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Dec 22, 2022

Resisting the Architecture of Apathy

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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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Resisting the Architecture of Apathy

Untitled Farm Scene Saam 1964 1 182 1

Untitled farm scene, Mary Winslow, 1936 / Wikimedia Commons

Buildings are unavoidable. They affect all of us. We see them, touch them, pass by them, and enter them; we are born, and often die, inside them; and we live and work in and around them. We spend almost our entire lives in their shadow. We tend to believe that we shape our buildings; we rarely stop to think seriously about how they shape us. We may express a judgment concerning our likes or dislikes about a building, but we almost never identify why we feel a certain way toward a building or because of it.

One basic fact about buildings is they are public, which means they are always visible, and they occupy considerable chunks of space. Hence, they act on us in different ways and through different modes: they are oriented as much as they are orientational. They face us or loom above us. They attract our sight up, forward, or away. They also have surfaces, masses, textures, and apertures, which means they invite our imagination in myriad ways. Each building looks a certain way; it may look as if it’s going to crumble or as if it’s going to last, sturdy and imposing, for eons. A building can look elegant, serene, proud, or dignified—or sterile, cold, brutal, or unkempt.

Buildings engage our senses, provoking certain feelings from us in and around them: we feel embraced as much as we feel alienated. A building can make us feel its warmth, coarseness, fluidity, or airiness. Beyond their immediate interaction with us, buildings embed themselves into our memory: they remind us of events, people, and values. And for that, they acquire additional appreciation over time.

Visually, they are public property, even when they are privately owned. In that sense, we may expect buildings to affect our mind and psyche, but we should also consider the relationship between buildings and the economy, the other pan on the scale, without which we end up with buildings that are unaffordable and inaccessible. Surely, a building’s appearance is enduringly important, but how it arrived at that appearance is equally so.

Buildings influence the cost of living—the rising price of property exacerbates the cycle of inflation, increasing the cost of products. The location and the form of the building determine the property value, and both factors are themselves determined by the process of the building’s creation: how we plan the city dictates location, and how we design it shapes form.

Buildings affect our pocketbooks. They require substantial amounts of wealth to erect, and more to maintain. Moreover, they have traditionally required a comprehensive economic network of suppliers of building materials and workers, on- and off-site. Work on a building may never finish, a reality that invites layers of contributors, engaging their skills into its making and development.

Indeed, all our living revolves around buildings, and the quality of our life often depends on the balance they strike between their function and form. Through their form they communicate with us, and consequently we form a relationship with them; we love or hate them, we care for and maintain them, or we mistrust and disdain them. We is a key word here, because buildings are physical and metaphorical loci for aggregation.

The Abandonment of Place

Building a structure to inhabit is as old as humanity and has bequeathed us wonders and ruins. However, the assembly line, especially after the two world wars, introduced a new and unprecedented scale powered by mass-produced materials and ready-made forms, innovations required for the radical transformation of modes of building and settling in.

The adoption of industrial production produced two severances: work from place and humans from nature. The separation of work from place prevented people from engaging deeply with their surroundings—the attachment between a framer and his land or between a craftsman and his creation, for example, increasingly weakened. A worker’s contributions once enhanced his neighborhood—even with the existence of global trade—but now submit to the dictates of the sweeping and impersonal interests of markets abroad.

The relationship between humans and nature also devolved, and nature’s significance diminished from representing an integral part of human life to merely a subject of study. Nature became seen not as part of the built world, but only as an accessory or a resource. This deteriorated our view of ourselves within our surroundings: we lost our attachments to the world and to others, and in consequence to what makes us safe and stable.

Places still exist that rejoin us with that lost sense of safety, that remind us of the best of our human nature, of what matters, of what is beautiful, and of what is meaningful. These are places where people still have room for expression, and where the architecture of place still resonates with the universe.

We may discover streets that retain a few small shops and businesses; houses with beautiful but modest gardens and neat facades that working-class families still own and reside in; community parks and libraries that are not left to decay by municipal authorities; a small but beautiful mosque or church that occupies space without dominating or otherwise displaying ostentatiousness; a farm dependently run with love for nature and craft.

However scattered or threatened, these places cling to existence, but mostly we are witnessing a mass abandonment of place and its toll on human survival. We have lost the protecting natural connections with our places of work and production, which appeared organically from the way people historically settled, both in the city and in the countryside. And with the disappearance of those connections, we’ve lost the stewardship that responds to disaster before it takes hold, whether a civil conflict or a wildfire.

The Impact on Ruralism

So, where did it all go wrong?

Under the cloak of emancipation and liberation, industrialization and global trade hijacked individualism and science. Factories needed labor, and many people opted to work in the city, believing they could emancipate themselves from penury and class prejudice.

The destruction of the countryside for the sake of industrial agriculture, which occurred in unison with funneling the rural population into the assembly lines in and around the city, produced endlessly growing cities and diminishing villages—a continuing societal trend that, unabated, could irreconcilably destroy the relationship between people and place and eventually lead to perennial displacement.

In addition, by eliminating the personal initiative that marks locally rooted businesses, the global corporate economic model replaced the organic networks of work, destroying all possible terms for settlement and belonging.

In his 1918 book Rural Life, American agricultural economist Charles Josiah Galpin offered an insightful analysis of the rural mind and way of life. He used his deep understanding of the mindset and community of farmers to suggest an alternative to the comprehensive plan for the rural economy by which American farming would be transformed into an industry. He proposed a central village surrounded by satellite villages, an early example of today’s regional planning, for which he coined the term “rurban,” the merging of rural and urban living. This marked the beginning of a new way of viewing ruralism, parallel to urbanism. Although Galpin sought to diminish the isolation of the American farmer and to enhance the rural economy through automation, he was aware that his vision would irrevocably alter the rural character and lead to divorce between the farmer and his product.

In his description of the farmer, Galpin noted that hoe-farmers, unlike the urban worker who “works with people, for people, and upon the minds of people,” are “sovereign, animistic, individualistic, conservative, and above all men.” By extension, the rural economy is free from state control. This freedom, this wildness of character, which was shaped by the land, to serve the land, is incompatible with the modern economy, where no drops can afford to fall out of the bucket. Hence, the radial organization of villages was no less than the caging of ruralism and the rural economy.

Galpin’s insightful analysis of the rural mind and psyche showed a real understanding of the rural character and how it is shaped by what he calls the “influences”—which are physiographic, residential, occupational, institutional, and urban. He was aware, as he writes, that the changes that were about to be made to rural American means of production (namely automation) were also about to change the rural character, and that would turn the sovereign hoe-farmer into a dependent machine-farmer, a farm engineer.

The logic was simple: what was shaped by certain influences must be reshaped by new influences. However, the eventual results of this way of thinking, which have swept regions across the world, reshaped both the city and the village through what I term the Factory Syndrome.

The Factory Syndrome

The Factory as a concept is not a narrow reference to the industrial institution, or to the postindustrial economy, nor is it the by-product of capitalism per se: it is a reference to a type of business mindset that is strictly profit-based, risk-averse, and exclusivity-prone. This mindset adopts the concept of production as the sole gauge of progress and prosperity, regardless of the political structures that support this production.

The ensuing economic model is not intended to confine itself to the city; as it turns out, the Factory Syndrome would change both the city and the village into one massive tabula rasa and reduce everything (and eventually everyone) into a product or capital. Contrary to the conventional means of building, the Factory needs inexhaustible resources, which translates into longer distances and higher densities for built forms, the primary condition of social segregation.

In opposition to the organic job network, whether in the city or in the village, the Factory does not demand belonging as a requirement for work. Rather, the interests of the Factory are purely rational; in that sense human relationships are not essential, nor is the process of reaching the end product. For a society to thrive, economic relations must become social relationships. This was more easily realized, and much more readily understood, when cities (and villages) were built without severing them from work and nature. Architecture not dominated by industry allowed for human interaction as a basis for dealings, which inevitably meant that moral considerations and everyday courtesies were at the heart of economic life.

Social hierarchies and boundaries exist to facilitate negotiations and constant adaptation, which means that sacrifices can be made on production for the sake of a genuine human interaction or simply the joy of doing the work—for instance, making a beautiful object, caring for an orchard or a field, relating an anecdote before shaking hands on a deal. The real gain of these actions and moments does not appear on the screen of a calculator; however, it is the essence of business (and human) survival.

In the Factory, production is an end, and people are only a means toward that end. That’s why there can be no limits to the Factory’s growth; it seeks endless production and demands endless consumption. There are no customers; there are only consumers. There are no real partners and team members, only employees and workers. Consequently, the Factory is not organized through webs, networks, and hierarchies; it relies on sharp divisions: in or out.

Surely, there are variations within the spectrum of these descriptions of the global mainstream business structures. And more surely, the Factory is adept at being on top of the game—with every concern we advance, there comes an answer ready to be produced. For labor, we will have AI; for climate, we will have renewables; for violence, we will have more weapons, wars, constrictions, and isolations. For food, we will have supplements and replacements, and for housing, we will have mobile, floating, and even hovering substitutes.

With “solutions” that only move forward, step after step away from real human connections and rootedness, we lose yet another piece of our humanity, and our planet.

Our architecture reflects this through the sharp edges we build: our buildings impose themselves on their natural contexts, disconnected from their surroundings. The Factory is not compatible with small scales, boundaries, and variety. All of these concepts contradict its essence, because the Factory—no matter how well disguised—revolves solely around profit and production.

Apathy and Its Cure

Returning to the two severances caused by the Factory (work from place and humans from nature), we can see the real cause of the function- and security-related problems of our cities and places: apathy.

“Exclusivity leads to apathy,” said al-Sha¢rāwī, the late Egyptian Muslim scholar, in one of his recorded lectures. Al-Sha¢rāwī was explaining a fact about life: that society will benefit far more from a myriad of “brilliances” rather than from only a few. This is how people realize their mutual need for each other, and how society thrives. That’s why we need to encourage the variety of successes and always fight the tendency to take over and become exclusive.

Contrary to this wisdom, the Factory functions fundamentally through highly competitive, comprehensive, expansive, and exclusive terms. The result is growth, unprecedented levels of social and moral apathy, and—whether we see it yet or not—destruction.

The Factory’s manipulation of our buildings represents a primary source of this accumulated sense of apathy. We are surrounded by daily reminders of our insignificance, dwarfed by endless facades, and defeated by aimless roads. All around us, price tags adorn every enjoyment. We are separated from each other and from the simple joys of our world by these intrusions enforced on our cities and villages, of which we are left with only traces and “rurban” strips.

In the face of this, we turn inward, into our inner worlds, as we lose the safety of our outer ones. It is true that our spirituality is enhanced by our surroundings, by what they stand for, what they mean. But it cannot be lost without them. In fact, we must resist apathy through our belief that we can. In the absence of official responsibility (and sometimes despite official compliance), individual awareness remains our hope. We belong to our places, and to their people, even when it’s hard to see why or how. We must remember that belonging gets us through the fog of times even when words like profitable, fruitful, or even worthwhile do not add up in mathematical terms. We have built our way into the current mess, so surely we can build our way out, but this time with a focus on what really counts.

The ideas in this essay are based upon Marwa al-Sabouni's Building for Hope: Toward an Architecture of Belonging (2021).