Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Can The Architecture Of A City Play A Role In War? Architect Marwa Al-Sabouni says French colonial design segregated Syria's cities and laid the groundwork for division and civil war. The future of the country may depend on how it decides to rebuild.
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Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Can The Architecture Of A City Play A Role In War?

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Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Can The Architecture Of A City Play A Role In War?

Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Can The Architecture Of A City Play A Role In War?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, the life cycle of cities, including some very difficult chapters in one city's history.


ZOMORODI: So let's start just - if you wouldn't mind, just tell us where you are right now.

MARWA AL-SABOUNI: Well, I'm in my home in Homs, Syria.

ZOMORODI: And how would you describe it? Homs, I mean.

AL-SABOUNI: At the moment, you mean? Or...


AL-SABOUNI: I mean, dead (laughter).


AL-SABOUNI: Just dead, yes. It's a dead city with every sense of the word.

ZOMORODI: This is Marwa Al-Sabouni.

AL-SABOUNI: You know, my city, Homs, was predominantly on international news for almost five years.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: We turn now to Syria, where three years of civil war...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They call Homs the capital of the revolution.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: In the old city of Homs, 83 Syrians...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: ...Was once seen as the capital of the revolution. Now it's mostly controlled by...

ZOMORODI: Marwa's referring to the Syrian civil war, when, between 2011 and 2016, government and rebel forces fought each other from strongholds inside the city.

AL-SABOUNI: And the violence that happened and the conflict that went on for several years, almost five years of shelling and...


AL-SABOUNI: ...Killing and destruction ended by having more than 60% of the city in rubble.

ZOMORODI: While the city was being shelled around her, Marwa stayed indoors, raising her two young kids.

AL-SABOUNI: We were trapped for almost two years in our block.

ZOMORODI: And she was also working.

AL-SABOUNI: I have a Ph.D. in Islamic architecture. And basically, my professional life started during those 10 years of war. I mean, I lived in the city for five years of destruction. Now, I mean, the other five years are of decline.

ZOMORODI: I mean, you say that the city is dead, but I hear a lot of traffic nearby as well.

AL-SABOUNI: Well, the definition of dead city is that trade is dead. Production is dead, in that sense. But, I mean, people are moving. It's good that you are hearing traffic. But you should see how many days those cars are queuing now for fuel - few days, not hours - around the neighborhood, like, in loops. It's a daily challenge to deal with all the problems that the situation is bringing into our lives and the drain of not only the resources, not only the nature, but also the drain in people. And when they are that tired and when you lose all of those resources, it brings the worst in people.

ZOMORODI: In 2016, Marwa gave her TED talk via Skype from her apartment in Homs, which was still under siege at the time.


AL-SABOUNI: When I look at my destroyed city, of course, I ask myself, what has led to this senseless war? Syria was largely a place of tolerance, historically accustomed to variety, accommodating a wide range of beliefs, origins, customs, goods, food. How did my country, a country with communities living harmoniously together, how did it degenerate into civil war, violence, displacement and unprecedented sectarian hatred? There were many reasons that had led to the war - social, political and economic. But I believe there is one key reason that has been overlooked and which is important to analyze, and that reason is architecture.


ZOMORODI: Architecture. Marwa believes that architecture lays the foundation for how people live and interact in cities. And she says that sense of harmony and community that came from different people living side by side, it was because of how traditional Syrian cities were designed, like Homs.

AL-SABOUNI: Yeah, basically. I mean, you had centuries of Islamic civilization and the remnants of different tools and different styles from the Mamluk, Ayyubid, Ottoman. But also, you will find other layers like Roman, even Hellenistic. All of these layers are intertwined into one urban fabric that reflected itself also on a social fabric. So what was interesting for me is to see how different religions lived side by side. You have the mosque built in front of the church, and you have the Christian neighbor living next to a Muslim neighbor.


AL-SABOUNI: The old Islamic city in Syria was built over a multilayered past. People lived and worked with each other in a place that gave them a sense of belonging and made them feel at home. They shared a remarkably unified existence. But over the last century, gradually, this delicate balance of these places have been interfered with, first by the urban planners of the colonial period when the French went enthusiastically about, transforming what they saw as the unmodern Syrian cities.

ZOMORODI: In 1923, French colonialists took over Syria and within 20 years, reshaped and redesigned the old cities.

AL-SABOUNI: So what they wanted is to tear as much as they can from the Islamic city, which they thought is too intertwined, too chaotic for them. And they wanted, you know, more of colonial rule. They wanted to expand the roads so their tanks could go in. They wanted to create gaps in the density of the city so they have more control.


AL-SABOUNI: They called them improvements. And they were the beginning of a long, slow unraveling. The traditional urbanism and the architecture of our cities assured identity and belonging, not by separation, but by intertwining. But over time, the ancient became worthless, and the new, coveted. The harmony of the built environment and social environment got trampled over by elements of divisive urbanism that zoned community by class, creed or affluence. Communities started drifting apart from the very fabric that used to unite them.

ZOMORODI: OK. So between 1923, 1943, the French redesigned the old cities. And they start building neighborhoods outside the city walls. And in your talk, you say that this was the beginning of a long, slow unraveling.


ZOMORODI: What do you think was kind of the domino effect?

AL-SABOUNI: I mean, this is the beginning of the class division. Before that, you had the rich and the poor. You couldn't tell by the exterior of the house how much wealth the resident had. But when you build the posh villa and the boulevard housing, the appearance is that there is a line that you are crossing here. And the same happened also to sex. So you had a neighborhood that will be for the Orthodox Christians and another one for Catholic Christians and another one for Muslims. So this segregation and urbanism also reflected itself on the social life. And with that comes antagonism. It was the perfect atmosphere for civil war.

ZOMORODI: And how did you see that people were divided? Like, how did that play out?

AL-SABOUNI: I mean, this war is very complex. And I don't want to simplify it. But then also, you had people who were killing each other on the basis of religion and also belonging to which party or to which faction you belong to. And based on the answer of this question, people killed each other.

ZOMORODI: But you had just started a family. You had just started your career as an architect. Why did you stay when all of this was going on?

AL-SABOUNI: Well, you have to imagine, I mean, it's a very long period of time that each day sometimes brought a new challenge. So, I mean, if you ask me, why didn't you leave? Because there is no way anybody could leave. I mean, people flee in that phase. They left everything. They couldn't take shoe, a shirt. They couldn't take a backpack sometimes. They fled in the trunk of a car. I mean, it's - the danger that was outside was greater than the danger of staying put. But also, over time, a sense of responsibility. I mean, this war put us in existential threat. And you have to ask, what is the purpose of my life? Why I am here? What should I do? And the answer was to have faith and to try to bringing some good towards those who are around you. That was - kept us where we are.


AL-SABOUNI: Hopefully, the war will end. And the question that as an architect I have to ask is, how do we rebuild? There is a neighborhood here in Homs that's called Baba Amr that has been fully destroyed. Almost two years ago, I introduced this design into a U.N. habitat competition for rebuilding it. The idea was to create an urban fabric inspired by a tree, capable of growing and spreading organically, echoing the traditional bridge hanging over the old alleys and incorporating apartments, private courtyards, shops, workshops, spaces for parking and playing and leisure, trees and shaded areas. Even simple things like shaded places or fruit plants or drinking water inside the city can make a difference in how people feel towards the place and whether they consider it a generous place that gifts or whether they see it as an alienating space full of seeds of anger.

ZOMORODI: I mean, it's pretty amazing. You submitted this design to rebuild one neighborhood in Homs while all the shelling was taking place around you. So can you tell us more about your vision, like, how you are imagining that this new design can change life in this neighborhood?

AL-SABOUNI: I think people would be more connected. I mean, neighborliness is one of the prime aspects that we should, as architects and planners, seek to reinforce and seek to introduce in our designs. Moreover, the connection with nature. So when you surround yourself with the two, I think the cycle of thriving in the city becomes enabled. I mean, the trends of sustainability and green architecture and all sorts of what seems, I mean, very benign concept sometimes simplify those connections into a mere facade, which I think is not at the heart of the matter of settling people in. You have to find links between the life of the people and the life of, like I said, neighbors and nature.

ZOMORODI: Do you have hope that homes can rebuild, even if it is just one of those integrated buildings at a time that you have designed?

AL-SABOUNI: Definitely. I mean, after the destruction, usually there comes the phase of reconstruction, of rising out of the ashes. And people survive by those moments, right? And countries are rebuilt in that way throughout history. So I think we are here to have hope. And we should never stop trying. This is the belief I go by in my life. And sometimes, like I said, get you tired but not defeated. So, of course, I have hope. And I would like to think I'm one of those who are dreaming of this better future for my country.

ZOMORODI: That's Marwa al-Sabouni. She is an architect and author of the book "The Battle for Home". You can see her full talk at

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