Life Imitates Architecture in Homs: Can Architecture Instigate Sectarian Strife?

Among the many theories surrounding the cause of Syria’s conflict, a sort of new theory has emerged. Could architecture have played a substantial role in its occurrence? Marwa al-Sabouni, a young architect based in Homs, argues yes. Having lived in Homs for two years and witnessed its destruction, Sabouni presents this provocative theory in her recent book, “The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria” (Thames & Hudson, 2016). Although some may criticize her for advancing a theory which attributes the war to urban architecture as opposed to the regime’s decades-old dictatorship, Sabouni clarifies that she does not claim “that architecture is the only reason for war, but in a very real way it accelerated and perpetuated the conflict,” according to Stephen Heyman’s article in the New York Times.

Reporting detailed design flaws in infrastructure in modern architecture, Sabouni, 34, analyzes the negative impacts of modernism on a once peaceful and serene city. Classical Homs and its traditional architecture, she describes, created an environment where many groups could coexist, regardless of sect. Churches and mosques stood side-by-side, and the souk forced rival groups to interact while participating in the market. However, the turn towards urbanized architecture fostered space for rising tensions as buildings grew disconnected from one another. In the past, winding alleyways linked squat houses together, casting a comfortable shade across the city and building the sense of a knitted community. Under the guise of “progress,” the government modernized classical cities and, unfortunately, not only isolated the occupants from the heart of the city, but also from each other through these new, enormous apartment blocks and shantytowns.

Though the architectural changes to ancient sites throughout Syria have been on the receiving end of criticism from world heritage preservation groups, Sabouni argues that isn’t the point. “Why… is a ‘scratch on a column’ at Palmyra more scandalous than the wholesale destruction of Syria’s urban architecture?” she asked in Heyman’s article. Her long-time mentor, Roger Scruton, a conservative English philosopher, shared her view in the same article, stating, “I have always felt sympathy for the underlying view that modernist architecture is a catastrophe for the Middle East.” Credited for helping found The Salisbury Review, a conservative political journal, Scruton serves as a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center based in Washington, D.C.

With new plans for rebuilding cities destroyed by the war, the government has set its eye on even taller, more disconnected apartment towers. Sabouni, on the other hand, wishes to echo the traditional designs of Old Homs, especially the “Sibat,” or covered alleyways, to recreate the interconnectedness. However, while she urges the return of classical architecture, she also warns against wishing to return to pre-war conditions. “Why not wish for better, why settle for the state of instability that brought us here in the first place?” she asks in Heyman’s article. “This gives me the feeling that we haven’t learned any lessons from all that has happened.” Ms. Marwa al-Sabouni is the co-owner of Arabic Gate for Architectural News, the first and only online media dedicated to Arabic architectural news and was the winner of the Kuwaiti Royal Award for Best Media Project in the Arab World in 2010.