As the world watches the Syrian Civil War drag on, a Syrian architect, Marwa al-Sabouni, has dealt with the ravages of conflict by thinking ahead to the postwar rebuilding process.
Based in Homs, Syria’s third largest city, al-Sabouni has lived the experience of a civil war. “We basically don’t have a cityscape anymore,” she says, pointing to the fact that over 60% of Homs has been completely razed as a result of the conflict. “Each neighborhood is surrounded by piles of collapsed buildings,” she reports.
To the list, al-Sabouni would add architecture itself, charging that the built environment created some of the conditions that led to armed conflict—an argument she makes in her acclaimed book, The Battle for Home (Thames & Hudson, 2016).
Her concern is that a similar approach will be used once the work of rebuilding begins. “Under the name of reconstruction, there is a temptation to allow investors to build mega-projects and buildings that could erase much of what is important for people here,” she says.
“I am not in favour of building exactly what we had before, but we should be able to assess what worked and what did not work,” al-Sabouni urges. “We should have a moment of contemplation before we start throwing up high-rise towers and concrete blocks.” One of her ideas is to reconsider building materials. As she explains, Homs is situated in a plane of rich volcanic soil, and over the centuries, its builders found in this landscape what would become one of the city’s principal building materials: black basalt. Despite its natural properties—“it’s very durable, very beautiful, and sustainable,” al-Sabouni says—it has become consigned to history, replaced by the concrete blocks that have come to define, blandly so, the landscape of Homs.
She also looks to the long-standing local tradition of architectural pattern making. Not only as a matter of aesthetics, but also as an economic principle (support for local artisans), al-Sabouni sees an opportunity to restore some of this tradition in the rebuilding process. She is quick to clarify that she is not advocating a kind of historical pastiche, but instead an incorporation of local materials and an interpretation of traditional patterns in modern ways.
As al-Sabouni remarks, “It is not uncommon to have 2,000-year-old columns standing in a building with 200-year-old walls.” She seems to view her personal experience in similar terms: “I am doing what I can in the moment that I’m in.”
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