Rebuilding Homs: how to resurrect a city after six years of conflict

Homs, December 2016. Image: Getty.

As the conflict in Syria enters its seventh year, the toll it has taken on my home town of Homs continues to grow. Much of the city’s built environment has been damaged or destroyed: as of 2014, 50 per cen of Homs’s neighbourhoods had been heavily damaged, and 22 per cent had been partially damaged. This has affected every aspect of daily life for the Homsians who remain. The Conversation

Prior to the war, Homs had approximately 800,000 residents, the third-largest city in Syria in terms of population. The city is renowned for its rich history, multicultural communities and unique historical architectural style – namely the Ablaq architecture, which involves alternating rows of light and dark brickwork. For this reason, Homs is fondly known as the “city of black and white stones”.

Ablaq-style architecture at the Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque in Homs. Image: Beshr Abdulhadi/Flickr/creative commons.

Over the centuries, Homs has attracted many different civilisations including Greeks, Romans and Ottomans which have all had an impact on the city’s cultural, religious, architectural and political landscapes. Each of these transformations has helped to make Homs a massive museum, full of ancient treasures. For instance, the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in the heart of Homs was originally a temple of worship for the Syro-Roman sun god El-Gabal. Later, it was converted into the Church of St John the Baptist, then transformed into a mosque.

But over the past six years the eyes of the world have been forced to witness the savage destruction of Homs. Many have fled from the fighting, lives and livelihoods have been lost and some of the city’s most treasured architecture has been reduced to rubble. Observing the destruction from afar, the only way to avoid feeling powerless is to believe that Homs can be resurrected.

Scholars Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella have written about how traumatised and wounded cities can recover after disasters. They point out that for as long as cities have existed they have been destroyed – and in almost every case they have risen again like the mythical phoenix. “Cities such as Baghdad, Moscow, Aleppo, Mexico City, and Budapest lost between 60 per cent and 90 per cent of their populations due to wars, yet they were rebuilt and eventually rebounded,” they say.

Similarly, I believe Homs can regenerate itself. But there are some important lessons to consider when reweaving its damaged urban fabric.

Lesson 1: engage the community

The local communities of Homs should be involved in the rebuilding process to ensure that all members of society are accounted for in the new designs. Regeneration programmes should include a deep and detailed understanding of local priorities and careful consideration for the people affected.

Locals in Homs. Image: Ammar Azzouz/Flickr/creative commons.

This can be achieved by bridging the gaps between local authorities, designers, planners, researchers and – most importantly – the local community. Local people should be consulted through workshops, conferences and research to record their thoughts and understand their needs. This way, regeneration projects will unite Homsians from all walks of life and give them a voice and a sense of belonging.

Lesson 2: respect local traditions

In many post-war reconstructions, the urban memory of cities has been replaced with new, forgetful landscapes. After the civil war in Beirut, Lebanon (1975-90), the city centre was completely reshaped and replaced with a post-modern construction. Scholars reckoned that the original fabric was completely cleared from around 80 per cent of the area. In the end, far more buildings were demolished during the reconstruction than had been destroyed during the civil war.

Post-disaster reconstruction should not bury the scars of the war by creating a completely new face for the city. Instead, a faithful reconstruction should preserve and respect the pre-war memories, values and traditions of Homs. Developers should consider the varied architectural styles of the city, while avoiding previous planning problems such as poor public transportation systems, impractical architectural styles that do not fit the lifestyle in Homs and neglect of the old city of Homs and its legacy.

Lesson 3: remember the war

Though it is difficult, a post-war Homs should not try to revive the pre-war era. Memories of war will no doubt be recounted by families, artists and writers. Likewise, the destruction of the city should be memorialised in its architecture, to serve as a powerful warning to future generations about the cost of conflict.

Fabiano Rebeque/Flickr/creative commons.

Many post-war cities have done this very effectively. In Berlin, the wall that divided the city into East and West still stands, but has been colourfully painted by artists, residents and tourists. In England, Coventry Cathedral was left without a roof after being bombed in World War II, creating a garden of remembrance. And the ruins of an exhibition hall in Hiroshima were transformed into the Genbaku Dome Peace Memorial, to remember the tens of thousands of people who were instantly killed by the first atom bomb ever used in war.


The next generations of Homsians should have sites like this, which they can explore, and hopefully avoid repeating history – and its mistakes.

Most of all, the reconstruction of Homs must not generate new divisions. Instead, more public spaces should be created to bring people together, where formerly architecture has separated them into different spaces for living, working and socialising based on social class, income and religion.

In this way, new sites can address problems such as inequality and segregation, while helping to heal the wounds of the city and create a united civic society. It will take a lot of imagination. But Homs is a resilient city, precisely because of the power, faith and patience of its resilient inhabitants.

Ammar Azzouz is a PhD Candidate at the University of Bath.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.