Rebuilding Syria: megastructures and mosaics

I was intrigued by a bold proposal for the rebuilding of the shattered city of Damascus that was featured on designboom a few days ago.

The ‘Silver Lining’ concept by Rebecca Wennerstrand, Mayank Thammalla and Robert Haejun Park imagines the construction of a steel megastructure that would stand some 200 metres above the most devastated regions of the city.

The structure’s immediate function would be to serve as a giant recycling factory. Debris from the broken streets below would be transferred by means of conveyor belts up to the Lining’s core, where it would be reprocessed into new blocks of concrete before being channelled back down to the surface for use in new buildings.

Though the Lining’s ostensible purpose would be utilitarian, the ‘sublime presence’ of the megaform amidst the ruins of the city would signal the reorientation of a post-war Syria to the future: a spectacular symbol of a commitment to build a new country.

The designers envisage the structure becoming a permanent feature of the Damascus skyline after it had fulfilled its iniital function, suggesting that fields, gardens and parks might flourish below and around its base, and that the recycling space could be reused for civic spaces, offices, religious sanctuaries and other purposes.

The spectacle of the platform looming over the city as if some alien emissary from the future brought to mind El Lissitksy’s ‘Cloud Iron’ blueprint showcased at The Design Museum’s Imagine Moscow exhibition that I wrote about in my last post.

The 1924 plan proposed encircling the centre of post-revolutionary Moscow with a series of horizontal skyscrapers, a design with both practical and political purposes: to provide much needed new accommodation, and to herald the arrival of a new society, projecting an image of the city of the future rising – literally – over the old.

El Lissitsky, like other modernists of the early 20th century, delighted in the prospect of sharp juxtapositions, writing that ‘the city consists of atrophying old parts and growing, live new ones. We need to deepen this contrast.’

The uncompromising injection of a radical new architecture into an established skyline creates a dramatic aesthetic of contrasts that I’ve written about more than once here, with particular reference to the panoramas of contemporary London, a city whose most ancient vistas are continually being made anew.

To appreciate a dramatic contrast of old and new take a walk to Moorgate to see the City’s latest sci-fi fantasies rise against the jagged outlines of the Barbican Estate, which in turn overshadow the medieval St Giles Cripplegate. Or stroll along the South Bank where the Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre stand opposite Pugin’s Gothic fantasy across the water, and the Shard looms into view against Southwark Cathedral. London’s skyline is an encyclopedia of past and present futures, the dynamic contrast of design philosophies and styles accentuating the distinctive qualities of each.

It’s not clear though that London’s freewheeling panoramas are appropriate for the ancient cities of the Middle East. Another news item this week related to Syria’s reconstruction highlighted an alternative, gradualist approach to the country’s urban renewal.

The couple who want to rebuild their shattered city, a BBC Magazine feature, looks at the contribution of two Syrian architects from Homs, Ghassan Jansiz and Marwa al-Sabouni, a husband and wife team running a small design studio, to the reconstruction of their city’s ravaged centre.

The story highlights Jansiz’s contribution – supported by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) – to the gradual redevelopment of the Old City’s historic market: a patterned screen inspired by the dappled light effects distinctive of Arabian architecture. And it introduces al-Sabouni’s vision for the city’s organic development that was elaborated in her book The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect which I have reviewed on its publication last summer for openDemocracy (and also available on this site).

al-Sabouni argues that one of the more obscure but no less malevolent seeds from which the Syrian conflict sprung was the careless urban planning that has blighted the development of the country’s cities for half a century.

The opening chapters of her book paint an evocative picture of Old Homs, the historic heart of the modern city, the architectural character of which evolved painstakingly over centuries, its development guided by a common desire to preserve the settlement’s cosmopolitan spirit.

For the greater part of the city’s history different ethnic and religious groups – Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Bedouins and Christians – lived as neighbours in a dense, tightly woven urban labyrinth, constructed from an architectural vernacular blending Ottoman, Byzantine and indigenous Arab elements that used basalt stone mined from the volcanic hill on which Homs sits.

The city’s tightly-knit design compelled close communication and cooperation between its constellation of ethnic and religious constituencies. Mosques, churches and temples stood side-by-side in the narrow streets, and traders representing every walk of life sat at neighbouring stalls in the market. Through the centuries a mutual understanding was cultivated. The peace held and the city prospered.

For al-Sabouni that delicate urban and social fabric began to fray when rapid economic modernisation started to take-off in the 1950s. The waves of newcomers from surrounding towns and villages who arrived to work in the city’s new industries were not bound into the city’s tight physical and social networks as the generations before them, but were segregated into homogenous districts on the city’s outskirts by planners tempted to treat Homs as a tabula rasa for experimentation with western urban zoning systems. This was the mid-century era when the influence of Le Corbusier’s utopian ‘Plan for Algiers’ and Michel Ecochard’s master plans for ancient Damascus was still keenly felt.

That segregation helped facilitate the violence that broke out in Homs soon after the first uprisings against the Assad regime in 2011. Communities who had been able to live within their respective zones without mixing as profoundly as previous generations had been required to do, had less hesitation in turning on each other when political tensions rose.

For the sake of any future peace al-Sabouni argues it is imperative that Homs and other Syrian cities rediscover the cosmopolitan spirit according to which their development was once guided, crafting new settlements that respect a native architectural vernacular capable of inspiring their citizens to see themselves as inhabitants of a shared home rather than as segregated groups of strangers. The city should be conceived as an intricate mosaic rather than a collection of competing spectacles.

But she is also clear that while the redevelopment she envisages should not repeat the mistakes of the past by imposing an abstract, anonymous internationalist modernism, it should not simply take refuge in a nostalgic ‘Islamic architecture’. She notes that the Syrian vernacular is actually cosmopolitan, many of the elements often assumed to be purely Islamic – domes, patios, vaulted rooms and screened oriole windows – being elaborations of indigenous Levantine forms that pre-dated the faith. She admires the efforts of architects such as Hassan Fathy or Ramse Wissa Wassef to clarify and develop a pragmatic ‘Arabian style’ that should not be identified with any particular religion.

al-Sabouni’s own ideas for the reconstruction of Homs appear, at first sight, quite daringly avant-garde. Her proposals for the ruined district of Baba Amr, for example, have more in common with Moshe Safdie’s futurist Habitat 67 housing scheme than a classic Middle Eastern skyline marked by minarets and domes.

But her design stays true to the spirit of the old Syrian cities, suggesting a modular network of interlocking ‘tree units’ constructed of layered apartments branching upwards and outwards, an organic system able to spread vertically and horizontally as required. The tightly interwoven units recreate the character of Old Homs in a new aesthetic register: an intricate fabric of homes, gardens, shops and communal spaces spreading naturally like a vine.

I look forward to seeing what impact al-Sabouni’s and Jansiz’s ideas, which have already attracted considerable interest in the west, have on the redevelopment of Syria, when the time – at last – comes for a comprehensive reconstruction. I understand the visceral appeal of projects such as the Silver Lining. But it seems that an architecture designed to heal rather than impress may be possible, and necessary.