The world celebrated women’s day with great pomp and show. While one day may have managed to bring a smile on a women’s face, the show had to end and the constant battle of proving self-worth in this patriarchal society had to resume. Architecture is no different when it comes to being a battlefield for women. A lady architect is rare and established women architects from third world countries, even rarer. Yet some stars have outshone in the past. Some of them never saw the difference between a career and a struggle. Forty-one years of Pritzker, and hardly five women grace the list of Pritzker winners. The struggles are never-ending and the battle is too long. In a world where there exists a title ‘Female Architect’, the path to attaining a single title ‘Architect’ seems to be getting closer by the day due to the efforts of some self-motivated and strong-willed “women” architects. Ar. Marwa Al-Sabouni is one of those architects who have managed to leave a bold mark in the big picture.
Ar. Marwa Al Sabouni-An architect who thought of her dream, of her name being placed next to Zaha Hadid, was farfetched; an architect who bridged the gap between indigenous and western ideas; and an architect who fought for her home through her design. She didn’t leave any stone unturned in her struggle to establish a sense of identity. One of the finalists for Pritzker in the year 2018, her project for the UN-Habitat Mass Housing Revitalization Competition earned her a great reputation. She struggled her way-sketching and working while the few hours of electricity last in the war-struck region. Her proposal to rebuild the Baba Amr district in her autobiography focuses on the social, spiritual and psychological aspects along with the financial status and practicality.
Syria-which is now in the news for all the devastating reasons, was once known for its religious tolerance. One could have easily spotted a mosque and a church built back to back or a ‘souq’ or the traditional marketplace with people from different communities living and flourishing together. Marwa and her husband Ghassan Jansiz owned a Design studio in the Old town main square of which nothing remains, but rubble. She firmly believes that Architecture has a key role to play in instigating the unrests along with political, financial and social issues.
Homs was a religiously diverse city, one of the largest in the country, which had fallen into ruins during the civil war and unrest. The mid-20th century saw the influx of Le Corbusier’s modernization into the social fabric of Syrian Islamic architecture. This saw the rise of disconnected concrete complexes along with pockets of slum surrounding the central district which led to the separation based on religion, creed and financial status thus destroying the earlier balance. It led the people to seek out identities as opposed to the ones surrounding them which killed the sense of belonging. After extensive research, analysis and introspection, Marwa talks about how everything went wrong with Syria and how it all had begun with the architectural revolution the place witnessed. Her Ted talk which was shot over a video conference call stresses how it all began how can one tackle this situation by not repeating the same mistakes.
The sitting government proposed a rebuilding proposal for Baba Amr, a neighborhood predominantly known for its slums in Homs. While most of the proposals revealed a picture similar to that of Dubai; Marwa had a different thought. She firmly believes that modernization and the concrete glass towers had sucked out social interaction and a sense of belonging from the very fabric of Syria which led to the unrest and communal violence. Her proposal aims to bring back the courtyards and social spaces that once held all the religious groups together combined with the concept of apartments, thus, giving birth to her concept of ‘Tree’. Her design which was put together in a few sketches brought out the traditional elements that once held the community together. The traditional bridges that once connected the narrow alleys were recreated in her organic and growing ‘tree’. The Souqs and community spaces were recreated with a hint of luxury. Marwa says a shade-giving tree or a water point or simply the presence of a fruit tree could change the way one feels about the place. Her sketches were developed into renders later on by Team Render.
She elaborates on how ‘loss of identity’ and the loss of ‘sense of sharing’ led the communities to crumble over and fight against each other. The importance of traditional elements comes into the picture when one realizes how they held these diverse communities together. Intertwining and not isolation was the key behind the early social fabric.
This proposal saw appreciation and recognition globally, but never managed to hit grounds due to the sitting government. Will the misguided and visionless modernization continue to kill cities all around? Here is wishing Marwa Al-Sabouni the very best in her journey to help Syria rise from the ashes like a Phoenix with effective urbanism.