“Upon land soaked with the blood”: on the architects planning the reconstruction of Syria

A mosque stands besides a devastated building in Homs, Syria. Image: Getty.

The war in Syria has turned many of its cities into battlegrounds. Places like Aleppo, Homs and Raqqa have been reshaped beyond recognition by the destruction of architecture and the mass displacement of citizens.

Residents are trapped in a war zone, struggling to cope with everyday activities. Their daily routines involve checkpoints, security zones and besieged neighbourhoods. They live between ruins and are disoriented within their own homeland. Amid mass destruction, they have lost a sense of belonging in the cities they used to know.

In Syria, where the war has entered its eighth year, architects and urban planners can no longer wait for “post-war reconstruction” plans or “peace resolution”. Instead they are already working to save their heritage, preserve their identity, and protect their history from being erased by extreme violence.

This is happening in a variety of ways. Some are hiding cultural artefacts in secret graveyards to protect them from demolition and looting. Some are trying to rebuild destroyed houses and souks, and provide shelter for internally displaced populations. Some are travelling to other countries – Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey – to receive training on the best ways to save their cities and heritage.

A destroyed neighbourhood in Homs. Image: Author provided.

The war has made it vital for architects to shift their thinking in an attempt to respond to the changing dynamics of war. As part of my own research, I have spoken to Syrian architects based inside and outside the country about how work to rebuild these cities can be supported from afar. Several ideas have emerged, including the creation of mentoring programmes, research collaborations with academics, and providing online learning materials on architecture, construction and project management.

One of the most common themes was the need for resources – on rebuilding, on bringing communities back together – to be published in Arabic. I am now working on a translation project of ten briefing papers from the “Conflict in Cities” project of the Urban Conflicts Research Centre (UCR) at the University of Cambridge with Professor Wendy Pullan.


The Arabic materials will be openly shared in early 2019 with audiences in the Middle East to share knowledge about topics such as urban regeneration, politics of heritage and the role of cities in reducing conflicts.

But we must also remember what any future reconstruction is for. Architects, academics, politicians, economists and developers each have their own agenda and interests. For some, the reconstruction is a financial opportunity to invest and make money. For others it is a place for foreign designers to experiment with new ideas.

There are already fears that the last to participate in these emerging plans and conversations will be the Syrians themselves – and that such plans might not put the Syrians at the heart of the reconstruction.

After all, many of those interested in the “reconstruction” of Syria have little knowledge about the country, the way of life, and its social and cultural landscapes. We must remember that any construction that does take place will be upon land that is soaked with the blood of Syrian men, women and children.

We must also be wary of a lack of balance in the plans for reconstruction and the building of urban resilience – the capacity of the city, its systems and its inhabitants to adapt to different shocks and stresses.

The power of building

In some cities, reconstruction and resilience are only focused on a few spots of the city, and benefit only particular communities. Some disadvantaged communities are overlooked. As the urban design expert Lawrence J. Vale notes, uneven resilience threatens the ability of cities as a whole to function economically, socially and politically.

A ruined residential area in Homs. Image: Author provided.

But there is also hope. Architecture could bring huge positives to a devastated Syrian society. It can be symbolic and powerful when architects have the opportunity to face history, instead of whitewashing it – when architecture can contribute to creating spaces and places for everyone, and not only for the elite.

In his book Building the Post-War World, Professor Nick Bullock explains how after World War II, rebuilding created an opportunity for the spirit of innovation and experimentation linked to the hopes of a new and better world and architecture.

In Syria, with such huge loss of the fabric of cities and countryside, architects are searching for the “Syrianess” of Syrian architecture. Many of the architects I spoke with emphasised the need to build a new Syria, for Syrians, by Syrians.

Julia Domna Palace rebuilt in the Old City of Homs. Image: Yvonne M. Al-Abdi/author provided.

They do not want to apply an international architectural language in their cities, or a Beirut-like reconstruction plan that does not reflect the identity of the country. Instead, they are looking towards a Syrian identity through architecture – architecture that can bring a sense of social justice and cohesion to all Syrians. To the displaced, to the poor, and to the disadvantaged – rebuilding a Syria for everyone.

The Conversation

Ammar Azzouz, Visiting Scholar, University of Cambridge.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.