[Marxism] Trapped in Homs, Architect Imagines a New Future for Syrian Cities
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 14 07:09:58 MDT 2016
(A fascinating article. It seems that the architect being profiled is
close to Roger Scruton, a total scoundrel in my view. He is infamous for
promoting the right to smoke in public places a la Spiked while being
paid by tobacco industry lobbyists. That being said, I found the
reference to him deploring the imposition of Le Corbusier's architecture
on Algeria very interesting in light of what I mentioned about the WTC
being a prototypical Le Corbusier project.)
NY Times, Sept. 14 2016
Trapped in Homs, Architect Imagines a New Future for Syrian Cities
By STEPHEN HEYMAN
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 nearly 600,000 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
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
In her book, Ms. Sabouni notes 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 Crac 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
“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
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.”
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