The Battle for Home
The Battle for Home by Marwa al-Sabouni
By helping set the terms on which we belong to our home and engage with one another, architecture has a role to play in reinforcing the moral fabric of a society, and in The Battle for Home, Marwa al-Sabouni concerns herself with how architecture can fulfil this humanising role. She illustrates this with examples from Syria, where the slide into war was both informed by and reflected in its degraded architectural practices. And as the war recedes, her vision of a humanising architecture stands out as a shining hope to her ravaged homeland.
Her study of architecture began at university in her home city of Homs. The subject was taught in a sloppy way, with European fashions haphazardly picked from catalogues so they could be imposed on the city with no regard for its heritage. Homs is an ancient city, two thousand years old, with literal layers of history - Umayyad, Persian, Ottoman, Byzantine, French - stacked on top of each other, sometimes within the same building. Nobody respected this. Students cheated on exams. Teachers neglected the past. City planners did the bare minimum they could, more interested in the easy existence offered by a middle-class government job than in their practice. Greed, incompetence, apathy; these were the principles directing the growth of Homs.
Among many examples of failed planning, al-Sabouni gives that of a petrol refinery which was built on the western edge of the city. Because it is flanked by mountains to the west, a wind always blows through the city towards the east:
... air currents from the sea made summers in Homs more bearable than in other Syrian cities. This wind also left its mark on the trees, which are all bent towards the east. You always know that you have entered Homs when you see these bent trees along the roadside. (26).
The refinery was placed in just the right location for the wind to pick up its smog and blow it all over the city.
This wasn’t just an isolated incident. Homs was ripped up and redesigned several times to satisfy the whims of its rulers. Under the French Mandate, trees were replaced with European imports and the streets widened so they looked more like the flat boulevards of Paris. Churches and mosques were shifted to more convenient locations and painted gaudy colours. Nothing changed after independence. The government dropped ugly concrete blocks into the middle of the desert, but nobody wanted to live in them. Often these lacked even the essential infrastructure needed to make them livable. This incoherent jumble of styles and tastes mirrored the city’s descent into violence. While we mourned the shocking destruction of ancient monuments by ISIS fighters, al-Sabouni makes it clear that, even in the decades preceding war, the city planners were already hard at work mutilating two thousand years of history.
Homs was traditionally home to both a Muslim and a Christian population. They lived side-by-side in a maze of alleyways, souqs (bazaars), shops, houses, and underground passages. Everything in the city reflected the unity of the people through their difference. Churches and mosques stood across the road from each other, and it was not uncommon to hear the church bells ringing at the same time as the muezzins chanting the call to prayer. Some believe that religion caused the civil war, but al-Sabouni disagrees. She saw it as an essential, civilising force that radiated affection and respect, giving each community an opportunity to “establish its identity through harmonious architecture that assured it of its existence and established its settled place.” (70).
One of the greatest accomplishments of Syrian architecture was (and still is) the souq al madina in Aleppo, the largest in the world. There people went about their business in a "moral economy", one in which their bonds to each other were just as important as the actual exchange of goods for money. Compare this to your shopping mall:
...what this market once presented, as a vital part of its beauty and character, was the moral aspect of trade. The merchants of Old Aleppo believed on religious grounds that you are blessed by being good to your neighbours, and that you earn your place in the community - such is what true belonging consists in. This is exactly what was perpetrated by the architectural configuration: facing and adjoining shops, a shared route under one ceiling that united them, and one sky above them all. 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. (66).
Something about this description feels very far away and almost hard to believe. It’s difficult to know where the historical record ends and nostalgia takes over. But it’s also irrelevant to al-Sabouni’s wider point. The way in which our cities are built can encode gracious patterns of living with one another. It is only by cooperating with our neighbours that we learn to treat them with dignity for who they are, not with tolerance in spite of who they are. In a moral economy, enabled by a harmonious architecture, our everyday interactions renew the need for one another.
And when these bonds break, bad architecture ratifies our isolation. Instead of the “identity through difference” once found at the junction of church and mosque, a desperate need to assert one’s community against all others emerges. This, too, is reflected in the grand projects of the Syrian government, the most ambitious of which were towering glass monoliths based on the vanity projects of Emirati petro-sheikhs. These buildings seek to awe people through size and wealth, but refuse any obligation to harmonise with the fabric of the city into which they are placed.
Homs also failed to integrate successive waves of migrants into the heart of the community. While they may have “dipped their toes” into the city, most of them lived in parallel communities on the outskirts. al-Sabouni gives the example of the Alawites, who came down from the mountains after the government abolished feudalism. Now they had the possibility of new, better lives, but it was not enough to merely severe them from the old ways:
...employment did them little good, since they maintained their isolation from economic interaction with the living city. They resided in separate districts closer to their jobs and away from the educated communities. Moreover, with their faith revolving around a philosophical notion… they lacked the religious anchor that would engage them in regular worship and order their lives and their relationships with the people into whose traditional territory they had come. (74).
Against the twin threats of westernisation and ethno-religious tension, the government tried to project a new Syrian identity. Their notion of Syrian architecture was confused, though. Historically, religious differences could be expressed through architecture without being seen as damaging to the unity of the people. For example, compare the rib-vaults in churches with those in mosques, which reflect different understandings of God:
The ‘union with God’, which is a central theme in Christianity, corresponds to the upward striving of its architecture. By contrast, the dropping-down embracing unity of Islam be read in its architecture: an inherent unity, from which the ‘component elements’ are deduced, and which is not procured from those elements by any upward visual dynamic. (157).
Instead of celebrating this kind of diversity - identity through difference - the architecture of the Syrian state's manufactured identity reached for the most ostensibly Islamic elements, such as the mashrabiya (projecting upper-story windows), muqarna (ornamented vaulting), minaret (spires), geometric patterning, and Arabic calligraphy. Instead of supplying a new dignity to Syrians, it had the effect of reducing their culture to cliches. It made no sense to combine all these forms, which came from many different empires - the Indian Mughals, Persian Safavids, Turkish Ottomans, Arab caliphates.
This anachronistic jumbling can be seen as a nervous reaction, a desperate assertion of identity, in which buildings were made as visibly Islamic as possible. It was an attempt to negotiate entry into a western-dominated global order while also maintaining unity and cultural sovereignty. Ironically, it only ossified Islamic architecture according to what sets it apart in the western gaze. This is not cultural sovereignty because Islamic architecture is still being defined according to the western gaze, by the subtraction of all those elements deemed too ostensibly western.
Good architecture reinforces and harmonises with the moral fabric that precedes it. It has a sense of directedness, not only giving pleasure to the eye, but making us feel part of something bigger than ourselves. It is part of our induction into a community that, having started before we are born, we hope will carry on after we are dead. It is only by thinking in the span of lifetimes - in the renewal and affirmation of these bonds of community - that we can hope to cooperate over many generations. When that sense of home is established, the inhabitants of a city can finally consider that place their joy and identity. Architecture is therefore about a sense of belonging, not just in the sense of constructing a place for us to live, but in helping us with the task of belonging in it.
Marwa al-Sabouni shows us that architecture can be different. Architecture can express the identity of a place and its people. It can reinforce the ideal way in which they should live - side-by-side, in harmony and cooperation - rather than setting them one against the other. When people don’t have anywhere to call home, what does it matter if their city is destroyed? Why should they care if their neighbours are killed? The conditions for a civil war were accelerated by this negligence to home and belonging. Now, as the war recedes and Syria begins to rebuild, perhaps this approach to architecture might be taken up by the city planners of Syria. Maybe then they can overcome their cruel circumstances and establish a new home that is truly theirs everlasting.