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Oct 26, 2021

Reimagining the Factory City

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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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Reimagining the Factory City

Towards an Architecture of Belonging

Night View Of A Factory Alfred Finch C 1910

Night View of a Factory, Alfred Finch, ca. 1910

Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, author of the notable memoir The Battle for Home (Thames & Hudson, 2016) and a past contributor to Renovatio, explores how cities and buildings might be rebuilt in the aftermath of conflict, crisis, or financial depression in her new book, Building for Hope. Al-Sabouni organizes her new book around a set of five “principal fears”—the fear of death, of need, of treachery, of loneliness, and of boredom—that she believes express human vulnerability and shape “how we address the question of belonging” and, ultimately, how we build our homes. This excerpt comes from her second chapter, on the fear of need, in which she introduces the concept of the Factory Syndrome, which has frayed the social fabric of industrial cities across the modern world, before applying enduring insights about urbanization by the fourteenth-century Muslim polymath Ibn Khaldun to our current crisis of community.

How, then, can cities thrive while maintaining healthy trade connections with their surroundings? International trade came into being with the birth of civilization: the ancient system of connection between trading partners was the Silk Road, along which goods travelled and where they rested at certain hubs. The size and destiny of any ancient empire was closely linked to the Silk Road and its life. Because merchandise was not mass-produced, urban centers generally kept things in balance by trading seasonally while remaining more or less faithful to the permanent local customer.

This arrangement was affected by all sorts of considerations: weather conditions, the safety of convoys, the threat of nomad raids. Ancient Persia faced such threats from the north, where the nomads of the steppes were based, from the Black Sea all the way to Central Asia and Mongolia. At the time, these tribes had a reputation for savagery and cannibalism. The Chinese too had recognized the threat that they posed.

Traders had to pay ransoms to ensure the safety of their trade. These payments included rice, wine and textiles, but the most important commodity was the one that gave the trade route its name: silk. For the nomads of the steppes, silk was about status, both socially and politically. So devastating was the effect of nomadic raids that Rome and Persia, who were bitter rivals at the time, made a truce in order to face their common foe. They collaborated in building a protective wall extending from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Despite this, Rome was sacked in AD 410 at the hands of those nomadic tribes, and the Dark Ages began.

The question of the urbanization of nomads was discussed as early as the 14th century by the Islamic historian Ibn Khaldoun, widely regarded as the founder of modern sociology. He discussed ‘umran—urbanization—as a process of human settlement. The noun al-‘umran comes from the root verb ‘amara (to furnish, to give life, to build); it also refers to any act that begets flourishing and settlement.

For Ibn Khaldoun, ‘ilm al-‘umran (the science of urbanization and settlement) was the true study of human society. Starting from the basics, he considered nomadic life to be the default position of human communities and the origin of every settlement. The perfect minimalism of nomadic existence in comparison to urban people meant they were closer to the good, more courageous and more intensely alive; not “contaminated with the abundance of urban living.” Abundance brings softness and delicacy, making people too docile, too tolerant and too easily governed—and then, Ibn Khaldoun suggests, they may lose sight of their natural rights.

But the real revelation of Ibn Khaldoun’s work is the concept of ‘asabiyya: the tendency to live tightly bound to one’s own kin and blood. This is the binding force in Bedouin communities, the force behind tribal thinking. For Ibn Khaldoun, it is also the driving force behind kinship—a necessary ingredient in human society, without which there would be no real incentive to aggregate or collaborate. Once detached from the conditions of nomadic society, however, the powerful impetus of ‘asabiyya cannot last indefinitely; therefore, those who settle down to form a government in a single place will not establish a regime that endures.

Ibn Khaldoun regards ‘asabiyya as both the seed from which nations spring and the seed of their destruction. Division and conflict are inflamed because of it; borders are eroded because of it. The only antidote, he argues, is religion, which turns the blind ‘asabiyya from kin to stranger, from the inner kinship group to the outer community. Ibn Khaldoun admits that ‘asabiyya is a quality held in disrepute in Islam, but he argues that the object of this disparagement is not the quality itself, but its misuse.

There is no dispute that one of the main accomplishments of Islam in the Arabian peninsula was to put an end to destructive tribal conflicts over the most trivial issues—a verse of poetry, a love affair, a horse race—which had their origins in ‘asabiyya. Religion offered an alternative source of self-esteem and human collaborative spirit, rather than kin and lineage: piety, the shared obedience to a vigilant God. However, Ibn Khaldoun was right in his analysis of the dynamic by which nomadic life is governed, and he gave us a rare insight into the nomadic mindset.

He also understood that the transition from nomadic reliance on kinship ties to the contractual bonds that hold a city together was inseparable from the religion that grows between neighbors when they are settled in a single place. Islam and Christianity both recognize that the person you must care for is not necessarily your cousin or a member of your tribe or even of your faith, but your neighbor—the stranger you come across, the one who is there in your path, in need of your help or seeking your cooperation.

In the ancient world, cities were often assemblies of people who knew each other. But the city evolved under the impact of trade to become too large for that kind of intimacy, and indeed to become a society of strangers. Yet it was a society at peace—and what made this possible? Ibn Khaldoun is surely right: religion. Not any religion, however; rather, the religion which turns all encounters, even those with strangers, into encounters of a personal kind. And this happens easily when you believe that there is a single God watching over you all, that his gentleness and compassion are present in your life and you are being asked at this moment to share them with the stranger whom you face. The very quality that we noted as distinctive in the local as opposed to the Factory economy—market deals that are also personal relations—is promoted by the religion that grows in the city.

Homs, owing to its geographical location, has traditionally had to manage contact with nomadic tribes to its east. On the one hand, the life of the city depended on supplies coming from cattle herding in the vast, arid region that extends all the way to the Iraqi borders, about 450 km away. On the other hand, death too came to the city from this treacherous frontier. Whether in the shape of raids or as individual incidents, nomads presented a danger that even the protective wall couldn’t completely shut out. The risk of losing valuable possessions, or even a child, was real.

Ibn Khaldoun’s concept of ‘asabiyya helps us to understand why the city seemed like fair game to nomadic peoples. Tribal ‘asabiyya frees the tribe from all rival norms, since outside the tribe there are no rules, no obligations, no shared way of life—nothing other than what an individual might undertake by way of a fleeting commitment. Without buildings, the sense of belonging finds its locus in blood and nothing else.

The fact that nomadic life depends on movement makes it impossible to govern with urban rules. Or, as Ibn Khaldoun puts it, “movement counteracts the stability by which settlement occurs”—indeed, the condition of accountability is location, which is to say neighborhood. Nonetheless, nomadic living is indispensable to the life of cities; herding the cattle away from crops is what nomads do. It is a vital source of livability for both the city dweller and the nomad. This is an ancient realization that even the greatest civilizations, at risk of being sacked, have tried to accommodate. Islamic religion, too, acknowledged this fact. Instead of trying to impose an abandonment of this type of settlement and consequently endanger the whole urban ecosystem, it identified the root of the problem and encouraged the replacement of ‘asabiyya by a shared piety. In doing so, it regulated nomadic life without interfering in its structure. This is what Ibn Khaldoun partly understood; however, he was wrong in assuming that ‘asabiyya would simply give way to religion.

The interdependence of the two in Homs was manifested in a smart architectural solution. Rather than being located at the city center (as would have been more typical), the souk in Homs is located at the far north-eastern end, juxtaposed with its old wall. This location was influenced by a number of considerations, among them the typology and the ancient site of the massive Temple of the Sun, which in part is currently occupied by the Great Nouri Mosque adjacent to the souk. According to Nuhad Samaan, a historian from Homs, it was also a strategy by which Homs was able to maintain trade with the surrounding nomadic tribes while guaranteeing its own security. The market’s location behind the protective wall with a gate (Bab Al-Souk, the door of the market) connected the city with one of its main sources of living while maintaining its safety, “preventing the Bedouin from entering into the ‘depths’ of the city.” The souk is divided into a network of alleys in the typical Ottoman manner; one of these, the Souk Al-Badou (market of the Bedouin), is where exchange with nomads traditionally took place. In this way, movement is directed through the main gate to the main venue of business while the rest of the city is tucked in behind. This urban strategy was colloquially acknowledged in a common phrase: “in order for (the Bedouin) not to be shown inside.” From a modern perspective, this might seem like an atrocious example of prejudice; but at the time it was devised, it was a solution accepted by both parties, allowing trade and exchange to take place without forcing any change to the essentials of either way of life.

The Factory City looks at every population, every indigenous community, as a possible source of consumers (not customers) and of cogs in the machine. One might argue: isn’t human society, at the end of the day, one big machine in any case? It is true that as members of society we are sometimes happy to be that little cog, taking pride at the end of a long working day in having helped to rotate the gears. The problem is that with the advent of globalization and its favorite tool, modernity, the machine has become the dream of the few. Its gears rotate monotonously, generating a consumerist way of life that sells but does not satisfy.

An analogy with natural ecosystems can be made to help illustrate this point. In the US state of Colorado during the early 20th century, the declining presence of the gray wolf in the Greater Yellowstone region was linked to a decline in other flora and fauna. As the predatory wolf population was pushed towards extinction, pressure was taken off the grass-eating elk population, which consequently increased in number and reduced their area of movement in winter. The elk browsed heavily on young willow, aspen and cottonwood plants and this in turn backfired on the beaver population, which needs willow to survive in the winter. To reverse the cycle, researchers with the Yellowstone National Park Wolf Restoration Program aimed to reintroduce the native gray wolf to the park. The plan has worked, helping to restore the number of beavers along with aspen and other vegetation. With the help of the beavers’ dams, river levels have also been restored. The pattern of interactions seen here, known as “trophic cascade,” is not unlike the “urban cascade” of our built environments when essential variations in lifestyle—the nomadic and the rural—are eliminated.

But how can we maintain natural variations of this type if the majority of people are directed into a single mode of living? Although there is currently a sweeping attack on nomadic lands, with the imposition of evacuations and big projects for infrastructure, tourism or industrialization, we cannot deny that many tribes all over the world (even some which are on the verge of extinction) show a pattern of abandoning traditional ways of life for the abundance of the Factory City. Once more, we are faced with the fear of need and the pursuit of abundance. In a pattern similar to the trophic cascade, the pressure of regulations affecting nomadic lifestyles combined with the qualitative abundance of modern housing and employment have had a significant impact. On the periphery of Syrian cities, where social housing projects have been erected, some tribes have found a “home;” however, in many cases it does not meet their needs. Residents of apartments in these buildings have been known to erect tents of camel hair on the pavements in front of them, preferring to live there while leaving the apartments empty. This tells us something: those people haven’t found the home they may have been promised. The city’s alluring abundance has turned out to be nothing but a mirage.

Cornelis Van Dalem Jan Van Wechelen  Landscape With Nomads

Landscape with Nomads, Cornelis van Dalem, Jan van Wechelen

Certainly, nomads who live under the open skies, on the other side of nature’s soft, concave palm, have to learn how to deal with its coarseness and convexity. This shapes their whole being, as Ibn Khaldoun noted when he described nomadic peoples in the 14th century as raw, tough and pure. They have traditionally been stereotyped as rebellious and intense, but also chivalrous and remarkably generous. This generosity reflects their unsettled context; being detached and disinterested, they share what they have.

Hatim Altaaey was an Arab poet who lived in the 6th century in northern  Hijaz (currently Saudi). He was famous for his inimitable benevolence. Many anecdotes were told about his incredible acts of generosity, especially towards passing guests—a Bedouin quality of which reports were diffused in poetry. In one celebrated episode he killed his personal mare, a unique Arab breed, in order to feed a woman and her boys who called with an empty dinner bowl in the middle of the night. Hatim showed no reluctance to give away everything he owned for the sake of offering a pleasant and fulfilling experience for his guests, even at the expense of his personal life; reportedly his wife left him after having had enough (or rather, in this case, having none).

Why have the Bedouin tended to go so far in their generosity, despite their often punitive circumstances? Ibn Khaldoun asked the same question: “Why do those of ‘asabiyya fete others?” He suggested three main reasons: 1) they do it as a testimonial to their glory, or to enhance that glory; 2) they are apprehensive about the reaction of visiting tribespeople, should any dereliction be reported; and 3) they expect similar treatment in return. So was the impressive Bedouin generosity about domination and ambition, political and social status concerns, or self-benevolence? Was it a form of social competition, rather like production in the Factory City?

In fact, unlike the Factory City, Bedouin social competition takes place in the relatively harmless field of direct human relationships—whereas the competition of mass production is impersonal, opening the way to the nihilism that grows around us today. If anything, abundance precipitates society into a state of need—not need for consumer goods, but for that without which consumer goods are worthless: a community of belonging. How can we reconcile this observation with the idea of abundance as the antidote to need? If not abundance, what else will free us from this fear?

Ibn Khaldoun offered us an exemplary outline of the nomadic ‘umran as a social settlement which has no tangible locus, and which therefore needs to compensate by means of the primordial instinct called ‘asabiyya. He recognized the place of religion in social cohesion—but he didn’t discuss class or money, for these are products of the city. Jane Jacobs, on the other hand, discusses the city but hardly touches on the issues of socio-psychology that interested Ibn Khaldoun. To understand the dynamics of the urban and the nomadic modes of living, we must combine both perspectives. Although they may grow apart, the ways of the city and those of the nomads are interdependent. The irresponsible upsetting of this interdependence is what has caused the break we observe in the chain of the urban ecosystem: the break from which unfurls the urban cascade. We may now address the question of how the fear of need is exemplified in our built environment, and how a generous city can be achieved. Resolving this will help us not only to restore our homes physically, but to place abundance where it belongs and find the right way of handling it.

What is generosity? It might be described as simply the act of giving; but in fact it is also about taking. Colloquially, where I come from, “the generous person agrees to take as much as he agrees to give.” This may sound like a contradiction, but its intended meaning is to embrace the idea of sharing. To begin by taking instead of giving is, in a way, to invite trust, and so to accept a relationship. This notion of generosity is really the basis of exchange. Therefore, a generous place—one where our fear of need is dispelled and our sense of home enhanced—is not only a place that gives to us, but a place that allows us to give something back to it.

Excerpted from Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging, by Marwa al-Sabouni

© 2021 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London 

Text © 2021 Marwa al-Sabouni

Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc,

Building for Hope

Marwa al-Sabouni

This new book by Syrian architect Marwa al-Sabouni, seeks to understand how cities and buildings—scarred by conflict, blight, and pandemic—can be healed through design and urban mindfulness.

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