'This place promoted anger....revenge'
People from different religious and ethnic groups have lived in relative harmony for generations in Syria's cosmopolitan cities, and one young resident architect believes failures of design and infrastructure have fueled the civil war that turned those urban spaces into nightmares of death and destruction.
Marwa al-Sabouni, a 34 year-old architect who has been confined to her apartment in the ancient city of Homs for the last two years with her husband and children, believes the loss of shared spaces occupied by sites where people lived, worked, shopped and worshiped has fostered separation and isolation. The trend grew over time as the traditional buildings and winding shaded lanes were replaced square street grids and massive apartment blocs that isolated their residents from the city center. Shantytowns with residents divided by race and class sprung up on the fringes of Homs and other cities, further diminishing amicable interactions.
"This place promoted anger, it promoted revenge," Ms. Sabouni told the New York Times. "I'm not saying architecture is the only reason for war, but it accelerated and perpetuated the conflict." A Times story by Stephen Heyman describes Mr. Sabouni's study of her hometown.
Homs is Syria's third largest city and traditionally a hub of industry, commerce and culture. Its location is central to important road and rail networks that link Syria's main towns and cities. Its history dates to the first millennium BCE, and it grew as a trading post on the routes from the Mediterranean to China and India. It was a center of Christianity under the Byzantines. Today the city has a Sunni Muslim majority and Christian and Alawite minorities.
In the old town, architecture and design supported and reflected harmony among these groups, according to Ms. Sabouni. Mosques and churches sat side by side, and residents mingled in shared space as they shopped, worked, and worshiped. The ancient souk, or marketplace, was a hive of multicultural commerce as well as being a birthplace of revolution five years ago.
Ms. Sabouni says by 2010 nearly half of Syria's population was living in shanty towns with few amenities, and that some of the earliest battles took place along the line that separated segregated areas. Much of the city's "architectural soul" was destroyed in the fighting, she said, and the ancient Khalid ibn al-Walid Mosque, an important pilgrimage site, was severely damaged. Ms. Sabouni envisions a new urban design she believes would foster harmony. See her Youtube presentation.
Other scholars have observed how the built environment and shared spaces influence social peace or disharmony. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, described the vitality and well-being of neighborhoods where people from different walks of life carried on diverse economic and social activities. She wrote of the economic value of having new structures adjoining the old, and the civic value of sidewalks. In reviewing a new biography of Jane Jacobs for the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik offers interesting views of what Jacobs got right, and what might not be true today.
Karen Lee Bar-Sinai is a young Israeli architect who was frustrated watching events along a rail line that followed Jerusalem's Israel-Palestine border. It wasn't designed to connect two capitals, she said in a Foreign Policy article. Instead, she said, the line separates, and it became the target of Palestinians who ripped up tracks and damaged stations. She believes architects and designers need to become more involved in rebuilding the shared spaces that foster reconciliation in cities ravaged by war and conflict.
"Today as cities build walls to separate hostile populations, as refugees spill across borders, and as informal shantytowns rise in the shadow of bombed out neighborhoods, architects and city planners are slowly approaching the legacies of conflict as urban problems demanding design solutions," says the article, "Diplomacy by Design," by Nate Berg.