Marwa Al-Sabouni fights for her ‘almost-dead’ city 

Marwa Al-Sabouni fights for her ‘almost-dead’ city 
The architect is unsentimental about the city’s past. (Supplied)
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Updated 23 July 2020

Marwa Al-Sabouni fights for her ‘almost-dead’ city 

Marwa Al-Sabouni fights for her ‘almost-dead’ city 
  • The Syrian architect wants to ensure that equality and morality are at the heart of her country’s rebuilding process, starting with her hometown of Homs

LONDON: In her acclaimed book “The Battle For Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria,” Marwa Al-Sabouni set out her community-centered plan to rebuild her hometown of Homs. It takes a great deal of imagination to be able to see beyond the rubble of that traumatized city — the scale of devastation is daunting. She estimates that 60 percent of the city was destroyed.

“Homs today still wears the scars of war, as it did coming out fresh from it three years ago,” Al-Sabouni tells Arab News. “The rubble and debris that had filled the streets were removed, but the pancaked buildings and the neighborhoods destroyed en masse still 'greet' you.”

Still, she says, its people have not given up. “Homs fights hard against the fact that it is an almost-dead city,” Al-Sabouni says. “It is showing signs of recovery and normal movement in the midst of chaos and malfunction.” 

For Al-Sabouni, the most important factor of her plan is that human connection lies at its heart. (Supplied)

The architect is unsentimental about the city’s past. She is not seeking to restore it to some misremembered former glory.  

“It's hard to miss things from Homs's recent past, because the same problems that the city had been struggling with were exacerbated by the war: Namely, the absence of a responsible municipality, the dirty streets, the systemic attack on its lovely nature and beautiful heritage, all of which were evident before the war,” she says. “The vandalism of the city's memory was a vandalism of the city's social fabric and unraveling of its communities.” Indeed, in her book she notes that these factors all contributed to Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Al-Sabouni and her husband run the Arabic Gate for Architectural News, a first-of-its-kind portal in Arabic. They chose to remain in Homs, together with their two young children, throughout the war, despite seeing so many of their friends and family leave the city.

Her plan is a blueprint for the rebuilding of the Baba Amr district of Homs. (Supplied)

“Each person has his or her own story, and their personal choices are part of their individual journey and depend on their particular circumstances, which no one has the right to say anything about,” she says. This philosophy is the reason why she feels there should be no restrictions on who can or cannot help rebuild Syria. 

“Helping in the rebuilding does not necessarily demand your physical presence, at least not all the time,” she says. “Just as your physical presence does not necessarily guarantee your ability — or whether you deserve — to participate. For me, genuine intentions are what count, and these have become quite rare these days.”

Whoever may be involved, though, Al-Sabouni is adamant that the success of the rebuild will depend on how it enables peaceful, integrated communities to flourish. 

Her proposal was named among the Prince Claus Award winners for 2018. (Supplied)

She submitted a proposal based on that belief to the Amsterdam-based Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, and was named among the Prince Claus Award winners for 2018. Her plan — a blueprint for the rebuilding of the Baba Amr district of Homs — was praised by the committee for its “profound analysis … showing through lived experience how modern architectural and town-planning conventions contribute to the fragmentation of society and conflict,” for its “daring resilience in … reminding us that war does not erase humanity, culture, pride or hope,” and for “inspiring Middle-Eastern architects with ideas that counter both the European-centered paradigm and stereotyped Islamic architecture.” 

“I chose Baba Amr because it suffered from double trouble as an informal settlement and a mass destroyed locality in a city raging with war,” Al-Sabouni says. “Baba Amr is still an area of rubble standing in the midst of destruction. The official response is a plan of thrown-together tower blocks. There is not a single design principle adopted in that plan — so it's kind of good news that nothing has been implemented as yet.”

Her own plan was hailed by the Prince Claus Awards committee as “ground-breaking” and “the opposite of current government plans,” drawing as it does on “older Syrian spatial arrangements” that “reintroduce the traditional connections linking public and private spaces, and the buildings are designed to grow organically, like trees.”

The architect is not seeking to restore the city to some misremembered former glory. (AFP)

For Al-Sabouni, the most important factor of her plan is that human connection lies at its heart.

“Nurturing a sense of belonging should be the key goal of any rebuilding process,” she says. “Where people (feel they) belong is where they will care and preserve. Neighborliness cannot be established in tower blocks or around highways — which have regrettably become key features of our region. Internationally, there is a growing awareness of the mistakes committed in the wake of the world wars; nonetheless, the phenomena of segregation and alienation in the modern city are still far from solved. Here in the Arab region we always seem to import problems even when we have plenty of our own.

“The Syrian conflict, unfortunately, is 10 years old now, and the talks about reconstruction are still moving in circles,” she continues. “The reason behind this is that everyone is approaching the question from the perspective of creating profit — including the international community, even the UN agencies and local NGOs. We need buildings that promote equality and aesthetic and moral values.” 

Al-Sabouni is optimistic about the opportunities that task presents. (Supplied)

On the back of her successful book, Al-Sabouni has had the opportunity to travel extensively, something she found quite overwhelming at first.

“I had been so enclosed for so long that it was a bit like getting out of jail. Everything seemed louder and too crowded. I think I turned into an introvert during the war, but I took great pleasure in the encounters I had with international audiences,” she says, adding that her experiences — which included meeting a number of architects she admires — inspired her to write a second book, due out next year.

Al-Sabouni is under no illusions about the enormity of the task ahead for Syrians as they try to rebuild their shattered homeland. But she is optimistic about the opportunities that task presents.

“I think of myself as a realistic person who holds on to hope,” she says. “It's the nature of our world that things straighten themselves out — or, as we say in Arabic, ‘Only right shall prevail.’ I believe we should hold on to that.”