‘The Architecture of Cities and Social Codes’ a contribution by Marwa Al-Sabouni in the Mobile Home(less) book and project
  • Mobile Home(less) @ Habitare
1 June 2017

Refugees: a new category of people that has erupted onto the surface of our troubled contemporary world. Millions of displaced people who have become a population that could fill a country of its own, waiving their own Olympic flag and creating a ‘crisis’ in international hallways. Besides the suffering, the most distressing part for a refugee is having fallen under this shameful label – the loss of home. No matter where refugees settle, their loss is irreplaceable. There is no place like home.

The search for home, however, has not only become a concern for those who have been forcefully displaced through circumstances, but also for many of us who try to find a definition of home in this modern era.  Many of us have an inner refugee longing for a place to settle. The rise of modern nomadism is evidence of a new state of homelessness where the wreckage of home and the haunting dream of a new one are in constant conflict.

Through his work, Anssi Pulkkinen brings this wreckage straight from Syria into alarming proximity.  Standing in the heart of European cities, the Syrian rubble can no longer stay trapped in our psyche. Although the element of scale is missing -whole cities have been reduced to rubble in Syria – the symbolic journey of this wreckage corresponds so closely to a refugee’s journey that it creates an inescapable connection with the psychological baggage a refugee carries with him or her.

As an architect, this connection is even more evident for me in how our surroundings are built and how we relate to them, a topic I have explored in my book The Battle for Home and which I further explain in the piece I wrote for this upcoming publication along with nine other writers.  In the Mobile Home(less) book and project, each one of us ‘plays’ his or her own ‘instrument’ in conversation with Pulkkinen’s art installation.

Losing my city to destruction while continuing to live surrounded by its open wounds made me ask myself certain questions that you will read about in this contribution; questions such as ‘when does a city become a city?’, ‘how is the city structure guarded?’ and ‘what is the architect’s role in all this?’.

My piece The Architecture of Cities and Social Codes tries to answer these critical questions by examining the conditions of a peaceful social code where the configuration of the space and its aesthetics play an important role in maintaining the functionality of a peaceful environment. Our ancient cities in Syria had a paradigm that has proven to work for hundreds of years. They created a kind of womb that its citizens could feel satisfied and safe in, that they could belong to. They enabled an economic growth that sustained the city’s life cycle. And, they were a peaceful place for the coexistence of different communities with different backgrounds. Still, there have been times when all this collapsed because of various factors. These factors have greatly influenced how our cities have transformed in shape and form. Many of these transformations took place before the war, while the outbreak of conflict has wreaked havoc on what remained.

At this critical time, when Syrian cities are facing massive destruction all around, there could be no greater cause for us to reflect on the lessons that can be learned from the history of building in these cities, and how these lessons might be put to use once again. In my piece, I identify three main elements in the architecture of ancient Syrian cities that have created conditions for a peaceful social code among their people. I also discuss the ‘tipping point’ at which ‘success’ becomes self-destructive within the locality. This is a concept developed by the American urban activist, Jane Jacobs, which I have further expanded and made specific to Syrian cities.

Settlement is what we as humans do on this earth, it is the sphere in which we organise and order our being. Our towns and cities are the locus of this settlement, but they have to have the qualities that will allow us to find our way back home.

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Marwa Al-Sabouni

 Syrian architect Marwa Al-Sabouni arrives in Helsinki in September as a keynote speaker at the Habitare expo to discuss the rebuilding of Syria. Al-Sabouni is an architect and writer based in the Syrian city of Homs whose views on the influence of the urban structure on the outbreak of the Syrian war have garnered international attention. Al-Sabouni is a co-author of the book Home Reassembled – On Art, Destruction and Spaces in Motion that will be published as part of the Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux’s Mobile Home(less) project. The book will be launched at the September 2017 Habitare expo, in conjunction with the Finnish premiere of Anssi Pulkkinen’s work Street View (Reassembled). 

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