Architecture is inherently optimistic: its founding assumption is that a better world is possible through design. Sometimes this can seem utopian or idealistic, sometimes naively Pollyanna. But for better or worse, that hopey-changey thing (as Sarah Palin memorably put it) is baked into architecture. We see it in full flight in Syrian architect and writer Marwa al-Sabouni’s new book, Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging.
Al-Sabouni’s first book, The Battle for Home, was published in 2016 to international acclaim. Written as she lived in the urban battle zone of Homs throughout the civil war, it argued that architecture and urban design were partially culpable in the conflict – the segregation of cities and housing having led to social and political division that planted the seeds of war. But it also argued that design could be part of the solution, in rebuilding a thriving and harmonious Syrian urbanity.
The new book extends this trajectory to the world at large. Al-Sabouni argues that while “war leaves behind wounded cities, or even dead cities”, other urban places throughout the developed world, even ostensibly rich and peaceful ones, are also “blighted” and “sick” – their malaise “no less urgent than the cries of those devastated by war”.
The disease of urban inequity and exclusion, the effects of colonialist extraction and mass industrial production, the privatisation of public space, the financialisation of housing leading to unaffordability – these are indeed major issues in cities across the world, including Australia. So al-Sabouni poses timely and important questions here. Who indeed “will pay for a generous city?”
While nodding to memoir, the book is clearly a polemic. Calling for “a conceptual retreat from modernity” in architecture and urban design from Damascus to Detroit, it displays both the strengths and weaknesses of the manifesto genre. Written with force and personal conviction, it also has a tendency to nostalgia, flitting across vast swaths of space, time and topic in a manner not always encumbered by expertise. But who could argue with a call for “character” in building, a return to natural materials, and an appeal to more inclusive cities, to which all can belong?
Al-Sabouni is on firmest ground when she draws tangible lessons from the history, culture and architecture of Syria. Offering a way forward, grounded in that tradition, the book does indeed give cause for hope.
Thames & Hudson, 224pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 19, 2021 as "Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging, Marwa al-Sabouni".
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