architecture books

Book review: Building for Hope, by Marwa al-Sabouni

Marwa al-Sabouni is an architect from Homs in Syria. She lost her practice in the fighting, but chose to stay in the city with her family and play a role in its rebuilding. Little known outside the region, she became internationally recognised after the publication of her book The Battle for Home, which told her story and reflected on the role of architecture and city planning in the conflict. (See her TED talk for the latter.)

Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging is a follow up, and it seeks to answer a question that she is often asked – what is her vision for rebuilding? What would an ideal home be, in the aftermath of conflict?

The book declines to answer that question directly, as al-Sabouni doesn’t recognise ideals as a good place to start. The challenge is much more practical and immediate than that – how to “make a wearable dress from the torn rags of war”. Instead, the book investigates the idea of home, and how architecture can protect us from our natural human psychological vulnerabilities.

There are five fears that architecture responds to, and the book has a chapter on each. To address the fear of death, good architecture provides a sense of continuity. A good city plan might include a mix of old and new buildings, giving us the psychological reassurance that older things are valued and cared for. Natural materials can hint at “nature’s permanence and our affinity with it.” The fear of need can be countered with a sense of abundance, with generous architecture, places that welcome and offer something to us – whether that is food, or shade, or places to sit and socialise. This counters our sense of scarcity, and helps to build trust and acceptance.

One chapter looks at the fear of ‘treachery’, and how buildings and cities can make us feel unsafe. Another deals with the fear of loneliness, and the final chapter talks about the fear of boredom and the need for meaning. Places that expose these psychological vulnerabilities will never truly be home.

It’s an intriguing idea, and it is discussed with examples from Syria and from beyond, investigating the failings of a city like Beirut, the coherent planning of Helsinki, or the bold idealism of the garden cities. It both celebrates Syria’s contribution to this conversation, in its culture and heritage, and laments what has been lost. In particular, the book describes the way that traditional patterns of land ownership were eroded by the drive for profit and misplaced ideas of modernisation, which al-Sabouni argues is a primary factor in the Syrian conflict.

As an expert in Islamic architecture, al-Sabouni looks at Western cities with very different eyes, and with perspectives that I’ve never read before. She brings insights from Syrian philosophers and theorists, and explains the design logic of iconic Syrian buildings to show the principles at work, often illustrated with her own black and white drawings. I underlined dozens of insights to take away and think about, from the way that glass buildings don’t look like they could store our memories, to the difference between being bored by something or with something. I really liked the Arabic concept of home as a place that doesn’t push you away, a place of stillness for “our souls and our selves to dwell.”

Building for Hope is a book by an architect, but it’s in many ways a work of philosophy – a visionary treatise on belonging, land, ethics, about how our values are expressed in what we build, and what it takes to call a place home.

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