employing similar arguments that wholesale destruction of a city neighbourhood would wipe out a way of life that had huge value not just for those to whom it belonged, but for the wider city.

The abiding feeling as you walk around Miami Beach’s art deco district is of a singular design vision – delivered there by mogul developers John S Collins and Carl Fisher who bought a mangrove swamp in 1912 to grow avocados and quickly saw the potential to create a destination for wealthy North East Coast Americans in the year-round sunshine. Collins and Fisher had 2,800 acres to play with – vastly more than most developers and masterplanning architects get today (Kings Cross is 67 acres) – but you can’t deny the quality of what they did in creating a significantly impressive place, particularly around what is now the South Beach conservation area. Its architectural story is what made it an instant commercial hit and what drove the successful campaign in the early 1980s to conserve it as one of the USA’s most important early 20th-century design projects. What Collins, Fisher and their architects understood is that they could use a strong design language as a raw material to create a successful community with a unique identity.

In the late 1970s South Beach had become run down and crime ridden. Where Collins and Fisher, using the natural landscape and climate, had turned a wilderness into a popular playground, developers saw an opportunity to do it again by demolishing the old and building new. The conservation campaign was bitterly fought by those who argued, as they do now, that old buildings cannot be viably redeveloped and, sad though it is, progress demands change. This argument has always felt too easy and convenient to me. South Beach today shows how wrong those developers were. There is a sense of place there rooted in and fed by the singular design vision that created it in the first place, but with a very clear new life of its own, delivering a strong, successful place for a 21st-century community.

People come from far and wide to see South Beach’s art deco jewels and it’s inconceivable now to imagine them being flattened in the name of progress. But it happens all the time in less high-profile places. Jane Jacobs’ story shows it’s not new. Her fight for Lower Manhattan was less about saving significant architectural design than saving a way of life that the architecture had enabled, while Bevan’s book explains how those intent on destroying communities and their culture understand clearly the power architecture plays in their definition.

In seeking solutions for regeneration, it’s vital to understand that the architecture of a place is about so much more than its aesthetic. It’s a vital tool in the creation of successful communities. When places are in decline, an understanding of how their architecture helped create them in the first place shows us that the past has so much more to offer us than just nostalgia.