How should future cities be built? In Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging, Marwa al-Sabouni proposes that rather than start visually, we should first determine how future cities should make us feel. The importance of this question comes at a time when community and a true sense of home is being compromised around the world. Whether in war-stricken Syria or the Ukraine or major cities across the Western world, Building for Hope tells the story of how globalizing forces are suppressing people’s ability to settle and dwell. Amidst this context, al-Sabouni provides a voice that challenges for change.
Marwa al-Sabouni has a PhD in Islamic Architecture and runs a private architecture practice in her home of Homs, Syria. Her livelihood, like many in Syria, has been fundamentally affected by the civil war and the subsequent social/economic dislocation. Now, as Syria looks to rebuild as a country, al-Sabouni has a unique and compelling message to contribute.
After writing her first book in 2016, The Battle for Home, al-Sabouni had the opportunity to travel around the world. She noticed that “while many parts of the world are still fortunate enough not to be occupied by endless wars, the divisions that are evident within so many societies make it clear that the distance between zones of peace and conflict is narrowing at an alarming pace.”
Building for Hope is an important book that provides a local perspective on displacement in Syria, a force that includes the destruction of people’s homes, the loss of cultural identity, and a story of the accumulation of power. However, it is also a book that challenges the pattern of globalization and displacement that is appearing similarly all over the world.
The beginning of the book is marked with al-Sabouni’s reflections – “Ever since civil war broke out in my country, I have been asking myself what lies beneath the upsurge of violence, division, frustration and despair that has taken place.” As an architect and architectural historian, she explores this question through the lens of architecture. But for al-Sabouni, architecture is more than just buildings, it is the story of a place.
Building for Hope shares how community and belonging was built in past Syrian societies. Through honored individual buildings such as the Khan As’ad Pasha Al-Azm in Damascus as well as systems for social/economic support such as waqf, a type of charitable trust used historically in Islamic society, al-Sabouni illustrates how a city can be open and generous to its inhabitants. However, the book is also a testimony to change. The fall of the Ottomans brought huge political and economic shifts to Syria with colonial powers implementing new forms of governance and investment. Numerous traditions for the region have waned since then, altering culture, patterns for development, and people’s sense of home.
Al-Sabouni’s humanizing stories and messages are told through the theme that architecture is a response to our fundamental vulnerabilities. The book is structured around five principle fears – the fear of death, the fear of need, the fear of treachery, the fear of loneliness, and the fear of boredom. Each chapter delves into how our experience of the built environment is related to these core states of being. Al-Sabouni’s clear and accessible writing is complimented by hand sketches that add richness to the buildings and settings she shares. The philosophical stance that develops throughout the book makes its message relevant for a broad readership, beyond those just interested in architecture.
Building for Hope is a reminder of our collective sensitivity to the built environment that we live within. As such, it also stands as a passionate critique of the way our environments are being shaped around the world. The immense scale of issues that al-Sabouni is addressing means that not all of her statements have the support to fully convince. However, the book’s importance is that it is a framework to build upon, not a blanket solution. As this, al-Sabouni has distilled a clear and compelling message that is relevant for all people as we seek places to call home.