How to rebuild a war zone: The vision of a young architect in Syria

Updated 18th November 2016
How to rebuild a war zone: The vision of a young architect in Syria
Written by Hazel Pfeifer, CNN
Marwa al-Sabouni lives on a noisy street near the old part of Homs, one of Syria's most decimated cities. Cars honk outside her door, but destruction is only one street away. Every horizon shows rubble from buildings shattered by the Assad regime's deadly bombing.
Syria's third largest city, Homs became known as the "capital of the revolution" when thousands of its residents rose up to protest against government oppression in 2011. The city became a rebel stronghold and paid a high price: its old mosques and churches, souks and squares now lie in ruins.
As an architect, Sabouni's vision of Homs as a battleground started long before the war. Her new book, "The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria," is an extraordinary telling of how the city's structure led, in part, to its downfall, and how architecture can heal the deep rifts in the country's social and urban fabric.

How urban planning fueled a fire

Sabouni feels the way the city was developed and planned contributed to sectarian tensions that helped fuel the fire behind the revolution. Urban ghettos segregated according to religion or origin, and a lack of public places where people could mingle and work together left the city bereft of a sense of cohesion, and its inhabitants starved of a collective identity.
"This vandalism that happened to the built environment made people not care about each other, and become very alien from each other and from the place," Sabouni says over Skype from Homs.
Marwa al-Sabouni
The book weaves her personal journey as a young architect and mother with the story of Homs' past, present and future -- the ancient city of mummies and dark tunnels that lie beneath the surface; the corruption and cronyism that lead to the destruction of public spaces and the neglect of old buildings; and the need for a new type of inclusive architecture in order to avoid the mistakes of the past.
"(Old places like souks) had a major role in bringing people together to interact with each other," she says. "We need to emphasize this to bring life again to the cities... Not building slums and social housing and trying to solve a problem by creating another problem, by creating isolated blocks, more concrete."

Life in a war zone

Marwa al-Sabouni
Everyday life poses challenges, from the mundane to the life-threatening.
At the height of the conflict, bullets flew through Sabouni's kitchen window, and she and her family slept and woke to the sounds of bombing and buildings shaking.
For two years, she did not see the moon. Since government forces took control of most of the city in 2014, the real difficulty has been wrestling with the basics like food, heat and light. For those stuck in the limbo of war, everyday domestic battles for survival become the fabric of existence once the bombs have stopped falling.
Sabouni's passion for the built environment is clear, and yet the realities of living in a war zone provide a grim sense of perspective.
"When you hear about people dying in the street, just dropping down like birds, or open your window and see kids who have died just a moment ago from a mortar, you don't worry very much about the death of a building," she says.
And yet in times of war, architecture can take on a deeper meaning, as summed up by one of the passages in her book:
"Our homes do not just contain our life earnings, they contain our memories and dreams, they stand for what we are. To destroy one's home should be taken as an equal crime to destroying one's soul."
It is this sense of the preciousness of home that Sabouni says underlines her vision for rebuilding Syria, "recapturing the values that used to be represented in areas that were successful in binding people and making them feel at home."
"The architecture that we all should strive for is the architecture that builds a home."