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Mar 30, 2022

How Architecture Erodes—or Elevates—Our Values

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Marwa Al Sabouni Bio Pic 1

Marwa Al-Sabouni

Marwa Al-Sabouni is an architect and writer based in Homs, Syria.

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How Architecture Erodes—or Elevates—Our Values

640Px Weeks Edwin Lord A Persian Cafe

A Persian Cafe by Edwin Lord Weeks, c. 1900

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.

FK: In the excerpt from your book that we published in Renovatio, you write that Ibn Khaldūn considered nomadic life to be the default position of human communities and that they were held together by blood bonds. Then, in the case of the Muslim world, people went from being held together by kinship bonds to shared religious identities. But what holds people together when neither blood bonds nor religious identity are shared in a given society, which is the case in much of the West? Do people have enough in common to live peacefully together?

MS: Well, in a nutshell, I don’t think they can live peacefully where there is no kinship, no religion, and nothing meaningful to hold them together. I think people in the West are in real need of that. Some would argue that the West is actually living more peacefully than other parts of the world, which, if you look at that from the surface, is true, but I think that, to use Ibn Khaldūn’s terminology, what is preventing people from violating each other in the West is the law. The law is a compelling force to make people live together peacefully, which means they do not live peacefully voluntarily. We see how fragile the law can be in times of crisis, whether in a pandemic, or in conflict, or in economic hardship, and so on. I also find that in the West people are aware of the risk of laws breaking down, and so there is a tendency to renew those bonds, whether the blood bonds or the religious bonds. The real problem that I see in the West is not the lack of those bonds per se, but the ¢aśabiyyah, which Ibn Khaldūn describes as the seed of making civilizations, or nations, spring, and also the cause of their own destruction. For me, this ¢aśabiyyah is a real risk, because it helps to explain the radicalization in thought, whether by the left or the right. When stripped down to the basics, you see this radicalization in hatred of the other, which is pure ¢aśabiyyah. The effect of colonization on Muslim countries was to enhance ¢aśabiyyah and to destroy the healthy bonds that Islam encouraged to transcend ¢aśabiyyah without losing kinship bonds.

FK: In the West, where do you see the lines being drawn in terms of ¢aśabiyyah? Is it political affiliation, race, religious sectarianism?

MS: All of those. ¢Aśabiyyah, at its worst, is basically closed-mindedness toward those outside your group. It shows itself as looking at ways of preserving your own group, whether they are right or wrong, without thinking critically about their actions. That’s the opposite of the idea of neighborliness, for example, that religions like Islam and Christianity and Judaism encourage. In the book, I speak about neighborliness and how the idea of caring about your neighbor contradicts ¢aśabiyyah and how, in my view, the loss of neighborliness is one of the main threats to our existence in current times.

FK: That brings us to the next question. In what ways can architecture promote bonding between people, particularly in cities where people are not bonded by ethnicity or religion?

MS: In my first book, The Battle for Home, I introduce architecture as one of the reasons for conflict in my own country; in the second book, Building for Hope, I look at architecture globally and how the problems that I thought of as local problems in my country turned out to be global ones. In my work, I write about how French colonization in Syria, and in the region, used architecture to segregate and to dismantle the Syrian society, its towns, and its cities. How was this done? There is a long story in the book, but for the sake of brevity here, I will summarize: The French installed urban architecture, which is modern architecture, and changed the way neighborhoods in the city were connected. The alleyways and the old network of roads that had organically connected clusters of housing and work were replaced by zoning that segregated people on the basis of their income. For example, the rich were moved outside of the old city to live in separate neighborhoods that openly reflected their wealth. They also attempted to segregate people by religious identity and other aspects of their background. The old way of setting up neighborhoods was based on a moral understanding of ostentatiousness as a vice. It was considered wrong and offensive to show your wealth to your neighbor. So different classes could live side by side and from the outside it would be hard to know who was rich and who was poor. You can still see certain areas in Syria where people from different religions live side by side and where churches and mosques were built wall to wall and door to door. This proximity, along with the variety that it embraced, was the foundation of social coherence. The destruction of this urban fabric led to the destruction of the social fabric.

From the architectural aspect, when you zoom in on the scenery of the city, when you move in the streets and you look at the buildings, you can see how they promoted not only a pleasing aesthetic but also so many meanings in terms of identity and safety.

The key issue here is to know that architecture is not a solution on its own. Understanding boundaries is also important, which I write about in the third chapter of Building for Hope. In the case of collapsed boundaries, where you put people from very different backgrounds and belongings and cultures together and wrongly expect that they will mingle and connect, the question becomes, How can a diverse city result in cohesion? Roger Scruton has an idea about progressing through boundaries or earning your way through boundaries that was helpful to me in writing the book. By earning trust through morality and manners, boundaries between people become porous, and you can move from being an outsider to being an insider, in a sense. This process of earning your place, for example, in Syria relied on both ethical trade and religious understanding. In the end, it revolved around establishing neighborliness in the place one lived.

FK: You talk about maintaining natural variation by having multiple modes of living: nomadic and settled cities. Some criticize what they call a romantic view of nomadic or unsettled living, arguing that some modern people relish this idea of people who have an unchanged, pure and simple way of living when, in reality, what they have is a difficult and impoverished way of living. What does your knowledge of nomadic communities tell you about their mode of living?

MS: There is a subtlety here. For example, Ibn Khaldūn said that the default state of settlement is the nomadic settlement, but he also said that the end of all nomadic people is settlement or urbanization. Going back to primitive human nature, we see a tendency to settle and to constitute a society, which is proven by tracking human history from the most primitive, which is the nomadic mode, into the rural settlement, and then to the urbanized settlement.

Throughout this long history of humanity, we didn’t lose those three modes of settlement until very recently. We had balanced percentages of all three, but now we’re at risk of losing both the rural and the nomadic modes of settlement for the sake of urbanization. The statistical projections say that by 2050, 75 percent of people worldwide will live in cities. For me that is a very alarming statistic. I don’t encourage the nomadic mode of settlement, nor do I have a prejudice about it. The nomadic life was a threat to civilizations in history. From China to Rome, nomads were the threat to the very existence of those civilizations. Rome was sacked by nomadic tribes in 410. China tried to settle nomadic tribes by forcing them onto farmlands and turning them toward agriculture. What is interesting for me is that Muslim rule didn’t take any of these actions. It didn’t eliminate nomadic life, but it didn’t encourage nomadic life either. The ethics of the religion provided the antidote to ¢aśabiyyah, and in that sense it reined in the tyranny of ¢aśabiyyah and this tendency to invade other places.

FK: Switching gears, Muslims in the West have created mosques either by building from the ground up or, usually, by utilizing existing spaces. Often these mosques also function as community centers, serving the varied needs of Muslim life. How can Muslims in the West think about creating spaces that reflect both their surroundings and their Muslim identity?

MS: I’ll say something about my understanding of Islamic architecture first, so that what I say later makes sense. The research I did for my PhD was about Islamic architecture and its stereotypes. I found that there is no certain shape that Islamic architecture uses all over the place. It doesn’t replicate a form, as we do at the moment—it looks at what is existing in a certain place and builds upon it.

In terms of mosques, I wrote a review of a book in Arabic by an American architect, Patricia Fels, who discusses how the vernacular mosques in Southeastern Asia, the monsoon mosques, were a metabolized result of understanding the local traditions and the local ways of building. She laments how those mosques were destroyed by the arrival of foreign money and imported shapes and forms like domes and certain arches and architectural types. She tells how the previous societies around those mosques had thrived after Islam arrived and how the society collapsed after the mosques turned from venues of social gathering and children playing in the courtyards into places with locks on the doors for fear of radicalization, a reality that could be generalized to every region now.

My conclusion is that Islamic architecture in its prime years, not in these times of identity crisis, was responsive to the local identity, to the local context of climate and materials, and, most importantly, to local social patterns. It wasn’t about enforcing an agenda or an archetype, as is the case now. It was about elevating the quality of life through order, hygiene, cleanliness, and again, most importantly, social connections.

Photograph of a mosque in Sumatra, Year Unknown, Creative Commons

Photograph of a mosque in Sumatra, Year Unknown, Creative Commons

FK: American Muslims seem not to know what to do in terms of designing community spaces, because generally, either there’s this pull to just transplant something from the Muslim world or there’s a very sterile adaptation of a corporate building. People seem to be struggling to make spaces that are genuine and authentic to our identities as both Muslims and Americans.

MS: It’s a totally understandable conundrum because American identity is in crisis. I write about this erosion of identity, this erosion of collective values that used to highlight every place on the earth, every significant place as a unique place, as a unique society, as a place of its own components. Now, with globalization and the pursuit of money as ends in themselves, the “factory syndrome” that I write about eroded all of that. Some Muslim communities are trying to respond in the way Muslims used to when it entered a new society: they negotiated and innovated a place with righteous values, without any interest in changing the identity of the place. Now, it feels as though there is nothing to respond to, there is nothing to negotiate with, there is nothing to have a dialogue with, and that’s why you go back to searching in distant places like the Levant or the Middle East, although I don’t like that term, and you try to import a meaning, which fails again because it’s forced onto a place. It didn’t spring from the place.

FK: That’s a great point. At the heart of it, there’s an identity crisis that manifests itself in various ways. One of them is this problem of how to design mosques. More broadly, do you have a definition for beauty? Is it a need or is it an embellishment, or is it somewhere in between? How does it fit in with these other fundamentals of safety and having enough provision?

MS: Philosophers are better equipped than me to speak on beauty, but as an architect, I can respond to beauty. Roger Scruton, a philosopher, wrote The Aesthetics of Architecture, which was a really important read for me. I learned from it and came to this understanding of my own vocation as an experience of beauty. Both of us believe in the importance of beauty as an experience and in reading this experience with all the values that it carries or embodies and the impact of those values on the individual and the society. The second thing is that we both believe that religious thinking is the origin or the carrier of moral understanding and moral values, and this also relates to understanding beauty as an experience.

My work on the five fears and those reflective responses to beauty is what I teach my students. What I try to do while designing and practicing architecture, or even just appreciating architecture, is look for beauty as a connection to Allah. I always tell my students that we understand beauty by understanding the universe that’s created by Allah. We learn every day by contemplating all of these countless examples and scales of beauty.

FK: Can you share how your beliefs about architecture and belonging began as well as some of your influences—Scruton and possibly others?

MS: Scruton and Muhammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti were my two main influences while studying for my PhD. Although they are both sadly gone, their legacies live on, and I continue to learn from them to this day. I actually wrote about al-Bouti for your journal in an article called “The Truth a Building Speaks.” He was a prolific Islamic scholar who changed my life because he made me understand my own religion more profoundly and more relatively. In his writings, I learned so many ways of approaching questions in life and questioning even my own practice, my own vocation. What connects his and Scruton’s writings for me is how they both connect beauty to love—to divine love as well. Al-Bouti, for example, makes you understand Islam in that light; he has this profound sense of divine love. He speaks about ¢ubūdiyyah (worship or servanthood) purely from the premise of love. The other very important thing that connects the two figures’ work for me is how they both appreciate and introduce regulations and rules as part of love, because in our modern thinking or in the modern world, love is used as—

FK: A rule breaker.

MS: Yes, rule breaker, exactly. As a solvent of regulations and rules. Those two scholars do exactly the opposite. For example, Scruton’s description or appreciation of beauty revolves around appreciation of rules. For him, it’s in classical architecture—although as an architect I see architecture beyond the style of the classical. What is important and what matters is that he sees the way to love and to beauty through rules. Al-Bouti explains religion with the same sense of commitment.

FK: What do you think a wider audience has to gain from the ideas expressed in both of your books?

MS: In my work, I include and even rely on very general concepts like home, stability, belonging, beauty, conflict, and peace as lenses through which to look at our current cities and societies. In the conversations I have had with Western audiences when I travel, I find that talking about these general issues and perspectives helps move the conversation toward understanding our religion, which usually involves a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes.

Addressing our common ground helps open the door to shared understanding of both of our parts of the world. Moreover, architecture is an encompassing field of knowledge: It touches every life because it’s all around us; it’s where we live, where we work, where we move. We are affected by it no matter our professions.

FK: Marwa, thank you so much. You’ve given us a lot to think about.

MS: I really enjoyed your questions, and I further enjoyed speaking to you and trying to answer them. Thank you.