Building, Settling and the Aftermath of War

Roger Scruton

When Edward Lear travelled through the Holy Land, sketching the towns and villages as he went, he left a record of some of the most beautiful settlements that the world has known – compact cities of stone, the roofs blending in undulating canopies, the domes nestling against the sky, the minarets reachingabove them in prayer. Many of these cities remained unchanged well into the 20th century, their alleyways of stone and inward turning houses conveying the sense, so perplexing to a visiting European, that the Arab city is not a public space but an assemblage of private spaces, each dark, secretive and Harâm.Of course the coastal towns, the big trading centres and the metropolitan cities developed in the usual 19th-century way, with dressed stone façades announcing shops and classical porches announcing fashionable people. But inland and away from Western influence the towns retained their ancient character, built like oases, places of shelter where people of many creeds lived side by side in relative harmony.

            The Ottoman Empire was not composed of nation states but of creed communities (madhdhâhib), some of whom were not recognized by the Sultan in Istanbul. Peace between the sects could not be ensured, therefore, by borders, as in Europe, but only by custom. Peace so secured is precarious and requires continuous work in maintaining it. Architecture has been part of that work. The unspoken assumption was that houses should fit together along alleys and streets, that no private house should be so ostentatious as to stand higher than the mosque or the church, and that the city should be a compact and unified place, built with local materials according to a shared vocabulary of forms. Thick walls of stone made for interiors that would be cool in summer and warm in winter with the minimal use of energy. The souqwas conceived as a public place, embellished appropriately so as to represent the heart of the city, the place where the free trade of goods expressed the free mingling of the communities. The old souq of Aleppo, tragically destroyed in the current conflict, was a perfect example of this.

            It is not civil conflict alone, however, that has damaged the settled cities of the Middle East. Long before the current crisis there arrived the new ways of building, which showed scant respect for the idea of settlement and disregarded the most sacred unwritten law of the Arab city – the law that no secular (‘almânî) building should reach higher than the mosque. These new ways of building came, like so much else, from the West, though with the full cooperation of local speculators, often taking advantage of the insecure land-law of the region and the relative lack of planning controls. Even the most precious jewels of the region, like Aleppo, were blighted by unsightly tower blocks and jerry built apartments. And local people, witnessing the destruction, often wondered whether this transformation of an old and loved environment was simply the price to be paid for modernisation, and something to be welcomed as an emancipation from the dead hand of the past.

            The question how we should build has therefore never been more urgent than in the Middle East today. Television coverage of the recent civil disturbances in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and the Levant has made the world familiar with the new Arab cities. Cairo, which I visited as a boy over half a century ago, and which was then a somewhat scruffy place in which Ottoman and Edwardian elements combined to present a face of decayed splendour, is now a city of concrete and steel, in which hardly a building harmonizes with its neighbours. The so-called public places, like Tahrir Square, are neither public nor places, but simple vacancies in the jumble of unmatching shapes. The styles employed by the architects could be employed anywhere, since they belong nowhere. And all the visible buildings rely on vast supplies of energy in the form of air-conditioning if they are to be habitable. The result is an environmental and aesthetic disaster, the opposite of a settlement, and one in which the architecture can only exacerbate the manifest civil conflicts that are growing in its shadow.

            The idea of replacing the organic city of customary styles with cleared spaces and blocks of glass was first tried out in the Arab world. Le Corbusier, who had tried in vain to persuade the City Council of Paris to adopt his plan to tear down the entire city North of the Seine and replace it with an assemblage of glass towers, turned his attention to Algiers instead, which was at the time under French colonial administration. As architectural advisor to the French Vichy government during the war he was able to overrule the elected mayor of Algiers and impose his plan upon the city – though only a tiny fragment of it was built before the end of the war abruptly put an end to it. This plan is still studied and even treated with reverence in modernist schools of architecture. It involved erasing the old city from the map, replacing it with great square blocks that negate the coastline and the landscape, and surmounting the whole with streets along which cars would fly above the population. No church or mosque has a part in the plan; there are no alleyways or secret corners. All is blank, expressionless and cold. It is a kind of act of vengeance by the new world against the old.

            Le Corbusier’s megalomania has fed into the neophilia of many Arab leaders, who believe that they must show themselves to be part of the modern world by redesigning everything in the futurist manner of Dubai. And when it comes to reconstructing the cities of the Levant there will surely be those who seek to take the Gulf States as their example, creating ecological disasters in the place of organic settlements, and further displacing the scattered populations of those once beautiful cities. We therefore urgently require a new kind of modern architecture. Ancient settlements like Homs and Aleppo will have to be restored; and they will have to be restored with modern methods and modern materials. Yet the styles that would integrate those methods and materials into the texture of a true city have yet to emerge.

            Following the Nazi destruction of Old Warsaw the people (those who survived) made a collective decision to rebuild the centre of the city as it was. The citizens of Aleppo could be invited to make a similar collective decision. A new kind of planning process could emerge, in which plans are subjected to a popular vote rather than to the decision of experts, at least some of whom will be making money from the deal. The evidence from Switzerland is that if people are given a choice they do not vote for buildings in the gigantic modern style, and will always prefer buildings that fit in to those that stand out. This surely is a sound instinct. Settling is something that we do as social beings, by fitting in with our neighbours and adjusting our behaviour and our lifestyle to theirs. Architecture must follow the same rule. It must adjust to its neighbourhood and not impose upon people a way of living, moving or socialising that is alien to their inherited customs.

            This does not mean that new building must be simply in the same style or using the same materials as the old. The old city of Homs was built over many years and in many styles. But each new generation of builders tried to fit into the environment created by its predecessors. The growth of the organic city occurred on the opposite model from that advanced by Le Corbusier in Algiers – gradual replacement rather than total reconstruction.

            My hope is that a new kind of architecture will emerge, in the hands of a new kind of architect. We cannot easily return to the beautiful materials from which the cities of the Levant were originally built. The imperatives of speed, convenience and available skill mean that concrete and steel will be omnipresent in the restored city. The real question is how they can be used sensitively, so as to fit in to their surroundings, and so as not to stand stark and isolated above them like visitors from another planet. To answer this question will require a concerted effort among dedicated people. Let’s hope that they exist.

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