“There is an inescapable correspondence between the architecture of a place and the character of the community that has settled there. Our architecture tells the story of who we are.”
So writes Marwa Al-Sabouni, a young Syrian architect from Homs, in her recently published book The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria (Thames and Hudson, 2016).
In her book and in a widely viewed online TED talk, Al-Sabouni argues that architecture “has played a vital role in creating, directing and heightening conflicts” in her country. As evidence, she offers up a thought-provoking study of her own devastated hometown. Homs, long a crossroads of western Syria, was sometimes referred to as the “capital of the revolution.” Government forces besieged the city for two years, bombing it almost daily, to wrest back control from rebels.
For several years, Al-Sabouni, who is also the mother of two young children, was trapped in her family apartment by the constant bombardments and other violence in her city. She braved lawless streets, snipers and checkpoints to reach the university where she was a student. She witnessed death, and saw neighbors sifting through the rubble of their homes.
But El-Sabouni showed an extraordinary dedication to pursuing her studies, while thinking deeply about how to make a positive contribution to her wounded country. Her book was spurred by a correspondence she struck up with the English philosopher Roger Scruton, who she contacted while reading his book The Aesthetics of Architecture. He wrote a forward to her new book.
The fighting in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, was fierce, damaging historic landmarks and wiping entire neighborhoods off the map. But long before the current war, Al-Sabouni argues, Syrian cities had been vandalized, first by colonial powers and then by corrupt and inept local authorities.
Al-Sabouni writes lovingly of Homs’ old city, which she says was characterized by “mixed use, mixed origins and mixed religions—a habit of mixing that was to be treasured and is now sadly missed.” She writes that Syria’s historic cities “were generous cities. They offered, for free, drinking fountains in the streets, benches to sit on, and the cool shade of trees…This generosity was a model for residents to follow; it was the womb in which a shared morality gestated.”
The French, who occupied Syria from 1921 to 1946, blew up parts of the Old City to replace its winding streets with a modern grid.
“The problem with any colonial architecture is not that it brings along a foreign culture,” notes Al-Sabouni. “After all, why would people have a problem with upgrading and development? The problem is that it always deliberately ignores the existence of the inhabitants of the country…Old cities under occupation were not allowed to adapt on their own and gradually to the needs of modern life.”
The national governments that followed the colonial powers’ withdrawal continued on the same path.
“Palaces, baths and other buildings with historic and aesthetic meaning were repeatedly replaced with dead blocks of concrete,” writes Al-Sabouni. Modern Homs had “no functional public parks, no cultural centers open to the public in a systematic or organized way, no zoos, no amusement parks.”
And as waves of non-urban newcomers to the city—Turkman or Alawite, villagers or Bedouin— settled in segregated, often informal neighborhoods, they were never properly integrated.
“The urban segregation turned into sectarian conflict,” argues Al-Sabouni. In Damascus, “the surrounding slums took their revenge on the ‘spoiled’ city residents.”
The young architect believes that her arguments about the deleterious effects of identity politics and urban segregation apply not only to the rest of the region but to Western capitals as well.
The Battle for Home is a moving paean to a flawed hometown that has suffered incalculable losses. It is also a sharp critique of the way architecture is taught and practiced in the region.
Although she now writes eloquently of the meaning and value of her city’s historic center, Al-Sabouni admits that on her early visits to the neighborhood she thought it was “unimpressive and disorganized.” But “I know today that we didn’t appreciate it because we didn’t understand it, and we didn’t understand it because no one had taught us any different.”
At architecture school, she recounts, her professors introduced architectural styles from different eras and parts of the world without context or analysis, “images completely detached from our own reality.” Students had a “fake freedom” to create; in reality, they were rewarded for copying existing models while making a few formulaic alterations.
It was only after she left university that the young architect discovered that “everything I was designing and dreaming about was a total waste of time.” Government officials controlled all decisions relating to urban planning and construction, and divvied up contracts with well-connected businessmen. The best a young architect could expect was a public-sector job. “As like as not, there would be no job for us to do, except signing a paper every now and then, drinking tea and coffee while waiting for the boss to leave, and then sneaking out afterwards,” writes Al-Sabouni.
She quit just such a non-job after less than a year, starting a private practice with her husband (their office was destroyed by bombardments), and pursuing a doctorate. Her dissertation focused on “the quest for identity,” which she argues has dominated architectural studies and discourse in the region.
In one chapter in her book, Al-Sabouni tries to clearly define “Islamic architecture.” In much contemporary architecture, she finds that a set of clichéd elements are haphazardly attached to buildings to give them an “Islamic” veneer. But a sense of identity, she argues, is not to be found in particular architectural features but rather is a “by-product of designing meaningfully and beautifully and according to the spirit of the place.”
To accomplish this, she writes, there is a need to “turn our schools of architecture in a new direction, so as to study the small things, the real things, the things that people relate to in their daily lives, such as materials used in construction, the interplay of light and shade, the sense of detail, and the question ‘why?’, which is the real cement between the parts of a building.”
Al-Sabouni has tried to do this. She has finished her first year teaching architecture at a private university. In a conversation over Skype with Al-Fanar Media, she said she focuses on helping students kickstart their creative process and develop critical tools while “keeping an eye on reality.”
In the classroom, she said, “we always remind ourselves of the question: What is important? What are we looking for in this work? We are in constant debate, constant discussion when working on a project. These discussions are the true educational experience, for me and for them.”
Al-Sabouni also said she would love for her book to spur a public conversation about the reconstruction of Syria and Homs. “We need this debate to be opened, we need this discussion to take place,” she said.
In her book at times she seems to hold little hope that she can make a difference. “I ask myself: how can architecture close the wounds? I think it does not have a chance, which leaves us simply to watch the wounds closing by themselves, turning the city into a mass of scar tissue.”
At other times she is more optimistic, writing that “putting Syria back together is what I am trying, in imagination, to do.”