Fraser Forum

Architecture and urban planning may have helped lay foundation for Syrian civil war

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While you may be annoyed that your tax dollars fund government cultural programs and are spent purchasing works of abstract expressionism you consider ridiculous, you probably wouldn't accuse government subsidized art of changing the physical landscape, altering your everyday activities, fomenting social alienation or (even), leading to increased crime, poverty and, in the extreme, war. But all this can be laid at the doorstep (so to speak) of modernist architecture—an experiment through which we are still living, if not suffering.

Architecture shapes the way we live more than any other art form. What is most disturbing about this fact is that prominent buildings and architectural installations are often controlled by centralized governments with no serious budget constraints, and no real incentive to organize the built environment to accommodate real people and their lives.

Present day Syria offers a contemporary and particularly tragic window into how architecture and certain forms of urban planning might have laid the foundations for civil war. This is the argument advanced by Marwa al-Sabouni (pictured above), a Syrian architect living in Homs. In a New York Times article last week, Sabouni argues that the architecture and design of Homs promotes "anger and revenge.” Her recent book, Battle for Home, is not only a study of the architecture of Homs, but a meditation on the relationship between architecture, freedom and an ethical life.

In her Ted Talk (which has garnered almost 600,000 views), Sabouni points out that Syrian society enjoyed tolerance amidst great heterogeneity, and had "experienced the prosperity of open trade and sustainable communities.” Much of this began to crumble, she argues, after the social fabric of Syria was torn up by governments entranced with the virtues of modernism.

Government authority and modern architects are natural bedfellows since both find easy recourse to authoritarian impulses. Architects, like government officials, feel justified in a certain sort of paternalism, which finds its expression through the belief that human society can be engineered or designed according to a central plan. The most obvious examples come from communist regimes (Stalin's Moscow, Mao's Beijing) where vast swathes of the built urban environment were destroyed in order to lay the set for the rise of homo collectivus. In a sense then, both socialist ideology and modernist architecture have shaped aspects of contemporary society in tragic ways. Both are committed to an idea of authority over liberty, the communal over the individual, the functional and utilitarian over the traditional and spiritual. Both, in essence, are hostile to the foundational principles of western liberalism.

But the authoritarianism was not restricted to explicitly communist regimes.

France's Le Corbusier, for instance, offers a window into a particularly autocratic personality, one that unfortunately found expression in a number of soulless buildings imposed on populations across the world (France and North Africa in particular). A good example can be found in Le Corbusier's Plan Voisin for Paris, which envisions destroying vast swathes of the 4th quarter (the "Marais") and replacing the low stone buildings and twisting alleys with a series of glass office blocks and broad avenues (Le Corbusier had similar ambitions for Algiers).

Some of the futuristic visions are indeed enticing (light, air, efficiency) but with so many of the grand projects of modernity, the plans are predicated on an illiberal conception of society: the projects must disregard private property and uproot generations of family homes and businesses, not to mention institutions (churches, schools, parks, playgrounds) that were essential to the fabric of the existing culture. Le Corbusier (and other fellow modernists such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright) explicitly think in terms of destroying the existing, and imprinting the resulting space with the products of their own genius.

Even if we are seduced by the rhetoric that promotes modern architecture (that Brave New World of futuristic living), we know from experience that modernity doesn't promote the sort of utopian fraternity and aesthetic enlightenment that Le Corbusier and his kind anticipated. The concrete residential tower blocks of the European and American cities are a fine example, where crime and poverty are rampant. Erno Goldfinger's Trellick Tower in London is a good case in point where residents complained that the building encouraged "anti-social behaviour" due to its design (Fleming's bad guy, Arno Goldfinger, is named after the splenetic architect). The banlieue (suburbs) of Paris also offer an educational case history in how centrally planned architectural design leads to disastrous long term outcomes. When Haussmann redrafted large portions of Paris (the avenues would allow for easier troop movements, allowing for the suppression of revolutionaries) he effectively severed the banlieue from the prosperous centre of the city. This lay the groundwork for generations of growing alienation, anger and poverty in the outskirts of Paris.

Back in Syria, Sabouni is attempting to draw attention to this dark side of modern architecture. As she states in her TED talk, the French urban planners "blew up city streets and relocated monuments." The fabric of society was slowly "unraveled” and the traditional and humane was replaced with a government's vision of the future: "the ancient became worthless, and the new, coveted. The harmony of the built environment and social environment got trampled over by elements of modernity—brutal, unfinished concrete blocks, neglect, aesthetic devastation, divisive urbanism that zoned communities by class, creed or affluence."

There is a modernism that understands and accommodates history, that employs and responds thoughtfully to tradition. It is those architects and urban designers, working as part of a community, understanding of local vernacular, that can most effectively come to the aid of cities like Homs.  


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