by Hazem Badr
Young Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni stood behind the ruined buildings of Homs, her home city, in a picture chosen by the publishing house as the cover for her book, “The Battle for Home: Memoir of a Syrian Architect.”
Sabouni believes that architectural practices are one of the reasons that fuelled the conflict in Syria — by separating districts and dividing people based on their race or religion, fostering segregation and isolation, and so increasing the chances of conflict.
She reviewed the history of architecture in the city, comparing the old neighbourhoods of Homs to what they had become just prior to the outbreak of the conflict. And as a result of that review, she felt that modern architecture was one of the reasons behind the city’s loss of identity and social cohesion.
In a telephone interview with SciDev.Net from Syria, where she still lives, we discover a vision to transform her ideas into reality.
Hazem Badr: How did architecture play a role in the loss of identity and social cohesion?
Marwa al-Sabouni: The answer requires knowledge of the history of the ancient neighbourhoods of Homs, so as to compare the past with what they have become.
In the old neighbourhoods of Homs, people of different origins and religions lived together in one ‘melting pot’, coming together through elements of architecture. This was represented in neighbourhoods through small shops that met the needs of all residents, and public gardens that gave people living in the same neighbourhood a chance to meet in one place, in a sense ‘melting’ them into one socially cohesive society.
In this environment there was a sense of loyalty and belonging to the homeland. But this was lost with modern architecture, which turned the city into soulless concrete blocks.
So how would you take the idea of restoring the older architectural spirit to the authorities, considering the possibility that your theory might not be economically viable?
The ideas I advocate in my book do not pay as much attention to the economic aspect as they do to retaining intimacy and harmony among the population. We should not have separate neighbourhoods for Turkmens, Alawites, farmers, and Bedouins, where each group lives in a secluded area. This segregation turned into a sectarian conflict.
I did not address the authorities in my book, yet I am puzzled by the ideas adopted in implementing slum housing projects. For example, in our Arab world, people are given concrete blocks as living units inside special housing projects. And this is along the lines of the categorization approach which resulted in loss of harmony.
Could you give me a practical example that goes against this thinking in architecture?
I tried to apply my ideas in the planning of Baba Amr (the two gates of Amr) neighbourhood, which was destroyed completely during the Syrian conflict. It contains what’s called the eighth gate of the city of Homs, which is distinct from the other seven gates as it comprises two gates.
I introduced the project to the UN-Habitat competition and won the first prize in 2014. I hope it will become the model for re-planning the rest of the slums, which account for 40 per cent of residential areas in Syria.
In planning this project, I turned the population’s psychological and spiritual needs into ideas in architecture — represented, for example, by backyard gardens and internal courtyards connected to each housing unit. I took into account the fact that these units should not be very high, so they become extensions of the streets in the neighbourhood; this is because modern architecture has killed off the pulse of life in the streets. The old neighbourhoods’ streets were like a family home in which people of different sects, races, and religions met, creating a sense of unity and harmony.
What about people’s basic needs, were they taken into account in the design?
Modern architecture established hyper- and super-markets, which are not much different in design from modern housing. Simply, they are concrete blocks where people gather and live.
On the other hand, the old markets adapted to the needs of the people. Instead of buying bread from the supermarket you could go to a baker; and when in need of any other commodity, a small shop would offer it. This created an intimate relationship between the seller and the buyer, regardless of their race and religion, and it also instilled harmony between people meeting each other in the market. In planning the Baba Amr neighbourhood I was keen on bringing back this sense of market community as well.
Your main idea is based on an architecture that does not discriminate between people of different ethnicities and religions. Doesn’t this contradict the Islamic design of some neighbourhoods in pre-conflict Syria?
This is an opportunity to talk about the concept of Islamic architecture. In the past, Islamic architecture was consistent with the human dimension that I advocate for — it didn’t differentiate between residents of the same neighbourhood based on their beliefs, and I adopted this in my design. In modern Islamic architecture, a group of architectural elements that aren’t authentic to Islamic design are being connected to each other randomly to give a “false” Islamic appearance.
However, a sense of identity cannot be found in individual architectural characteristics. Rather, they are an indirect result of meaningful and beautiful design that is consistent with the spirit of a place.
Have you found a supporter to implement your ideas?
I’ve put down my thoughts in a book, which achieved significant sales in Europe — where it was published in English — yet it has not been distributed in the Arab world. I hope it will be translated into Arabic, and that my ideas find an attentive audience when the time comes to rebuild Syria.
This piece was produced by the Middle East and North Africa edition.