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Trapped in Homs, Architect Imagines a New Future for Syrian Cities | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Marwa al-Sabouni in Homs, Syria, in March. She and her family were largely confined to their apartment during two years of heavy fighting in the city. Credit Ghassan Jansiz/Marwa al-Sabouni

Did Syria’s urban architecture help fuel the civil war that has shattered the country and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people? This is the provocative theory proposed by Marwa al-Sabouni, a young architect from Homs who spent two years confined to her apartment with her husband and two children as the city’s historic heart was reduced to rubble.

In a Ted talk (now viewed over 500,000 times) and a recent book, “The Battle for Home,” Ms. Sabouni, 34, performs a kind of architectural autopsy on her native city, cataloging failings of design and infrastructure that she said paved the way for its eventual destruction.

“This place promoted anger, it promoted revenge,” she said in a Skype interview from Homs, as the electricity flickered and a fighter jet could be heard flying overhead. “Of course, I’m not saying that architecture is the only reason for war, but in a very real way it accelerated and perpetuated the conflict.”

Ms. Sabouni’s ideas and the plain-spoken, unfiltered way she expresses them have drawn influential supporters. United Nations officials have invited her to speak at conferences that try to imagine what a postwar Syria might look like. The conservative English philosopher Roger Scruton, who has mentored Ms. Sabouni for several years via email, calls her an intellectual “soul mate” and one of the bravest people he has ever known.

During the fighting, it was impossible for Ms. Sabouni to travel (Homs is now mostly under government control after a negotiated withdrawal of rebel forces last year), so she met with her editor at Thames & Hudson, Lucas Dietrich, via Skype.

Mr. Dietrich said that Ms. Sabouni’s “fierce intelligence” coexisted with an extremely humble and serene personality. “Here she was, speaking from a war zone about these really tough issues, and she had a smile on her face,” he said. “There was something almost beatific in her countenance. It really captured our imaginations.”

Ms. Sabouni’s book asks how Syria’s cosmopolitan cities — more or less tolerant of sectarian differences for generations — could have collapsed into what she calls “a nightmare of animal carnage.” Her case study, Homs, is Syria’s third-largest city and a microcosm of the country, with a Sunni Muslim majority and Christian and Alawite minorities.

In the old town, these groups lived in relative harmony, a state which the local architecture reflected and reinforced. Sacred, residential and commercial sites occupied shared spaces. Mosques and churches sat side by side. The souk was a hive of economic activity that forced rival groups to deal with each other. Interwoven into the cityscape were squat houses of local basalt connected by twisting alleyways that provided shelter from the sun.

There was a human scale to these cities, a generosity to them, Ms. Sabouni writes, with water fountains, benches and “the cool shade of trees that gave joy throughout the year with their fragrances and fruits.”

But, over time, the classic architecture gave way to a succession of ideas imported to Syria under the banner of progress. These included colonial-era geometric street plans that tore up the traditional architecture, and massive apartment blocks that isolated their occupants from the city center. These errors, Ms. Sabouni says, were compounded by the corruption, mismanagement and thoughtless development projects of the Syrian state.

As Homs and other cities grew, ghettos sprouted on the urban fringe that were often divided according to religion and class. By 2010, Ms. Sabouni said, almost half of the Syrian population was living in “informal housing” — shantytowns that were sorely lacking in infrastructure and amenities. Some of the earliest battle lines in the fighting were drawn along such segregated areas.

Much of the city’s architectural soul was stamped out in the fighting, which destroyed the old souk and severely damaged the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque, an important pilgrimage site.

Ms. Sabouni’s family narrowly escaped the violence. The architecture studio she shared with her husband was destroyed; tanks and snipers menaced her neighborhood, making going out to buy food a dangerous game.

She recalls her first mortar attack, which sounded like “a giant bowling ball had landed next door.” The blast shattered her window. “I looked out and saw the children who had been playing football in the dusty street and the people who had lost their shops and been trying to make a living by selling odds and ends on the pavement — I saw them all lying dead.”

In her book, Ms. Sabouni takes note of Western outrage at the desecration of Syria’s architectural patrimony, especially Unesco World Heritage sites like the Roman ruins at Palmyra and the crusader fortress Krak de Chevaliers. But she also admits to feeling some ambivalence about the attention the damage has drawn.

Why, she asks, is a “scratch on a column” at Palmyra more scandalous than the wholesale destruction of Syria’s urban architecture? She adds that many of these historic sites were so poorly maintained and understood in peacetime that it is little wonder they were pillaged in the war.

“You feel in a way that a whole tragic chain of events has led us to this point,” she said.

Ms. Sabouni’s contrarianism is among the qualities she has in common with Mr. Scruton, the English philosopher who has become her rather unlikely mentor. Their correspondence began several years ago when Ms. Sabouni sent him an admiring letter after reading his 1979 book, “The Aesthetics of Architecture.” Mr. Scruton later wrote the foreword to “The Battle for Home.”

In an interview, Mr. Scruton said that they shared similar views about the damage that Western-style architecture — including the legacy of Le Corbusier’s plan for Algiers — has wrought on cities in the Arab world.

“I have always felt sympathy for the underlying view that modernist architecture is a catastrophe for the Middle East,” Mr. Scruton said. “Once you put these people in Gropius- or Le Corbusier-style tower blocks, cut off from each other, with that relentless climate, you’re creating a situation that is potentially explosive.”

Ms. Sabouni has illustrated her book not only with beautifully articulated sketches of Homs before and after the war but also with plans for how the city might be rebuilt. One idea focuses on the neighborhood of Baba Amr, one of the districts that was a flash point of fighting and was eventually destroyed in a brutal siege that has been compared to the battle of Stalingrad.

An official government plan for rebuilding Baba Amr calls for disconnected apartment towers, but Ms. Sabouni suggested clusters of tree-shaped units that would expand upward as the city grew, creating natural bridges between connected houses that provide shade and echo the traditional “Sibat,” or covered alleyways, of Old Homs. The tree’s “trunk” is filled with mixed-use spaces for shops, while shaded and open areas are earmarked for gardens, playgrounds and other amenities.

Today, with Homs mostly at peace, Ms. Sabouni is trying to reclaim a bit of her normal life. She and her husband, Ghassan Jansiz, converted an old garage into an outpost of Damascus’s Nour E Sham bookstore. She teaches at a private university in Hama while her husband has been working with the United Nations Development Program on rebuilding Homs’s old souk.

Life remains difficult. Parts of the city are still restive, and the war grinds on in Aleppo and other parts of the country.

“If you are not stressed about the fighting, you’re stressed about services, and electricity, or finding food, or what school to take your kids,” she said. “It’s always a struggle.”

For Ms. Sabouni, a big part of that struggle is explaining to her exhausted neighbors why architecture should matter to them.

“The real challenge lies in how not to offend people who are on the edge of exploding,” she said. “How to dare to dream of a better built environment, when the residents just want to block the holes in their walls with a nylon sheet and sleep through the night.”

Most Syrians tell her they wish only that things would return to how they were “before.” She understands this desire, but rejects it. “Why not wish for better, why settle for the state of instability that brought us here in the first place?” she asked. “This gives me the feeling that we haven’t learned any lessons from all that has happened.”

(The New York Times)