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Transition urbicide: Post-conflict reconstruction in post-socialist Belgrade

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TRANSURBICIDE (Transition urbicide: Post-conflict reconstruction in post-socialist Belgrade)

Reporting period: 2018-09-01 to 2020-08-31

The Transurbicide project investigates processes that influence post-war reconstruction of built environment in transitional, post-socialist societies. Although the militarization of built environment has been recognized as a phenomenon in recent years, this remains relatively underdeveloped and above all fragmented field of study. This is a problem that impacts all post-war societies because decisions made in early phases of reconstruction are almost impossible to reverse. To tackle these urgent issues, the project proposes new innovative methods for studying relationships and hierarchies between various actors that take part in these processes, and by doing so it re-examines the role of practitioners—architects, urban and spatial planners—in them.

The main scientific objective of the project, achieved and surpassed, was to explain architectural engagements with violent transformation of urban morphology within the broader framework of urban geopolitics and post-war recovery in post-socialist societies, using as a test-bed the reconstruction of Belgrade after the 1999 NATO bombing. The central outcome of the project is an open source, interlinked data platform (https://transurbicide.gta.arch.ethz.ch) developed in cooperation with the Consortium for Open Data in the Humanities (CORDH) and the British Museum (using their ResearchSpace platform as a basis). Operating within the domain of digital humanities, the project managed to construct a histoire croisée of the multiple actors (their roles, influences and decision-making processes) and sources that are involved in post-war reconstruction. Investigating the complex relation-scapes and hierarchies of various stakeholders that took part in urban transformation of Belgrade proved to be both innovative and fruitful methodology that contributed significantly to the current state-ot-the-art in urban conflicts studies, thus confirming the main research hypothesis of the project.

The specific objectives of the project were reached with equally satisfying results. The first specific objective was to develop a new research protocol for management and interpretation of the big collections of architectural documents from all actors of interest, using the cutting-edge big architectural data analysis technology. The project relied on the CIDOC-CRM semantic data model, commonly used in conventional heritage archives such as museums, and tried to rethink how modelling semantic data can be applied in architectural research and production. This posed certain methodological challenges but also led to key scientific lessons learned, namely, the necessity to clarify descriptions and definitions of taxonomies so that they are understandable to other potential users.

The second specific objective was to use the analysis of collected documents to contribute to develop interdisciplinary research guidelines for investigation of cities in war and post-war contexts. Undoubtedly this goal has also been achieved - I have defined these research guidelines and they are also part of the semantic data model. Furthermore, as some of the published work can attest, these guidelines can ultimately serve as a tool for developing informed design strategies for rebuilding urban zones after violent conflicts.
The project reached many important conclusions and outcomes.

Semantic data modelling proved to be an effective method to investigate the complexity and ambiguity of built environment in post-war setting because it led to a methodological and disciplinary stratification of the scientific landscape. More importantly, it opened up some interesting possibilities how to develop this method further that were not so obvious at the beginning of the project. For example, one option would be implementing annotation system so other users could use it, but also making the platform more attractive to scholars and historians who operate with oral semantic narratives (i.e. telling and collecting compelling stories about buildings). Inviting researchers to construct their own narratives, but also making the data “consumable” by the general public, in the long run can turn the platform from semantic data-based to linked data-based.

Furthermore, the effort to build a web-archive, digitalize various sources and document these often-hidden processes, significantly increased the visibility of local actors and instigated an academic discourse on a local intellectual scene that, before this project, was practically non-existing. An extensive online archive of documents related to war and post-war changes of urban morphology of Belgrade was created in the process that otherwise would have been lost or scattered among many actors. As the platform continues to develop, other researchers and scientists will also have an option to add their own and comment existing material, which will fine-tune even more the links between various actors and related sources/documents. This emphasizes the specific agency of the platform, namely, giving voices to underrepresented architects, researchers, artists and other stakeholders that seek to participate in post-conflict reconstruction of built environment.

Dissemination of project’s results was designed to engage the wide spectrum of actors, many of whom were witnesses or active participants in both destruction and reconstruction processes – architects, artists, city officials, investors, politicians, members of the media, veterans and victims’ families. The very success of the project depended on effective communication with broad scientific/general public and early engagement with various actors and stakeholders. Communication strategy was therefore tailored to inspire collaboration on national, regional and international level, raise awareness of damaging tendencies in urban renewal and planning in transitional, post-war societies; open dialogue and active participation of citizens and the scientific community that will ultimately lead to making informed decisions and concrete action in the form of new policy-making. The result is an extensive list of organized and attended scientific events, as well as published work. In total, the action will have resulted in 1 monograph (in progress), 2 edited volumes, 2 special issues in respected academic journals, 3 peer-reviewed journal articles, 4 peer-reviewed book chapters, 5 conference proceedings articles, 3 events organized, 2 exhibitions, 8 conference talks and 13 invited public talks and lectures.
The overall conclusion is that the action managed to build unique architectural knowledge needed for post-conflict reconstruction of urban environments, pose some new questions that were not conceivable at the beginning of the project, and, by doing so, set the base for many future investigations. The application of semantic data modelling (and digital humanities in general) is in its infancy when it comes to architectural and spatial investigations, and it is virtually non-existent in the field of post-war urban reconstruction and disaster resilience. We might as well be witnessing the emergence of a completely new field of study that can have a long-lasting impact on how post-war reconstruction is not only studied, but practiced as well.
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