Since civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, some 500,000 people have died, 6.6 million have been internally displaced, and 4.8 million have fled the country. Ancient monuments, vital infrastructure, and entire cities have been destroyed. Living amid all of this, Marwa al-Sabouni’s response was to write The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, which was published in May by Thames & Hudson. Part history, part memoir, and part treatise, the book makes tragically clear how misguided policies toward the built environment abet the collapse of social order.
Al-Sabouni was born and still lives in Homs, Syria’s third largest city. She earned her Ph.D. in architecture at the local university in 2014 and now teaches at a university in a nearby town. With the moral fervor of a John Ruskin—albeit a 21st-century, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and female incarnation—al-Sabouni bemoans the loss of values that once gave coherence to Homs’ historically diverse population, among them an altruistic sense of faith, pride in craft labor, and love of place. In her telling, Syria’s built environment has been devolving for the better part of a century, and has dragged the populace down with it.
The French, who ran the country between the world wars, tried to impose Cartesian order on a seemingly chaotic indigenous urbanism, demolishing tightly knit old neighborhoods to establish regular street grids. The Ba’ath Party, which has held power since 1963, has proven equally insensitive, appropriating private land to build residential blocks of abysmal quality and limited quantity. As of 2010, nearly 50 percent of the country’s population lived in “informal communities”—the government-preferred euphemism for shanty towns.
“At first sight, the savaging of the built environment may not convey a clear connection to civil conflict, but the truth is that each of those acts left open wounds in the hearts of the people,” al-Sabouni writes. “The official vandalism spoke to them of the government corruption that squandered their money, stole their memories, ruined their settlements, and rubbed out the marks of their shared culture.” What the Syrian government began, the civil war and the Islamic State are now finishing.
Will it be possible to rebuild? And if so, how? Al-Sabouni exhibits little confidence in the current standard of architecture in the region, dismissing contemporary riffs on old Islamic design motifs and construction methods as superficial manifestations of identity politics. The Dubai skyline she describes as “a shelf of perfume bottles.”
Al-Sabouni is not entirely certain what form the reborn cities of Syria should take, but she knows precisely what the process of reconstruction must achieve: “Our need is for a shared home, and this home must be ours, built from our sense of who we are as citizens of this place, and from our wish to restore it, to embellish it, to make it our own, and to hand it on as a gift,” she writes. “If we do not take responsibility for this place, or try to understand how meaning, beauty and a sense of the sacred can be inscribed once again on our land, then we will not build a home for our descendants. And they will be doomed to destroy what they find, and to destroy themselves along with it, all over again.”