[Marxism] Trapped in Homs, Architect Imagines a New Future for Syrian Cities

Louis Proyect 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

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 
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 

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 
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.”

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