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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Syria shows how urban sprawl and physical divides can erupt into political ones

A Pritzker Prize-nominated architect argues that ancient Syria, created over centuries, fostered communal living and a sense of community, unlike the impersonal tower blocks of recent times

The 1,3000-year-old Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus / Getty
The 1,3000-year-old Umayyad Great Mosque in Damascus / Getty

When the magazine Architectural Digest this month came up with a shortlist of contenders for the Pritzker Prize, architecture's most prestigious award, it included an unusual name on the shortlist: Marwa Al Sabouni, a Syrian architect who has spent the entirety of the civil war living in Homs and who has yet to actually build much of note.

But that, the magazine reasoned, was the point. Trapped in Homs, a city devastated by the civil war, Ms Al Sabouni has watched as fault lines that existed in the city's architecture flared into fault lines of violence. In her book The Battle for Home, published two years ago, she argued for a role for architects in maintaining community cohesion and she has since spoken of her belief that the rebuilding of Syria must have at its heart the renewing of a human connection.

It is strange to talk of rebuilding Syria even as it is being destroyed. Although the war has ended in Homs, Syria's third-largest city before the war, it persists in other parts of the country. The assault on Eastern Ghouta continues. Just this week, a report from Unicef detailed how last year was the worst year of the war for Syrian children; an entire generation is being scarred.

A Syria that was painstakingly built over many centuries is being painfully destroyed in a matter of months and years. The human geography of Syria, the tangled web of communities, identities and histories that long defined parts of the country, has been obliterated. In parts of Aleppo, one of the world's oldest inhabited cities, there is nothing but ghosts. The buildings are razed and the people have gone.

Yet Ms Al Sabouni thinks the two parts are related. She thinks that part of the history of the conflict can be traced to the way cities were built and how communities interacted. By understanding the human and architectural parts of Syria and bringing them together where they have been severed, it is possible to rebuild Syria stronger than before.

Ms Al Sabouni's essentially optimistic proposal starts from that fundamentally pessimistic observation, that the architecture of modern Syrian cities contributed to the enmity which exploded in 2011. She argues that years of unchecked urban sprawl created segregation between communities, a segregation that resulted in alienation among communities and from a wider sense of belonging. That alienation fostered mistrust and rival identities, all of which exploded as the civil war gripped the country.

Ms Al Sabouni saw this firsthand. She has lived in Homs with her husband and two children since the uprising began. Even as the civil war took hold around them – she experienced tanks on the streets, armed factions carving out territory around her family home and the destruction of her architectural practice – she stayed and even created plans for what a renewed Homs might look like.

That optimism resonated abroad; her TED talk on how the built environment laid the foundations for the war has been viewed over a million times. She has been invited to speak at panels around the world, although often she has not been able to travel.

Last week, Ms Al Sabouni missed out on the Pritzker Prize, which went instead to the celebrated Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi. Had she won, she would have been only the second woman to win the prize in the four decades of the award, the first being Zaha Hadid in 2004.

Even surveying a city as devastated as Homs – as the first Syrian city to call for the overthrow of Bashar Al Assad, it was bombarded, besieged and starved into submission by the Syrian regime – Ms Al Sabouni believes in the healing power of architecture – not merely repairing the city and the wider country but remaking and healing it.

To do that, she has reached to the past for inspiration. She sees in the older architecture of Syria a reflection of better values of human connection. In her argument, the older parts of Syria – the areas of Aleppo, Damascus, Homs and many others referred to as the Old City – allowed people to move through public space and streets in a way that enhanced co-operation. It allowed them to live closely with their neighbours, fostering a sense of belonging, unlike the impersonal tower blocks that grew up to replace them.

Ms Al Sabouni's criticism of the role of geography in the conflict is compelling but depoliticised. It ignores the spark of the conflict, the regime's war on its people. It also omits underlying economic factors.

While the size and availability of homes is part of the architectural divide of Syria's cities, it wasn't merely bad design that caused it. Rather, the collapse of rural life in the past four decades forced hundreds of thousands to make their way to the big cities, creating urban sprawl and economic ghettos. By 2011, at least a third of Syrians lived in this urban sprawl, on the fringes of major cities but apart from them. The grey tower blocks she despises were the only possible way to house so many people so quickly; the beautiful, serene architecture of Syria's old cities was built up over decades and centuries, not mere years.

Still, the power of Ms Al Sabouni's work is in its essential optimism. She believes, as it can be very difficult to believe, surveying the vast human and physical destruction, that her country can still be rebuilt. To be a contender for such a prestigious prize is proof that what applies in Syria could apply far beyond it, in other cities devastated by war. Her work is also a warning to urban planners that physical divides too easily become political ones. The cities that people build can sometimes destroy them.