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Architectural Development in Syria, Middle East – article by Gordon Murray
8 May 2012
Article by architect Gordon Murray
I arrived in Damascus on a cool spring night in 2009 via Air France, one of the few regular carriers into the city and a reminder of that country’s historical relationship with the Islamic edges of the Mediterranean. Unaware of the topography of the city in darkness I stared in awe at the myriad dots of lights in the northern sky. Only revealed in daylight as a thousand dwellings clinging to the steep slope of Jebel Qassioun mountain range which forms the northern rim of the bowl that is Damascus. To the south the Jebel Druze and the Golan Heights beyond. Every urban condition is here in layers of space and time. Ottoman, alongside French Colonial and mid 20th century modernism alongside French and Soviet housing systems from the 1970’s. Damascus is essential for anyone attempting an analysis of the human urban condition – the citizen’s relationship with their city. As the longest occupied city in history it exhibits the scars, few of the areas of destruction satisfactorily restored with any eye to historical accuracy. Yet that is not its purpose. Damascus is a city of history not in history.
It is messy, often ignored, occasionally restored with little regard to accuracy of materials or history. If one looks at it with a UNESCO heritage eye a problem of overwhelming proportion. I visited the “new” School of Architecture at the University of Damascus, an early 1980s building in the style of The Architects Collaborative work on Cyprus, a deeply sculpted building in plain shuttered concrete. All students working with drawing boards, pens and tracing paper. The Professor I talked to trained in Paris and Marseilles; inspecting Corbs’ Unite on many occasions as it rose out the ground. In conversation whilst acknowledging my version of the case made by Ward and McLaughlin, his concern was reserved for the undocumented and thus unknown number of ancient structures reclaimed by the eastern desert.
Yet underlying all of the apparent deterioration I glimpsed sight of something almost intangible yet ineluctable – perhaps in among it all was a paradigm for future sustainable living.
The layering of the city is legible. Its ages exposed like rings of a tree trunk simply because nothing is removed. The past an asset for the future. The longevity of every single piece of stretched in form across time. A city based on the utility of necessity, not of desire. As a life support system where a fragile eco-system acts as a thin membrane giving a minimum of support to the maximum amount of people. Threadbare. As the Dickensian World of Nicodemus Boffin in Our Mutual Friend who made his fortune from dust- everything useful. Everyone clinging on, like the houses on Jebel Qassioun. A persistence and tenacity that was overwhelmingly positive and life affirming.
Nothing is discarded – a long-collapsed French Colonial Terrace two blocks away from the 15 storey concrete megalith which, on the edge of the ancient Citadel, dominates the city’s skyline – the concrete frame of a 1970’s banking headquarters on a long abandoned construction site. Yet both abide-awaiting re-use. Perhaps, not in our lifetime. Both existing as a paradigm for the Damascene view of the city. Just off Straight Street a two man tailors shop no wider than the treadle sewing machine they shared offered made to measure. On the edge of the Souk spare parts shops and suppliers of spare parts for spare parts – parts for cooking equipment to the forefront. If they did not stock it someone could make it. A bazaar of possibilities;
The profusion of bread shops in the old city – stone bunkers with queuing rails as if the entrance to a fourth division football ground, suggests everyone gets a basic provision-sufficiency or not. Yet the everyday innovation of literally hundreds of 300mm unlevened discs cooling on grids or on car bonnets- carts or bikes before packing by long suffering customers was mysterious. There is a sense of a working city here but one on a fragile edge of functionality where anything might tip the balance into chaos.
This is a city whose essence is not its relationship to historical perfection nor an architectural aspic but its functionality as a living breathing organism. The closest to the idea of a city that understands the secrets of old age, of survival. Damascus has of necessity developed and adapted its own Darwinian Urban Genetic Code – It’s future is assured just not a future that an old Europe would grasp – yet. Maybe one day we will, of necessity, require to unravel such genetics.
Article by Gordon Murray – now of GM Ryder, formerly of gm+ad
Buildings in countries adjacent to Syria
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picture © Foster + Partners
image : Archivio Fuksas
Article by Gordon Murray architect : gm+ad architects
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