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Chris Stewart

Collective Architecture's Chris Stewart discusses his overlapping roles as architect and member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association in promoting green design to a wider audience.

Fortnightly Blog - We three Architects of Orient are

December 20th, 2015

It is an astronomical fact that Halley's Comet flew “westward leading” over Syria, 2015 winters ago. The Kings in that story were led by the star of wonder to Bethlehem, so geography tells us these three Magi travelled across that same land. With the Arab Spring receding and so many fleeing in the opposite direction what light can Syrian architecture follow once the grim events unfolding have taken their course.

The scale of the Orient, calculated by the French who like to include North Africa, is vast. Syria is but a small part of this mythical world but has harboured more ethnic and religious groups than any other. This has included Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians, Mandeans, Turks, Sunnis, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis which has left a rich landscape of architecture and archaeological heritage, at the mercy of a conflict which encourages looting and destruction. Whilst nothing compares to the human cost, spectacular monuments such as the ancient city of Palmyra are defenceless and modern cities such as Aleppo, a historic urban jewel, lies in tatters. Aleppo, larger than and lesser known than its sister Damascus, has been the scene of the fiercest fighting and looks set to take its place amongst Dresden, Coventry and Hiroshima.

As vulnerable as the past may be, pre civil war Syria was well known for it’s advancements in the field of education and home to a number of thriving architectural schools. All Syrian education is a casualty of the war, with school attendance rates dropping to as low as 6% and over 500 cases of kidnappings and killings targeting schoolteachers and university professors, continuing an architectural education in this context is pretty challenging. One method has been to send students abroad to finish their studies in friendly countries such as China, Russia and Iran; unbelievably countries such as the United Kingdom, France and Germany held sanction against these possibilities and the USA free education provider still blocks access to Syrian students.

Through all these hurdles some stars do shine, following ideas of contemporary need and historical cultural value (where else does such a combination seem more appropriate) it is great to see three bright young Syrian architects find their way. The CA’ASI ‘Young Arab Architects’ competition in 2012 awarded honourable mentions to Nivine Ibeche for her project ‘Alif, LAM: between body and Damascus, an architectural dialogue’ and Ahmad Tehlawi for his project ‘Alkelania district archeological site’ both exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale. Abdullatif Dalloul a post graduate student from the Tsinghua School of Architecture in Bejing, joins this regal company, winning the 2015 UIA (International Union for Architects) competition for his “Syria Smart Skin”, a mobile medical device unit for public health, his inspiration drawn from fundamental needs affected by disaster. Abdullatif still works in China; Ahmed was forced to leave Syria as a refugee and now works in Berlin; and Nivine may have recently returned to Damascus from Paris, posting on the website “Syrian Eyes of the World” her intention to return for the same reasons that led her to leave. She works as an artist learning from the old city of Damascus with its labyrinths, contradictions, enigmas and rebellion.

Syria was granted independence from France in 1946, up to which point there was not one single architect living in the country, all design work being carried out by foreign multi purpose offices. It took until 1950 for architecture to be taught at a Syrian University and only as one of four specialisations in Engineering. Pre civil war there were 7000 architects, encouragingly 43% women and 67% male, un-encouragingly two-thirds of both were employed by construction firms. It is therefore not surprising that few contemporary Syrian architects emerged from the second half of the 20th century. Of those that did the two issues of modernity and tradition fought hard against each other, different architects choosing different approaches. Syria had to wait until the start of the 21st century for a third more meaningful gift combining contemporary need, sometimes to the extreme and a depth of historical cultural which could only exist in what is known as the cradle of civilisation.

The resilience of the young architects forced to follow their light to foreign shores bring hope through their determination to return. No one can predict the outcome of the horrific conflict and what they will return to, however some have dared to make plans. ’The Future of Syria’ project has consulted with a thousand Syrians to determine how Aleppo will function when the fighting ends. Foreign young architects also try to help, Cameron Sinclair and Pouya Khazaeli have founded RE:Build where Syrian refugees with no prior knowledge of construction build themselves schools from local and available materials such as scaffolding, sand and stone. This allows their children to continue their education where currently two-thirds cannot and ensures they once again feel in charge of their own destiny. This is a brilliant, adaptive short term solution however the longer term lies with the likes of our Three Young Architects of the Orient, may their star lead them home to help rebuild Syria.


For further information on the good folk of Syria check out


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