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Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Syria's architecture laid the foundation for brutal war

June 26, 2016

What caused the war in Syria? Oppression, drought and religious differences all played key roles, but Marwa Al-Sabouni suggests another reason: architecture. Speaking to us over the Internet from Homs, where for the last six years she has watched the war tear her city apart, Al-Sabouni suggests that Syria's architecture divided its once tolerant and multicultural society into single-identity enclaves defined by class and religion. The country's future now depends on how it chooses to rebuild.

Marwa Al-Sabouni - Architect
Marwa Al-Sabouni suggests that architecture played a crucial role in the slow unraveling of Syrian cities' social fabric, preparing the way for once-friendly groups to become enemies instead of neighbors. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Hi. My name is Marwa,
and I'm an architect.
00:19
I was born and raised in Homs,
00:22
a city in the central
western part of Syria,
00:24
and I've always lived here.
00:27
After six years of war,
00:29
Homs is now a half-destroyed city.
00:31
My family and I were lucky;
our place is still standing.
00:33
Although for two years,
we were like prisoners at home.
00:36
Outside there were demonstrations
and battles and bombings and snipers.
00:40
My husband and I used to run
an architecture studio
00:45
in the old town main square.
00:48
It's gone, as is most
of the old town itself.
00:51
Half of the city's other neighborhoods
00:54
are now rubble.
00:56
Since the ceasefire in late 2015,
00:58
large parts of Homs
have been more or less quiet.
01:00
The economy is completely broken,
and people are still fighting.
01:03
The merchants who had stalls
in the old city market
01:07
now trade out of sheds on the streets.
01:09
Under our apartment, there is a carpenter,
01:12
sweetshops, a butcher, a printing house,
workshops, among many more.
01:14
I have started teaching part-time,
01:20
and with my husband,
who juggles several jobs,
01:22
we've opened a small bookshop.
01:24
Other people do all sorts
of jobs to get by.
01:26
When I look at my destroyed city,
of course, I ask myself:
01:30
What has led to this senseless war?
01:33
Syria was largely a place of tolerance,
01:36
historically accustomed to variety,
01:38
accommodating a wide range
of beliefs, origins, customs,
01:40
goods, food.
01:44
How did my country --
01:46
a country with communities
living harmoniously together
01:47
and comfortable in discussing
their differences --
01:50
how did it degenerate into civil war,
violence, displacement
01:52
and unprecedented sectarian hatred?
01:56
There were many reasons
that had led to the war --
02:00
social, political and economic.
02:02
They all have played their role.
02:05
But I believe there is one key reason
that has been overlooked
02:07
and which is important to analyze,
02:11
because from it will largely depend
02:12
whether we can make sure
that this doesn't happen again.
02:15
And that reason is architecture.
02:19
Architecture in my country
has played an important role
02:21
in creating, directing and amplifying
conflict between warring factions,
02:24
and this is probably true
for other countries as well.
02:28
There is a sure correspondence
between the architecture of a place
02:31
and the character of the community
that has settled there.
02:35
Architecture plays a key role
in whether a community crumbles
02:38
or comes together.
02:42
Syrian society has long lived
the coexistence
02:43
of different traditions and backgrounds.
02:46
Syrians have experienced
the prosperity of open trade
02:48
and sustainable communities.
02:51
They have enjoyed the true meaning
of belonging to a place,
02:53
and that was reflected
in their built environment,
02:56
in the mosques and churches
built back-to-back,
02:59
in the interwoven souks and public venues,
03:01
and the proportions and sizes based
on principles of humanity and harmony.
03:03
This architecture of mixity
can still be read in the remains.
03:08
The old Islamic city in Syria
was built over a multilayered past,
03:12
integrating with it
and embracing its spirit.
03:15
So did its communities.
03:18
People lived and worked with each other
03:20
in a place that gave them
a sense of belonging
03:22
and made them feel at home.
03:24
They shared a remarkably
unified existence.
03:26
But over the last century,
03:29
gradually this delicate balance
of these places has been interfered with;
03:31
first, by the urban planners
of the colonial period,
03:35
when the French went
enthusiastically about,
03:38
transforming what they saw
as the un-modern Syrian cities.
03:40
They blew up city streets
and relocated monuments.
03:43
They called them improvements,
03:48
and they were the beginning
of a long, slow unraveling.
03:50
The traditional urbanism
and architecture of our cities
03:53
assured identity and belonging
not by separation,
03:56
but by intertwining.
03:59
But over time, the ancient became
worthless, and the new, coveted.
04:01
The harmony of the built environment
and social environment
04:05
got trampled over
by elements of modernity --
04:08
brutal, unfinished concrete blocks,
04:11
neglect, aesthetic devastation,
04:13
divisive urbanism that zoned
communities by class, creed or affluence.
04:16
And the same was happening
to the community.
04:21
As the shape of the built
environment changed,
04:24
so the lifestyles and sense
of belonging of the communities
04:26
also started changing.
04:30
From a register
of togetherness, of belonging,
04:31
architecture became
a way of differentiation,
04:34
and communities started drifting apart
04:37
from the very fabric
that used to unite them,
04:39
and from the soul of the place that used
to represent their common existence.
04:42
While many reasons had led
to the Syrian war,
04:47
we shouldn't underestimate
the way in which,
04:49
by contributing to the loss
of identity and self-respect,
04:51
urban zoning and misguided,
inhumane architecture
04:55
have nurtured sectarian
divisions and hatred.
04:59
Over time, the united city
has morphed into a city center
05:02
with ghettos along its circumference.
05:05
And in turn, the coherent communities
became distinct social groups,
05:08
alienated from each other
and alienated from the place.
05:12
From my point of view,
05:16
losing the sense of belonging to a place
05:18
and a sense of sharing it
with someone else
05:20
has made it a lot easier to destroy.
05:22
The clear example can be seen
in the informal housing system,
05:25
which used to host, before the war,
over 40 percent of the population.
05:28
Yes, prior to the war,
almost half of the Syrian population
05:33
lived in slums,
05:37
peripheral areas
without proper infrastructure,
05:38
made of endless rows of bare block boxes
05:41
containing people,
05:44
people who mostly belonged
to the same group,
05:46
whether based on religion,
class, origin or all of the above.
05:48
This ghettoized urbanism
proved to be a tangible precursor of war.
05:53
Conflict is much easier
between pre-categorized areas --
05:58
where the "others" live.
06:01
The ties that used
to bind the city together --
06:03
whether they were social,
through coherent building,
06:06
or economic, through trade in the souk,
06:08
or religious, through
the coexistent presence --
06:10
were all lost in the misguided
and visionless modernization
06:13
of the built environment.
06:17
Allow me an aside.
06:19
When I read about heterogeneous urbanism
in other parts of the world,
06:21
involving ethnic neighborhoods
in British cities
06:25
or around Paris or Brussels,
06:27
I recognize the beginning
of the kind of instability
06:30
we have witnessed
so disastrously here in Syria.
06:33
We have severely destroyed cities,
06:37
such as Homs, Aleppo,
Daraa and many others,
06:40
and almost half of the population
of the country is now displaced.
06:43
Hopefully, the war will end,
06:47
and the question that,
as an architect, I have to ask, is:
06:49
How do we rebuild?
06:53
What are the principles
that we should adopt
06:55
in order to avoid repeating
the same mistakes?
06:57
From my point of view, the main focus
should be on creating places
07:00
that make their people feel they belong.
07:04
Architecture and planning
need to recapture
07:06
some of the traditional values
that did just that,
07:09
creating the conditions
for coexistence and peace,
07:12
values of beauty
that don't exhibit ostentation,
07:15
but rather, approachability and ease,
07:18
moral values that promote
generosity and acceptance,
07:21
architecture that is for everyone
to enjoy, not just for the elite,
07:24
just as used to be in the shadowed alleys
of the old Islamic city,
07:28
mixed designs that encourage
a sense of community.
07:32
There is a neighborhood here in Homs
that's called Baba Amr
07:36
that has been fully destroyed.
07:39
Almost two years ago,
I introduced this design
07:41
into a UN-Habitat competition
for rebuilding it.
07:44
The idea was to create an urban fabric
inspired by a tree,
07:47
capable of growing
and spreading organically,
07:51
echoing the traditional bridge
hanging over the old alleys,
07:54
and incorporating apartments,
private courtyards, shops,
07:57
workshops, places for parking
and playing and leisure,
08:01
trees and shaded areas.
08:04
It's far from perfect, obviously.
08:07
I drew it during the few hours
of electricity we get.
08:09
And there are many possible ways
to express belonging and community
08:12
through architecture.
08:16
But compare it with the freestanding,
disconnected blocks
08:17
proposed by the official project
for rebuilding Baba Amr.
08:20
Architecture is not the axis
around which all human life rotates,
08:24
but it has the power to suggest
and even direct human activity.
08:28
In that sense, settlement,
identity and social integration
08:33
are all the producer and product
of effective urbanism.
08:37
The coherent urbanism
of the old Islamic city
08:41
and of many old European
towns, for instance,
08:44
promote integration,
08:47
while rows of soulless housing
or tower blocks,
08:49
even when they are luxurious,
08:52
tend to promote isolation and "otherness."
08:54
Even simple things
08:57
like shaded places or fruit plants
or drinking water inside the city
08:59
can make a difference
in how people feel towards the place,
09:02
and whether they consider it
a generous place that gives,
09:06
a place that's worth keeping,
contributing to,
09:09
or whether they see it
as an alienating place,
09:12
full of seeds of anger.
09:14
In order for a place to give,
its architecture should be giving, too.
09:17
Our built environment matters.
09:21
The fabric of our cities is reflected
in the fabric of our souls.
09:23
And whether in the shape
of informal concrete slums
09:28
or broken social housing
09:31
or trampled old towns
09:33
or forests of skyscrapers,
09:35
the contemporary urban archetypes
09:36
that have emerged
all across the Middle East
09:38
have been one cause of the alienation
and fragmentation of our communities.
09:41
We can learn from this.
09:46
We can learn how to rebuild
in another way,
09:48
how to create an architecture
that doesn't contribute only
09:51
to the practical and economic
aspects of people's lives,
09:54
but also to their social, spiritual
and psychological needs.
09:57
Those needs were totally overlooked
in the Syrian cities before the war.
10:01
We need to create again
cities that are shared
10:06
by the communities that inhabit them.
10:09
If we do so, people will not feel the need
10:11
to seek identities opposed
to the other identities all around,
10:14
because they will all feel at home.
10:18
Thank you for listening.
10:22

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Marwa Al-Sabouni - Architect
Marwa Al-Sabouni suggests that architecture played a crucial role in the slow unraveling of Syrian cities' social fabric, preparing the way for once-friendly groups to become enemies instead of neighbors.

Why you should listen

Marwa Al-Sabouni was born in Homs, a city in the central-western part of the country, and has a PhD in Islamic Architecture. Despite the destruction of large parts of the city, she has remained in Homs with her husband and two children throughout the war. In her just-released book The Battle for Home (Thames & Hudson, 2016), she explores the role architecture and the built environment play in whether a community crumbles or comes together, and she offers insights on how her country (and a much-needed sense of identity) should be rebuilt so that it will not happen again.

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