June 2021

Noted
by David Neustein

‘Building for Hope’ by Marwa al-Sabouni
The Syrian architect and writer makes a case for war being a consequence of modern architecture destroying the social fabric

Marwa al-Sabouni is a young architect and writer with an arresting story to tell. Her debut memoir, The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, describes life under bombardment in her home city of Homs. Since its 2016 publication she has toured the book internationally and is often asked to propose how war-torn cities might be rebuilt. Her newly published second book speaks to this challenge. 

Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging (Thames & Hudson) is a treatise divided into five chapters. Each is named for a different fear: death, need, treachery, loneliness and boredom. According to al-Sabouni, these fears are both the existential basis of city-making and the forces that undermine peaceful coexistence. Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the fears are progressive: once our immediate survival is assured, we seek sustenance. With food in our bellies, we worry about outsiders. Finally safe and secure, we face isolation and apathy. 

Since war broke out in Syria 10 years ago, more than 500,000 people have been reported killed or missing, and over half of the prewar population has been displaced. According to Building for Hope, this conflict is not an attack on modern life but rather a direct consequence of modernisation. Avoiding all mention of the war’s main belligerents, al-Sabouni instead equates the plight of Homs with the fate of post-industrial Detroit. Her general contention is that the progressive colonisation, industrialisation and globalisation of Syria has ruptured the social fabric by dividing city from countryside, and that modern architecture embodied and perpetuated that violent rift. 

While al-Sabouni’s writing is confident, accessible and original, her narrative is occasionally over-reliant on selective evidence and sweeping generalisations. The author introduces us to fascinating Islamic terms such as asabiyya (kinship) and waqf (endowment) to illustrate traditional social principles of reciprocity and inheritance, but never adequately explains how poor architecture or planning created the conditions for war. Moreover, while al-Sabouni cites numerous bad cases of contemporary development, she does not offer comparative examples of successful postwar reconstruction. Building for Hope invites our interest as a philosophical rumination but falls short as urban theory.

Ultimately, it is not just a matter of how cities are rebuilt, but who is responsible for building them. Al-Sabouni convincingly argues that rebuilding is rarely motivated by altruism. Heritage restoration is often carried out in the service of tourism and international finance, alienating locals just as surely as generic housing blocks or shopping centres. There will be no return for the displaced millions, and no restoration of belonging, until there is a new political order in Syria that respects individual freedoms and protects the safety of its occupants. While wary of new development, al-Sabouni warns that Syria’s ancient city centres cannot simply be re-created.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.

@dneus

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