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The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect Hardcover – 18 Apr 2016
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An understated gem of a book … gripping--The Spectator
Marwa al-Sabouni 'reveals uncomfortable truths and important questions about the fate of cities when social cohesion disintegrates. But she also offers astute insights into how urban centres could be reimagines and rebuilt in the aftermath of conflict.'--RA Magazine
A 'remarkable book…[al Sabouni's] ideals, and those of countless moderates like her, deserve our admiration and support.' --Times Literary Supplement
An extraordinary memoir. --Rachel Cooke, The Observer
Marwa al-Sabouni writes with clarity and conviction. --The Times
About the Author
Marwa al-Sabouni has a PhD in Islamic architecture and runs a private architectural studio in Homs, Syria. She has written for Architectural Review, and Wall Street International. She is co-owner of the first and only online media site dedicated to architectural news in Arabic, Arch News.
Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher. His books include The Dictionary of Political Thought, A Land Held Hostage: Lebanon and the West, and The Aesthetics of Architecture.
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The difference with this book is that Marwa is an architect and she argues (strongly) about how the building of certain high rises and other blots on the landscape made her hometown worse, not better.
She is obviously a highly intelligent lady and her views and ideas are unique and something I hadn't even considered.....until my step-son started to study as an architect....
Now, I see all around me where certain councils and builders have got-it-all-wrong and 'us' the people that live in those places suffer. Marwa points out that the destruction of certain parts of her city made that city divided not united and contributed towards a more violent attitude. City Planners take note! You could contribute towards a similar set of terrible events here!
I never thought I'd read a book about architecture and find it interesting/moving and emotionally intelligent.
But I did.
And this book is just that.
Al-Sabouni argues: “that while architecture is not the axis around which all of human life rotates... it has the power to... direct human activity”
The city of Homs was the third-largest city in Syria. It was a main industrial centre that mirrored Syria’s religious assortment composed of Sunni Muslims, Alawites, and Christians. Historically, the city of Homs has always been a diverse place with a number of famous masjids and churches throughout the city. However in the mid-20th century, after France took control of Syria, as a result of the Sykes-Picot agreement, “Homs was the subject of a Le Corbusier-influenced modernization process”, which had a major impact on the very fabric of the city.
Furthermore, she accepts as true that the Old Islamic cities of Syria were once an amalgam of congenial municipal entities which promoted cohabitation and open-mindedness through their interlacing of communities. Conversely, she theorises that over the last century, beginning with French colonization, the ancient towns were seen as antiquated and were gradually “improved” under the auspice of modernity: “brutal unfinished concrete blocks, aesthetic devastation and divisive communities that zoned communities by class, creed, or affluence.” This urban condition, she argues, is what created the conditions for the uprising-turned-civil war.
Al-Sabouni, maintains a judicious framework of her ideas, showing her single-mindedness, in that the role of architecture as a prominent, and pivotal component in the future of Syria. She posits that should the peace hold, as mentioned, in the afore mentioned narrative, the “The Battle for Home”, then there may be a positive way forward for the country.
It must be said that for her book to ever come to fruition, is a marvel in itself. It must be noted that she managed to write, while in Homs, as the shells dropped around her and the norms of civil society disintegrated. The commitment she gave, to somehow think of future for Syria and all its peoples under these conditions is awe inspiring. In her search for a way forward, she contacted via the internet the philosopher Roger Scruton, asking him to clarify something in his book, “The Aesthetics of Architecture”. Frankly, he was astonished. Who was this person to dedicate time to architectural aesthetics, “when all around her the fabric of her ancient city” was falling in ruins? He wrote back directly, and “they became correspondents”, he has also done the forward to her book.
This in some ways is a multi-faceted title, which well illustrates the author’s key ideas on what caused the civil war. Moreover, the author looks toward a united and tolerant future, where all of Syria’s people can co-exist in harmony?
Marwa al-Sabouni's story tells of both her personal battle to obtain a PhD in architecture in the corrupted and narrow-minded Syrian university system, and of Syria's slow unravelling as a country - which she partially blames on corrupt officials permitting inconsiderate building projects that segregated communities, removed communal facilities, blocked off short cuts, and helped lead to the civil war going on today. Architecture for her should be designed around people's lives and ways of life, and designed to reflect these lives and their identities back at them. Shaded courtyards serve a purpose in hot countries, and a purpose for building communities. She has no time for the likes of Le Corbusier, whose plans to tear down Paris and start again showed an utter disregard for the human environment in the face of the built environment.
She talks of how old buildings in Syria were torn down and replaced with new ones that were totally unsympathetic to tradition, except for having a few bits of superficial Islamic decor slapped on them. She talks of domes being "deposited on top of finished buildings like hats", in a sort of cursory and thoughtless nod to what these people perceive as tradition. She talks of architecture teachers at Syria's universities lacking depth of knowledge on their subjects - both in terms of its historical reach locally and its international breadth in the present - and about how this has led to a lack of identity across the Middle East, notably in Dubai, which she describes as looking like a "shelf of perfume bottles".
She also delves into segregation within cities, and points out how European cities need to be aware of how this can tear cities apart, in the way it did in Syria.
My only criticism is that the book is quite badly edited. There is only really 120 pages of material here, stretched over nearly 180 pages. The later chapters feel quite loose, and lots of points are reiterated over and over without adding any points for consideration.
Having said that, what is said is of interest on several levels, and this is still a book worth reading for many reasons, not least the excellent illustrations.