The Syrian Civil War which had started as pro-democracy protests against the President in Homs in 2011, has reduced many of its glorified cities to apocalyptic rubble over its course, claiming more than 350,000 lives and all of Syria’s six UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The once-bustling commercial and religious centers are annihilated, entire neighborhoods have been wiped off of the map and even basic infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and roads are leveled to the ground, forcing millions on the move.“10 schools shelled in Idlib and Aleppo countryside”, read the headlines five days ago.
“Palmyra’s 2000-year-old Temple of Bel razed to the ground, Temple of Baalshamin dynamited in a public wave of destruction,” Headlines bled of cultural loss and wreckage in Syria five years ago.
Urban warfare has turned cities into battlegrounds with communities and civilian lives at the heart of the conflict. While architectural and urban destruction has been collateral damage to warfare throughout the history of wars and rebellions, it was only since the 20th century that the ‘art of destroying cities’ was perfected through the invention of “cutting-edge” weaponry and ways of conducting a war. Such systematic disruption and division of cities are aimed to claim administrative control and induce suffering between communities, the effects of which extend beyond brick and mortar.
How does a city rebuild itself from such catastrophic destruction then, one that has not only taken away the city as it stands but also the people who had upheld its glory and the spirit that stood strong in the face of adversity?
Architect Lebbeus Woods, in his book ‘War and Architecture’, identifies the two predominant patterns for rebuilding cities following war-induced destruction as:
- Restoring the city exactly to its previous, historical state, or
- Erasing the remains of the city to construct a new utopia.
Let us take examples from the famous wars of the last century which destroyed an alarming number of cities in its wake to further understand his observations:
Hiroshima, Japan: Sympathetically famed as the target of the first atomic bomb that hit the ground on 6th August 1945, Hiroshima was a major military headquarters during the Second World War and was almost wiped clean by the single blast. The bomb, named ‘Little Boy’ by the American contingent, claimed 70, 000 people in an instant and more than 60,000 of its 90,000 buildings. The blasting in Nagasaki on 9 August 1945 pulverized 19,400 of its 52,000 buildings. Despite the carnage, water and power were restored within a week. Electric power was available in most of Hiroshima by 7 August 1945, and the railways resumed running the following day. Over the next decade, a new urban fabric wrapped over the damage and the 16th century Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt to serve as a museum documenting the history of the city. The Genbaku Dome, the closest surviving building to where the bomb had landed, stands today as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and peace memorial.
Warsaw, Poland: The damage Warsaw endured in the Second World War was ‘out-of-the-way” malicious, to say the least. Not only was it bombed heavily by The Luftwaffe in 1939, but after the failed uprising against its German occupiers in August 1944, Adolf Hitler personally ordered that the entire city be razed to the ground. Troops were diverted from fighting the Red Army to detonate and incinerate the city. About eighty-five percent of the newer city was destroyed, while Old Warsaw and the Royal Castle were reduced to their foundations. However, the Poles went to extraordinary lengths to rebuild the Old Town of Warsaw exactly as it had looked before the war, studying 18th-century street-maps and views by Canaletto and Marcello Bacciarelli, and even traveling to Blenheim Palace to copy the great door lock. Perhaps it was their way to defy the regime that occupied their homeland- a postscript of the uprising in 1944. The restoration and reconstruction took nearly 30 years, crowned with the opening of the Royal Castle in 1984. The Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Berlin, Germany: Planned to be Hitler’s ‘World-capital Germania’, Berlin was blasted apart by 363 air raids of the RAF and American Eighth Air Force, and smashed by weeks of street fighting during the closing rounds of Second World War. That was coupled with the man-made firestorm on 13 February 1944 which destroyed 90% of the city center. Its reconstruction has been ongoing since 1946, albeit not very well. The sites of the casualties and Berlin Wall can be traced through the city even today, and the buildings that had survived through the destruction are poked with shrapnel holes. The people insist on retaining these marks as they believe that Berlin’s role in the war should never be forgotten. Today, the city stands as a testimony to what it has endured and what it has engendered in the course of history.
Jülich, Germany: The city that is said to have suffered the most war damage is the German city of Jülich. 97% of the city was destroyed when the Allies bombed the city on 16 November 1944 and the remaining 3% was smashed during three months of fighting that ended on 23 February 1945. It was initially planned that the city is abandoned and its ruins to be retained as a war memorial, with a new city to be built nearby. However, reconstruction of the city began in 1949 until 1956 using plans that were drawn up in the 1930s with modifications to the original Renaissance plan. The city that stands today barely shows any signs or scars of war, barring a few craters that were deliberately retained as reminding evidence of the city’s history.
Beirut, Lebanon: The Lebanese Civil War that spanned from 1975 to 1990 brought Beirut to the ground, destroying areas that were known for their picturesque Mediterranean views and Mamluk ruins. The reconstruction of these parts of the city, funded by a private company, is often regarded as a grave disappointment in the face of what stood before. While the luxurious architecture that now sprawls all over downtown Beirut is meant to attract foreign investment and boost its economic recovery, it has barely fared any more than the rubble remains of the war. The irony here is that the historic buildings were not torn down by war but during the city’s rebuilding process to accommodate upscale shops and condos, separating the city from its history. Today, the area is a ghost town with most company owners abandoning their shops due to political instability and lack of tourism. Beirut’s political volatility and its need to boost the economy over its architectural heritage 30 years since the War ended proves that the city has not yet sustained resources to rebuild itself.
Despite the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict that prohibits “any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of people”, which was further strengthened in 1977 with additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, militant groups have turned to mass destruction to divide and punish communities, leaving architectural monuments and urban environments in ruins.
However, it can be understood from the aforementioned examples that war-torn cities also provide the platform to reimage their future and allow them to re-engineer social and spatial injustices. Lebbeus Woods believes that architecture acts as injections, scabs, scars, and new tissue within the complex organism of the city to the process of biological and emotional healing of the city’s spirit. To put simply, Architecture can help the city heal.
Despite the ongoing and ever-changing conflict in various Syrian cities, architects and engineers are assessing and mapping the damages to the urban fabric, while many are involved with NGOs to build a shelter for internally displaced communities and to tend to humanitarian catastrophes. Several debates, proposals, and visions have since surfaced within the community for the reconstruction of Syria’s future as well.
So, what could the Syrian city of tomorrow look like? How can these cities be rebuilt so that the impacted communities can heal from the horrors of war without disrespecting their shared history? Will these cities be built for people or for-profit?