The reconstruction of Syria has become a new landscape of contestation. Many appear interested or keen to contribute, seeing in the reconstruction an investment opportunity for foreign capital and a chance to experiment with new architectural forms in a country devastated by conflict.
“Everything I have in Syria is destroyed; my house, and my family”, Samia, a Syrian woman told me in February 2019 in Moria Camp in Greece where she shares a small space in an ISO container with other people. “My house was destroyed. We left when the East Aleppo was under siege.”
Hani, an architect in Homs city in Syria, says he has been displaced from his home on nine occasions since 2011. He hopes the tenth move will return him back home. His family are separated across different cities, living wherever relatives can offer them a room. Hani’s home is partially destroyed; he spends hours each day removing the debris.
After years of destruction in Syrian towns and cities, people are beginning to look towards the country’s reconstruction. But conversations about rebuilding Syria do not always engage with the suffering of ordinary people like Samia and Hani, or address the reconstruction of ordinary homes. Rather, the conversation around Syria’s reconstruction has so far focussed on monumental sites of historic architecture and mdoern high-rise development projects. Neither responds to the needs or desires of ordinary Syrian citizens.
Those interested in reconstructing historic architectural sites stress the need to think about Syria’s ancient history as a foundation for rebuilding the country. They explain that these landscapes reflect the achievements of ancient civilisations and the collective memories of communities that once lived in the region.
This has led to significant interest in sites including Dura-Europos, Palmyra and the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo. Yet focussing on history invokes a one-sided view of Syria that neglects the lives of many of its citizens, romanticising the past while remaining blind to present everyday realities.
At the same time, building high-rise tower blocks in post-conflict Syrian cities risks supplanting the country’s social and cultural fabric with standardised skyscrapers. Such projects might benefit investors and developers, but can end up displacing locals. To see these risks in practice we can look to central Beirut, where people have criticised redevelopments for bringing war-like levels of destruction.
Both these trajectories fail to reflect the desires and needs of people that have been internally and externally displaced. Rather than engaging with local communities and representing their voices, many of the emerging debates and research funding aimed at Syria’s reconstruction do not include ordinary Syrians. It’s worth asking: who has the power in reconstructing Syria? Whose voice is heard?
Syrian architects and engineers want to shape the future of their cities, imagining new spaces that can reunite devastated communities and heal war wounds. Local Syrian architects inside and outside the country are spreading awareness about urban life in their cities, about property ownership issues, about the right to the city and about the city as a space of collective memory.
But it is not enough for Syrian architects with good intentions to create meaningful and inclusive reconstruction projects. It’s essential that Syrian architects work with local communities to better understand what they need. Prior to the Syrian war, developers proposed a project in Homs called the Homs Dream. They suggested demolishing areas of the city and replacing them with towers, erasing the collective identities and meanings created in the heart of the city. The project sparked outrage among Homs locals.
To avoid similar situations in the future, it is vital to create dialogues between architects, urban planners and local communities. Approaches like co-design and co-creation can offer people opportunities to shape the future of their built environment. These approaches can take different forms, including live debates, broadcast conversations and workshops.
We need public engagement to include all of society. Without addressing the six million refugees outside Syria, the internally displaced Syrians like Hani, and the voices of Syrian architects, engineers and urban planners, we may ask: who is Syria’s reconstruction for? And what ends does it serve?
Ammar Azzouz is an architect and an analyst for Arup. He grew up in Homs and now lives in London.
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