The Syrian architect and writer Marwa Al-Sabouni holds the stalwart belief that architecture, when focused, can help us express our values and rectify social traumas. Her thoughtful writing allows us to reimagine the possibilities for our built environment by challenging our conceptions of the past and directing our attention to how architecture and design can address our deepest fears and hopes. Here, Marwa Al-Sabouni joins Renovatio digital editor Faatimah Knight from her hometown of Homs, Syria, to share her insights about why the health of our communities requires a respect for boundaries while encouraging them to become porous. Their conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Faatimah Knight: You have organized your new book, Building for Hope, around a set of five “principal fears”—the fear of death, of need, of treachery, of loneliness, and of boredom—that you believe express human vulnerability and shape “how we address the question of belonging” and, ultimately, how we build our homes. Where do those fears come from, and how do they relate to our sense of belonging?
Marwa Al-Sabouni: In my view, they originate from fiţrah, from the basic instinct, from our human nature. I was inspired by verses in the Qur’an, specifically Sura Al-Ma¢ārij: “Truly man was created anxious; when evil befalls him, fretful; and when good befalls him, begrudging, save those who perform prayer, who are constant in their prayers, and in whose wealth is an acknowledged due for the beggar and the deprived, those who affirm the Day of Judgment, and who are wary of the punishment of their Lord” (70:19–27). Basically, these verses describe human nature as one of haste and fear. And if something bad or evil happens to humans, they will be very fearful, and when abundance or goodness (khayr) comes along, they are withholding. Then comes the exception for those who pray and those who give to the deprived and the poor. My understanding of those verses inspired the idea of principal fears, and I connected that idea with my contemplation on how we react to our surroundings, to our built environment, how basic forms and shapes make us feel. I was trying to answer the question, Why do certain shapes and forms appeal to us?
In my analysis, when we encounter certain forms or objects in our daily lives, we subconsciously think about our human survival. Thinking about human survival led me to those primitive fears. Regarding your question—how these are related to our sense of belonging—this requires defining the meaning of belonging or a sense of belonging, which I try to do in my work. I describe belonging as this individual feeling that relates to the sense of safety and security. As it relates to a collection of people, the better way to describe it is settlement, which I use in Building for Hope, which is a collective endeavor that revolves around security, safety, and a sense of accomplishment.
FK: Do you think that there is a metaphysical or theological component to why human beings seem universally drawn to certain forms, shapes, or aesthetics?
MS: This is exactly what I mean by my use of fiţrah or human nature. There are layers to our aesthetic understanding that rely on cultural concepts, traditions, and a reservoir of folk knowledge. What I address in my book is this common ground that we humans have that goes beyond mere cultural differences. All of us share in common these five fears that constitute the bigger percentage of our aesthetic understanding. I also emphasize in the book the exception that, like in the Qur’anic verses, there is a way to transcend those fears. I do not present the five fears as a default state that we should surrender to. Rather, we should understand them as a reaction or a primitive tendency and describe the way to transcend that.
FS: You defined belonging for us. Describe “a city we can all belong to.” What must it have, and what ought it have? Do any cities, past or present, come close?
MS: Belonging is found not only in cities or urban environments. There are various modes of belonging. I connect belonging to a physical place, to a piece of land, not to an idea, as some of the modern thinking likes to encourage. In that sense, the question should be, To what kind of place, not city, may we belong? The basic sense relies on safety and security. There should be abundance and accomplishment, which address the fear of need and the fear of treachery, and then the fear of loneliness and the fear of boredom.
In the book, I delineate how familiarity, safety, security, and accomplishment shift from the individual understanding to the collective understanding. Settlement is essential to understanding belonging because there are certain conditions to settlement that are best described by Ibn Khaldūn [the fourteenth-century scholar]: its shelter, provision, and individual rights. Providing the essentials of human life, shelter and food, constitutes a just society, where there is no tyranny. As I describe in the book, Damascus is one of those cities that showed us, as the oldest continuously inhabited capital in the world, how to survive millennia of civilizations rising and falling. The city exemplified trade as a key vocation and settlement as the way to cater to the needs of its residents. To start, it was a self-reliant city that capitalized on its own resources. Secondly, it was a trade city that extended its hands to all of the world. Finally, it was a city of beauty, which is pertinent to the project of architecture and the built environment.
Nowadays, Damascus is not an example of all that, which is really scary when you think about its long history and how it is being compromised at this moment.