Architect as peacebuilder — How to reconstruct a destroyed city

Heini Lehtinen
Apr 12, 2020 · 10 min read
Restoring the emotional and psychological aspects of the city support healing of the inhabitants and potentially prevents conflicts in the future. © Bengin Dawod, 2018.

Reconstructing the soul of a destroyed city is crucial for human recovery. Architect and urban designer Bengin Dawod’s the ‘Soul of the City’ method provides a new perspective to reconstructing a city — a wounded living organism — after a war or a natural disaster.

Text Heini Lehtinen Images Bengin Dawod

In the evening of 18 March 2011, architect Bengin Dawod was walking on the ancient streets of Aleppo with a group of Syrian and German urban planning students. An intense 10-day workshop was about to end, and the group of chatting and laughing students headed for a farewell dinner in the old of the town before leaving the city.

Three days earlier, on the ‘Day of Rage’, protesters had taken the streets in the capital city, Damascus, and in the city of Aleppo. The Arab Spring, which had already led to the fall of the ruling in Egypt and Tunisia, had arrived to Syria.

On the evening of the dinner, the news stated that the revolution had started. Shooting of four reportedly unarmed protesters by the security forces provided a catalyst for the revolution, which grew into a conflict whose complexity and magnitude no one could have predicted. Aleppo would never again be the same as it was on the warm summery evening.

Bengin Dawod.

“When I see a destroyed city, I see memories”, says Bengin Dawod, now architect and urban designer. “I don’t see the physics destroyed. I see that the soul is destroyed.”

“If I go back to the memory of the dinner in Aleppo, and if I see that the city is destroyed, it’s like seeing your mother wounded. It touches very much. It’s not about the bricks anymore. It’s more about what’s behind it — what’s loaded behind every brick, space, big tree; every corner, colour and so on.”

Having lived in Damascus, Bengin Dawod fled from Syria to the Netherlands in 2013. In the same year, he signed up to do a degree in urban planning in Amsterdam to be able to, one day, use that knowledge to rebuild his motherland.

In Amsterdam, Dawod started to work on ‘The Soul of the City’, a method to reconstruct a destroyed city. In his research, he uses the city of Aleppo as a case study, but the method and the steps of reconstruction could be applied to any city destroyed by war or natural disasters. He also works as an architect in an Amsterdam-based architecture office Common Affairs and, as a co-founder, runs Ondertussen, a creative space for refugees and non-refugees in Amsterdam. He has also advised the city of Amsterdam on the development strategy of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

Block-level view on reconstructed Aleppo. Sketches leave space for development, imagination and memory, whereas rendered, realistic architectural visualisations restrict the imagination of the stakeholders as already completed plans. © Bengin Dawod, 2018.

Healing a wounded city

“For me, cities are living organisms. They are alive and they have a soul”, Bengin Dawod states. “Cities can have wounds and they grow over time. They are strained and they face disasters.”

“Destruction starts with a wound at any part of the city. It’s like a human being. Then there is a memory of the wound and you start losing more life because the wound grows. This is when the soul starts to get damaged. It’s the people who carry the soul and the memories, the feelings and the descriptions of the city. When people start to leave, the soul of the city also changes.”

In the ‘Soul of the City’, Dawod aims in developing an alternative way — a restoring methodology — for urban planners and different multidisciplinary professionals who want to be involved in reconstruction of destroyed cities. Restorative, however, doesn’t mean an attempt to bring history back, but bringing the memories and the value of the city together with the future challenges, such as the climate change.

A block with semi-public spaces and green courtyards. A block study shows a transformation from an existing structure to a city fabric that is both climate adaptable and socially and economically sustainable. North-South orientation of streets create a more pleasant microclimate. © Bengin Dawod, 2018. [Click image to enlarge.]

“People should be the ones to rebuild the city, because it then becomes their city. The people in the city didn’t come down from the sky with parachutes, they were born there, and they were part of the process of the development with all the struggles and problems and good times and bad times”, he says. “I think that this process can be repeated in reconstruction, in smarter and more efficient forms though, because time is very critical in the chaos of the aftermath of the war.”

“If you take people, inhabitants, into the process, they get the soul [of the city] back — especially in the Middle East, where a big part of the cities were built by people, not by developers, planners or the governments. This is organic or informal development, whatever we like to call it. Big decisions have been made on infrastructure, on the regional or on the energy scale, but not on a smaller scale. If we want to restore the soul of the city, we should get people into the process. And, even if we disagree with the consequences, we should put our egos and agendas aside and try to give them space to do it.”

“This way, the city might change from what it was, but that is not a problem, because we all change in the end. What matters is that the people get the ownership, the feeling that it’s their city again.”

Arena of agendas

In the early 2020, after nearly eight years of civil war in Syria, the governorate of Aleppo is one of the most afflicted by the war. The city of Aleppo is free of conflicts, albeit with ongoing conflicts around it. More than 60 per cent of the city — buildings, infrastructure, public spaces, hospitals, schools, and greenery — is destroyed. Of the 2.4 million pre-war Aleppo inhabitants, 70.000 are dead, 1.73 million currently displaced, and one million have fled the country.

Over 60 % of the city of Aleppo is destroyed in the conflict. Satellite imagery analysis UNOSAT identified a total of 33.521 damaged structures in the residential areas only in Aleppo. [Click image to enlarge.]

More than one million inhabitants have stayed in the city, and in 2018, over 300.000 people moved back to Aleppo, as soon as the city became more peaceful. With unemployment rate reaching nearly 80 per cent, and with lack of water, electricity and infrastructure, life and reconstruction of the city is challenging.

“For the most parts, reconstruction processes follow the peace processes, which are mostly conducted by international parties such as the UN, but also many local parties and NGOs, donors and local governments are involved”, Dawod explains. “The process is different from location to location, and sometimes it takes years, followed by plans for reconstruction and then, eventually, rebuilding. It’s really chaotic, it’s one big chaos.”

“Reconstruction also strongly follows political agendas, which is quite devastating, because cities should be the most inclusive places. With strong political agendas, cities become very exclusive, at least in the process of reconstruction.”

The challenge of creating a methodology that can be used in different contexts and needs of reconstruction is to bring together all the agendas.

“Everybody should be involved in the process, and by ‘everybody’ I don’t only mean the people — the users — but also all the parties who want to or have to be part of it: the local and national governments, the donors, the NGOs, the international communities, everybody”, Dawod points out.

“The ‘Soul of the City’ method is not based on an economic or political agenda, but it’s trying to solve that conflict. It could be a tool to bring people with different political opinions around the table even during the peace talks and in talks about how we are going to deal with the politics of the country. Everybody can invest somewhere, on a different scale and different topic.”

Call for urban designers and architects

To mention some, the ‘Soul of the City’ method includes collecting and recycling the debris and materials from the destroyed buildings in a recycling centre; natural cooling based on lining the streets in the direction of the cool wind coming from the sea; collection of rain water, which is directed to green public spaces; public spaces made out of the new voids — bombed buildings — in the urban fabric, and a plan to raise the existing buildings and adding solar panels and green terraces to the roofs. Moreover, large blocks with pedestrian streets are surrounded by streets for cars and trams, both lined up with trees.

View of a main street. Deep and narrow street canyons increase wind passing through for better passive cooling. Placing a few blocks of high-rise towers improve the wind velocity and decreases the temperature on the street level. Vegetation is important to prevent dry climate. Colours, scents and sounds of vegetation typical of the region enable creating a pleasant environment. © Bengin Dawod, 2018.

An inclusive, holistic take such as this would be sorely needed in reconstruction in order to prevent future conflicts. However, reconstructing destroyed cities is a small niche in the architecture and urban planning sector globally.

“In the recent years, the perspective of reconstruction in Syria has gained more attention”, Dawod pins down. “Unfortunately, the number of people working on these questions is still quite limited, and unfortunately I can also understand why — it’s complex and difficult. If someone wants to become a starchitect or famous, they don’t want to do this. This is not about that.”

“It would be intriguing to see this also becoming a part of study agendas. Architectural and planning studies, of course, talk about city development from the perspective of war, but I think that what happens because of the climate change is still missing. This is about disaster management. War and other disasters are not completely comparable, but still, in the end, the consequences are the same. There is a need for more professionals to be busy with that, and there is a need for more attention from all related institutes and from all the political and economic powers behind to get it move forward. Otherwise, again, we are late.”

In Syria, the need for reconstruction is estimated to be on the same level than reconstructing a post-World War II Europe, especially bombed cities such as Dresden and Groznyi. The international community has been called for help, similarly to the Marshall plan, the European Recovery Program by the US to rebuild Europe after the Word War II, but the responses have been slow.

“If Europe doesn’t want to do anything, there will be problems in Europe”, Dawod states, referring to potential future conflicts and more refugees coming to Europe. “That is already happening, so we should really take this seriously. It is an urgent issue. It should be taken seriously in agendas on all levels from local to national and from European to the international level.”

Block-level view on reconstructed Aleppo. Sketches leave space for development, imagination and memory, whereas rendered, realistic architectural visualisations restrict the imagination of the stakeholders as already completed plans. © Bengin Dawod, 2018.

Lessons from the Soul of the City

The ‘Soul of the City’ was published in 2018. So far, Bengin Dawod has attended several conferences and talks as a speaker, such as at Basel Peace Forum 2020 in Basel, Switzerland.

“I’m now aiming to get to the ground”, he says. “I would be happy to do case studies, but first and foremost I would like to see that things on the ground are moving. And, I would like to be a part of it.”

“The most important thing is to start from somewhere. I’m aiming to get further with the project in Iraq and Uganda, where it is more about refugee shifting than war. On the other hand, I hope that the ‘Soul of the City’ could be a part of the peace-making, development and decision-making processes in Syria. Any decision has consequences spatially, economically and politically. It would be great to be more involved there. What is needed is political will, though.”

“The complexity of the reconstruction process — and the chaos of it — makes a lot of people fear to be a part of it”, he continues. People don’t find their spaces and they try to narrow it down into one thing because they try to understand and do their best about it. But, the more integral the scale is, the more important it is that all the aspects and criteria are involved in the process. Urbanists — urban designers, but also planners — are the professionals, if they want, who could handle such a complex process.”

“It is possible to build a city by its own citizens, by even future citizens. It is possible to start even if peace is not there yet. It’s very important that the reconstruction process begins even before the peace process. We don’t have to wait by thinking and making plans. It’s very urgent that the reconstruction starts immediately, and it should also be part of all the processes and discussions afterwards.” •

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Bengin Dawod was speaker at Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy talks in Brussels, Belgium, in November 2019 along with architects Helena Sandman and Esa Laaksonen and conflict resolution professional Miriam Bensky. The conference was organised by design and research office Raven & Wood Agency, The Finnish Cultural Institute for the Benelux, Embassy of Finland in Belgium and Archinfo Finland. The conference was part of the official programme of Finland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The interview is a part of ‘Spaces of Peace — Architecture as Contextual Diplomacy,’ a project and a series of talks, articles and interviews by Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Spaces of Peace’ looks into crossovers of design, architecture and conflict resolution in order to find synergy between the sectors.

RWII by Raven & Wood Agency

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