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For this Syrian architect, lessons for future lay within city ruins

Architect Marwa al-Sabouni believes, amid the rubble of Homs, lay insights for building better communities

Marwa al-Sabouni would be the first to tell you that architecture, and design, aren’t the main concerns in her hometown of Homs, Syria. Bombarded throughout the ongoing Syrian conflict, Homs was once a thriving home for its more than 650,000 residents. It’s easy to see it as just a tragic situation. Al-Sabouni asks outsiders to look past the media portrayal and see what she does; how this ancient city represents street-level urbanism, built up over centuries, filled with lessons on how to create stable communities.

But while day-to-day realities dominate her life—the architecture office she shared with her husband was bombed and destroyed— al-Sabouni isn’t just focused on what her and her fellow Syrians have lost. She’s also thinking about what comes next, and how the country can rebuild in a manner that helps restore this fractured nation. In her widely viewed TED Talk and her book, The Battle for Home, she advocates for streets and cities that respect their country’s heritage. She believes architecture can influence how communities interact: while mass-produced, impersonal tower blocks and stratified developments can pull at the community fabric, and in the case of Syria, exaggerate sectarian divisions, more thoughtful design can help reverse the damage Homs and other such cities have suffered.

“This is my life approach, not just about architecture and design,” she said during a Skype conversation. “I always think about doing the most that I can do, and doing all that I’m capable of in the moment.”

Curbed spoke to al-Sabouni about her thoughts on responsible rebuilding, and how the best ideas of the past can help build the future.

Design is a luxury that everyone should have and cherish

The population of cities such as Homs and Aleppo has been transformed by the war. While a ceasefire was signed in Homs in 2015, 60 percent of the city lays demolished, the population has been cut by two-thirds, and the old market is gone. Whole neighborhoods and communities have immigrated or were dislocated, leading to a displaced population that’s grown used to playing musical chairs as they shuffle between settlements and safe spaces. Many have given their home to other friends or family, even renting from afar. Infrastructure is constantly being improvised; al-Sabouni’s two children attend school in a former residential building. When the ability to impact your environment disappears, it becomes even more evident how important it is to use that power wisely and judiciously.

“Nobody is thinking of designing, or has the luxury for this process,” she says. “People are finding emergency solutions. Most of them are struggling day-to-day. Even for bigger organizations, it’s very difficult.”

When moving forward, don’t forget the past

Homs, an ancient city with a district of narrow, winding streets at its core, exemplifies close-knit community design honed over generations. One of its oldest nicknames, the mother of the poor, references how its dense, tree-filled streets and affordable housing helped bring together locals from across the cultural and economic spectrum. She pointed to the low doorways, which guests would pass through to enter homes or walk into courtyards, as a small detail that offered a sense of humbleness and respect.

“If you talk to someone who lived in the old city, you discover people who were excited about the walls, the souks, the smells,” she says. “It’s not just a physical environment, it’s a social fabric.”

That aesthetic and streetscape used to make people proud. Churches, souks, stores, mosques formed a beautiful tableau shared between Syrians. This was, and is, the kind of approachable architecture that needs to be replicated when the city begins the long task of rising from the rubble.

The quick solution isn’t always the best

In the understandable rush to rebuild, Al-Sabouni fears the fast, easy, and cookie cutter solution will win out over a thoughtful, restrained approach. While refugees and displaced populations welcome a chance to return home, without thoughtful planning, it may not feel much like the city they left. Throwing up quickly constructed, impersonal tower blocks repeats the mistakes of the recent past, where populations were crammed into high-rises outside the city center, a move that didn’t improve social cohesion or connections.

“The temptation to get big developers to get to work quickly doesn’t always the right solution,” she says. ”If they start creating projects without a relationship to place, they’ll ignore the details that can really build a place, a street, or a community. Even worse, people might be pushed back to the edge of town or in ghettos. By building that way, you destroy social life and ways of living, The experience of walking the street is destroyed.”

Doing things quickly, she says, fosters a cycle that leads to rebuilding just a few years later. After waiting for years to return, she says, and suffering so much in the intervening years, it’s important to remove returning residents from that cycle.

New solutions can reflect the social fabric

Al-Soubani has her own ideas on how to create new structures that reflect ancient lessons while adapting to new realities. As part of a UN design competition for new housing in the razed district of Baba Amr, she devised what she calls the Tree, a Safdie-like system of interconnected units that can “grow” and expand as the population rises. These small, stacked unit offer an organic model of growth, and can be clustered together to replicate the community aspects of the old city.

“Give people freedom instead of creating a big tower block,” she says. “With this design, I tried to imagine what the people living there wanted.”