North Africa, West Asia

Book review: "The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect" by Marwa al-Sabouni

If we can no longer recognise our surroundings as a shared home it becomes easier to contemplate their destruction.

Justin Reynolds
5 September 2016
Hassan Ammar/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

A Syrian boy plays between destroyed buildings in the old city of Homs, Syria, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. Hassan Ammar/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect by Marwa al-Sabouni is a profound, understated meditation on architecture's capacity both to civilise and destroy, written while the author witnessed first-hand the destruction of her native city of Homs.

Al-Sabouni argues that years of misguided and corrupt urban planning have ripped apart the delicate urban and social fabric of Syria's ancient cities, facilitating the conditions for violence between segregated communities living as strangers in fractured landscapes they can no longer recognise as their own.

The book's early chapters conjure a shimmering vision of a better Homs, a city of peace that now has the quality of myth. Al-Sabouni knows her remembered city is more than part dream, but it did once exist as a half-realised ideal, an ideal that for centuries sustained a tolerant cosmopolitanism in which citizens of many creeds, races and classes participated.

Before it was razed by war it was still possible to discern the luminous form of that quiet city in the serpentine streets of Old Homs, a dense network of alleyways where homes, mosques, churches and markets were packed together, sharing each others walls. The architecture respected a common vernacular mixing Ottoman, Byzantine and indigenous Arab elements, built using basalt stone mined from the volcanic hill on which the city sits.

The streets were designed to welcome the citizen and traveller alike, public fountains and sheltering trees offering respite from the Levantine summer, the air freshened by Mediterranean breezes from the west, sweetened by the scent of white jasmine. Threaded by the cool waters of the Al-Asi River and encircled by protecting walls, Homs aspired to be a place of settlement for a tapestry of communities.

For Al-Sabouni that hope was epitomised by the architecture of the labyrinthine old souk, where goods, services, beliefs and ideas were exchanged. Weavers, goldsmiths and blacksmiths traded side-by-side, joined over time by a growing array of professions, doctors, lawyers and others establishing themselves in offices overlooking the market.

The cut and thrust of commerce was tempered by civic codes symbolised by the presence of mosques and churches on every corner. Al-Sabouni recalls:

The merchants had small chairs to sit on outside their shops once they opened in the morning. When a merchant had sold his first item, he would bring his chair inside as a sign. When another customer entered, he would then stretch his head out over his wooden counter to see if any chairs remained outside. If he saw one, he would direct the customer towards it, so as to benefit his less fortunate neighbour.

For Al-Sabouni this fragile idyll began to dissolve in the 1950s when the forced-march modernisation of the Syrian economy necessitated a rapid expansion of the city to accommodate new industries and their employees, waves of Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Bedouins and Christians arriving from surrounding towns and villages.

This time Homs's intricate urban ecology was unable to cope. Syria's new generation of urban planners treated the ancient city as a tabula rasa for experimentation with western urban zoning systems, segregating the newcomers into homogenous districts disconnected from its cosmopolitan heart, where they lived in half-finished stucco towers, often without basic amenities, hastily erected by contractors in league with corrupt officials.

Careless innovations cut into the city's organic texture, as settled neighbourhoods were replaced by anonymous concrete blocks or cut up by new roads. Oil refineries and composting plants were built on the city's western side, polluting the air and river.

The city had expanded with 'growths that turned out to be tumour-like', turning a settlement into a loose collection of dormitories. When Syria's tensions erupted Homs was one of the first cities to descend into chaos, its estranged populations turning on each other. Al-Sabouni argues that when the time finally comes for rebuilding, the city needs a healing old/new architecture that avoids both a cold abstract modernism and a cliché-ridden assertion of 'Islamic' identity.

Mere functionalism will not be enough. A new Homs must use an architectural grammar capable of inspiring its citizens to once again see the city as a home in which they can take pride, that, in the words of the British philosopher Roger Scruton (who contributes the book's foreword), communicates 'the inward resonance of an idea or a way of life'.

But that elusive spirit will not be captured by resort to the pastiche that characterises so much contemporary Islamic architecture. The urban texture of old Homs was never simply the expression of one faith but a cosmopolitan blend that drew on Muslim, Christian and native influences.

Al-Sabouni notes that many elements assumed to be distinctively Islamic - domes, patios, vaulted rooms and screened oriole windows - are actually elaborations of indigenous forms that pre-dated the faith. She admires the efforts of designers such as Hassan Fathy to recover a sense of a pragmatic 'Arabian style' that should not be identified with any particular religion. And she argues for a contemporary Islamic architecture that goes beyond cliché by seeking to illuminate something of the essence of Muslim faith in the all encompassing nature of God.

Classical Islamic architecture sought to express that plentitude by designing modular spaces which communicate a sense of 'unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity' by means of repeating elements such as vaulted ceilings, columns and arabesques, and scrupulous avoidance of focal points that distract from contemplation of the whole. Al-Sabouni references Titus Burckhardt's acute observation that the finest Islamic structures intimate something of the rhythms of the Quran itself:

[T]here's no such thing as Quranic style which can simply be transposed into art, but there does exist a state of soul which is sustained by the recitation of the Quran and which favours certain formal manifestations while precluding others.

For Al-Sabouni the new Homs should by all means 'recover some of the spirit of the Islamic archetypes, which collected peace from the heavens and spread it sideways through the city', but those elements should inform rather than overwhelm, fitting into a rich urban tapestry with which all can identify.

Despite her conservatism Al-Sabouni's wariness of cliché invest her own proposals for the reconstruction of Homs with a radical edge. Her designs for the ruined district of Baba Amr, for example, have more in common with Moshe Safdie's futurist Habitat 67 housing scheme than any fantasy Arabian Nights skyline. Al-Sabouni suggests a modular network of interlocking 'tree units' constructed of layered apartments branching upwards and outwards, an organic system able to spread vertically and horizontally as required.

It looks daringly avant-garde but simply seeks to realise her communitarian objectives through contemporary forms. The open air spaces projecting from the apartments, for example, attempt to meet the day-to-day economic needs of residents by providing private areas for organic food processing, an important local industry, and the shaded ground below would offer space for shelter, shops and parking. And - crucially - the tightly interwoven units would recreate something of the character of Old Homs: an organic network of homes, gardens, shops and communal spaces spreading naturally like a vine, the criss-crossing units recalling the 'Sibat' bridges that link facing houses on traditional Arab streets.

Al-Sabouni's own embrace of a pragmatic radicalism complicates those elements of her argument that express a blanket hostility to architectural modernism, which for her is implicated in Homs's destruction - understandably given the many planning disasters she relates. For Al-Sabouni the modernist incursion into the city is an alien intrusion, the manifestation of an ideology that seeks 'to control a place, rather than to respect it.'

Certainly, modernism's perennial fascination with geometric abstraction and tendency to utopian Prometheanism have often run riot in Arab cities, the desecration of Homs bearing a family resemblance to Michel Ecochard's master plans for ancient Damascus and Beirut, and Le Corbusier's (unrealised) blueprint for Algiers.

But modernism is a more various, complex phenomenon than Al-Sabouni allows, and has long wrestled with the same issues as she regarding how new materials and building techniques can be applied to established landscapes without simply retreading past styles.

Many modernist architects have been at least as concerned with the Aristotelian notion of 'fulfilment of purpose' as with the design of brave new worlds, respecting the classical principle that architecture is a 'practical art' with social ends. The planning issues that have so tormented Homs are those raised by modernity itself, issues to which all pragmatic architects seek sensitive solutions: how to map the demands of today's world, with its quicksilver technologies and population shifts, onto ancient infrastructures.

But this is a fine essay that bears repeated reading, illuminated by dozens of Al-Sabouni's own illustrations. As she writes, any new Homs must be 'a shared home ... built from our sense of who we are as citizens of this place', that can be handed on as 'a gift' to future generations of Syrians. If not many will have no option but to seek, and perhaps fail, to find their home elsewhere.

The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect by Marwa al-Sabouni is published by Thames & Hudson.

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