Architect Marwa al-Sabouni reflects on how architecture can help Syria heal after eight years of devastating civil war
In her first book, The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect, Marwa al-Sabouni illuminates the way in which buildings inform the societies we live in, joining people together or participating in their collapse.
Through the history of her own nation, she explains how Syrian architecture, because it failed to meet the needs of its unique identity, has gradually divided its multi-denominational population.
The architect takes us through different periods in her country's history, from Umayyad palaces and buildings from the Ottoman era, to those of the French mandate and the ruins of Homs.
It's a journey that meanders through the conflict of the country that, far from drawing a gloomy picture of the situation, offers the hope of healthy reconstruction which could finally reconcile Syrians to their built environment.
MEE: Has the Syrian government failed in the planning of an architecture that allows its inhabitants to live together peacefully?
MS: The government has failed at many levels by neglecting the basic functions of architecture: the aesthetic, social, economic and even political aspects that buildings should provide.
Rather than preserve the old part of the city and improve the new, city officials decided to "update" the town planning and architecture. A lot of old buildings have been destroyed, replaced by fantasies out of their imagination.
One day, for example, the municipality decreed that the shopping centre in the heart of the old town would be provided with open parking. Lifeless concrete masses have replaced palaces, baths and other buildings of historical and aesthetic importance.
Another massive construction, the Ibn al-Walid complex, has not been completed and now looks like a malignant wart. This project was designed and built by the military construction company, the prime contractor of public projects in Syria.
On the rare occasions when officials have opted for preservation and restoration, the results have been disastrous, such as the al-Zahrawi Palace, for example, which became the property of the Syrian government in 1976. The official restoration staff did not respect the harmony and coherence of this magnificent building and have repainted it with flashy colours.
MEE: How did architecture precipitate the Syrian conflict?
MS: The Syrian conflict is the subject of a series of events, of which architecture is a tiny part. If I speak mainly of Homs in my book, it’s because it follows a pattern you can find in other Syrian cities.
Old Homs, which is both the heart of the city and its historic district, was originally built inside the ancient walls that protected the city from invaders. It was in the 1940s that the city extended beyond the area circumscribed by these walls. At this time it was surrounded by lush orchards that grew near the Assi river.
In the 1950s, the promulgation of an expropriation law allowed the government to confiscate private property for public use, paving the way for massive construction outside the city limits.
In this new sector, which became the new downtown, urban planning has extended the Old City in a heterogeneous way, mixing elements of colonial architecture with constructions without real identity or meaning.
The third sector includes more residential neighbourhoods with middle and upper-class homes, whose architectural elements range from the "experimental modern" to the nil of anti-architecture.
Even before the war, the erosion of the old quarters of Homs - and, above all, their replacement by new ones based on religion or the demographic origins of the population - helped to disconnect the inhabitants from the city and themselves. At the beginning of the conflict, people found themselves cloistered in certain areas of the city because of the bad decisions of the authorities in terms of urban planning.