Re-think Aleppo | The city always wins #1

Aleppo is on its way of becoming the new urban experiment of the 21st century. The question is, what does it actually mean to rebuilt the city?

On the 5th of May 2017, architects, urban planners, researchers and city-makers came together at Pakhuis de Zwijger for a series of talks and workshops on the future of Aleppo. Discussions on rebuilding the city have already started at a global scale, so it is imperative to begin investigating what could be the future Aleppo on a collaborative basis. During the event, both Dutch and Syrian professionals exchanged ideas on how can we rethink Aleppo as a unified city. Are we talking about ‘tabula rasa’, or co-authorship that interlocks with the existing buildings and systems that have accumulated over time? Opinions variate, yet a look at Aleppo’s history offers a clear perspective – the city always wins.

With a history of over 5000 years, the city of Aleppo has been through many transformations that have scarred its urban fabric. Although the scar is still visible, and new ones are happening as we speak, the city has proven its resilience over time. Aleppo has been built many times before, and gradually, that process is starting again. Experts say there are plenty of lessons to be learned from countries like Germany or The Netherlands. Umayya Abu Hanna, project leader Rethink in Amsterdam, sees in the European initiatives the possibility of constructing a framework that would allow more inclusive and collaborative practices for rebuilding a city that, today, has no room for personal agency.

© Pakhuis de Zwijger

‘Aleppo has turned into an icon of a glamorous history, or total destruction. To plan the future, in addition to the glory, we need to know what were the causes of unrest, why is Aleppo in ruins now and how can the city be built to survive, to be a winner and for everybody to identify with it.’ – Umayya Abu Hanna, Project leader Rethink

Events such as the one that took place in Amsterdam do not provide definite solutions, but they should be regarded as exercises with the concept of re-thinking futures of the post-conflict city. As AlHakam Shaar, Holbrooke Fellow for The Aleppo Project, pointed out during the Re-think Aleppo event, Damascus lost its old city by modernising, destroying its heritage with high-rises that are in no way linked with the history of the city.

 AlHakam Shaar © Pakhuis de Zwijger

Eastern Aleppo, which includes the ‘Old Aleppo’, is an area subjected to ‘urbicide’ in many senses of the word, an act of killing the city, through destroying its buildings, depopulating and damaging its remaining population.’ – AlHakam Shaar, Holbrooke Fellow for The Aleppo Project, Shattuck Center

According to the UN, an estimated 60% of the old city and 40% of the Eastern half have been destroyed. Many souks, bath houses, the minaret of the 11th-century Umayyad mosque have been reduced to rubble or badly damaged. A new part of the city is inevitable, and the challenge is how to create a dialogue between the old and the new. As Bilijana Volcevska joins the discussion at Pakhuis de Zwijger, she points out the risk of an architectural mismatch between international modern views and local history through the case of Skopje. With 75% of the urban fabric destroyed during an earthquake in 1963, the whole process of rebuilding Skopje was controlled by the international community and private companies. The result was a city disconnected from its past, lacking symbols for a shared history and identity.

Discussing the role of the international community © Pakhuis de Zwijger

If we want a promising future, we have to remember that the city is for the ones that stayed in Aleppo, but also for the ones that left. Let’s engage with all of them and re-think the future Aleppo.’ – AlHakam Shaar, Holbrooke Fellow for The Aleppo Project, Shattuck Center

The event in Amsterdam offered a collective opportunity to think and talk about solutions for a city older than the one in which the discussions were taking place. There were no concrete solutions provided, and that was not the scope. The experts said there are plenty of lessons to be learned from cities that undergone same transformations. Through this event, we were once more reminded that in order to think about the future, we need to understand the past.

Feeling inspired? Watch the livestream of the event below.

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