Challenges and opportunities in rebuilding Baba Amr and the tree urban concept

From the architect:

Baba Amr is a locality at the west side of Homs. This area is located out of organizational plan of the city; it’s common land.

The land of Baba Amr was owned to owner in Feudal terms then the government issued the Expropriation Act and took the ownership of the land and called the land princely land, which was empty with no intention to build projects on. People from Baba Amr who are basically are rural people immigrated from near villages to work at the petrol refinement and the Composting factory in the city of Homs. This allowed them, by one-year salary, to be able to purchase one piece of the cheap land of Baba Amr to build a home. They took advantage of aLegal loophole in the Expropriation Act, which allowed them to own the land they buy from the feudal owner and build on it. This way, by law, they could become partners with the government in the land; so they have equal shares of the land to the area they are staying on. This left the area with following circumstances:

1-     social/informal housing.

2-     Poor services: bad condition streets-weak power network.

3-     Low real estate value.

With no attention from the government or any future promises of developing.

Demographically Baba Amr has two generations:

-        Fathers: who came from the near villages of Homs to work at the factory and the petrol refinement.

-        Sons: who are either born at Baba Amr or born at the village but came very young to settle in Baba Amr, all of those went to schools and universities, or learnt a craft.

  • The location of the housing estate in Baba Amr is 2-3 k.m away from the city center.

-        Baba Amr is away from the public university to the southeast only few meters.    

-        Adjacent to Train railway from the south.

-        The green belt of the city “Orchards of Baba Amr” which provide 60 % of vegetables and fruits to the city of Homs is to the west of Baba Amr.

-        Crafts workshops are located to the south west of Baba Amr.

-        Public Stadium “Al Basel Stadium” is to the north.

-        Hours riding club is at the south away from the housing locality 3 k.m.

-        The great mosque of Baba Amr and the cemetery which include holy tombs of certain Muslim characters underneath there’re a Roman ancient location and canals left with absolutely no any governmental attention .

  • Challenges to be addressed in the locality:

-        The armed conflict created a huge social crack in the Syrian society:

In Baba Amr many families witnessed with their children horrible crimes this will create a challenge to any future in the area a huge responsibility is to provide a constructive environment through architecture. However, anther challenge may rise from the existence of two conflicted parties one may be in the decision side and the other on the receiving side, with the position of Baba Amr in the conflict as a main area for uprising and proceeded battles; it has witnessed the first and most uprising followed by major armed conflicts. In other words, Baba Amr is either a place of “celebration” or “revenge” for the two parties that the society has divided into. Moreover, the design mission is to deal with such a challenge, and overcome it.

-        Economy status: post-crisis in Syria would be unpredictable this may include many economical and financing issues.

-        In general Syria has hot summers and cold winters:

Microclimate includes strong winds in the winter from the west side.

-        In order to re-involve the area in the society and because of the risk of introversion of the community in Baba Amr:

After the crisis, conscious steps should be made to reintegrate the area and give the citizens an affective role in their environment, community, and city.

-        Housing management and maintenance

Has always been a major challenge. An over look to the streets of Syria would show that the concept of maintenance of building is absence. Therefore, the proposal would have to come up with an innovative solution and form a precedent in the society so it can be implemented nationally.

-        The governmental plans for the area may be very different depending on mass housing strategy, which will build residential blocks and towers with no deep understanding to the requirements of the community, which can seriously lead to a ghost town. As an example; the government took the action of expropriation the location and called off the celebration through building 3 residential blocks of public housing in cooperation with the teacher’s cooperative association, then invited people from outside the area to live in. that created a sharp grouping; as the people of Baba Amr and the small brought community introverted and never dealt with each other. This is one example of the consequences of the “forcing” that the proposal would try to avoid through innovative concepts.


As for strength and opportunities those could be:

1-     90% of the area is destructed: so the implementation of the design has more chance than to stay on paper as an idea.

2-     Baba Amr has a unique historical place called “Alhakora“which was previously an open park that a social religious celebration used to be held in. This celebration is called “The elders Thursday” or “Alhalawa’s Thursday” (Alhalawa is a kind of popular sweet”. people would come from all over the city even the country to witness this celebration with includes horse riding, popular dancing, and of course “Alhalawa”.

1-     The location of Baba Amr is unique and has a lot of potential:

  • It’s adjoined to the green belt of the city this makes the supply of a created farmer market is immediate.
  • It's adjoined to the irrigation barmaid from the west-south which can a direct supply of water.
  • It's very close to the public university to the south.
  • It has a stadium to the north: it adds facilities to the community.
  • It has the historical cultural location of "Alhakora": creating an entertain cultural activity and job opportunities.
  • It's very near to the horse riding club to the south.
  • It has the industrial area consisting of small craft workshops: this means a lot of jobs with no pollution because it's clean crafts (carpentering, blacksmithing,…) which are vital to the whole city and close to the workers housing (people of Baba Amr).

In other words, the proposal could present the area as an unprecedented activity center for the whole city of Homs: a connection nod.

2-     The mass housing towers have reached the frontier of the locality of Baba Amr at the north end; it’s only a matter of short time, especially with the events that happened in Baba Amr, before reconstruction plans include Baba Amr and apply same housing policy existed before in the surroundings, so there’s a real chance to avoid the urban and architectural problems existed in the mass housing surrounding in the locality, and come up with a creative design proposal that actually have a chance to b immediately implanted.

3-     The demographical structure of this locality is quite unique and could contribute much to the community and the city: with the combination of educated, crafty workers and productive women forces with such integration and coherence with the community can contribute in the prosperity of the locality and city in general.

The design proposal will take in great consideration the nature of the citizens of Baba Amr way of life and thinking, to present a design that is suitable; yet upgrading, through opining the door in front more education in the same areas that the community is willing to have: “religion”, “agriculture”, “crafts”… this will deal with the roots of deeper issues, that might had been taken advantage of, and used in creating the recent conflict. In reinforcing what is peculiar to Baba Amr’s community, and putting it in a caring environment; this will heal wounds and allow openness in the community and integration with the rest of city. Through social events and markets this will bring more people to the area without forcing new arrivals and solutions which could lead to grouping.

The vision of the design believes that maintaining and respecting the social fabric, yet upgrading it, and developing it through innovative solutions, is the best way to avoid suppression and forcing, and achieve integration and social effectiveness and development.

With that said; the proposed design will include the surrounding areas of attraction which has been neglected or suppressed and revitalize them in parallel with the housing creating an integrated mixed use community and forming a cultural, functional and productive area to the whole city:

-        The historic location of "Alhakora" or “Al-Halwa Thursday”; the proposal will propose revitalization of this tradition at the same location and creates a public park contains designed landscape specially for traditional games played by the young to reinforce good traditions that would generates responsibility towards the community through the achievement of affiliation. Also this urban location will achieve integration with whole city and will revitalize the are economically through the following:

1-     The urbanized location of celebration of “Al-Halwa Thursday” will host the festival and other traditional occasions such as the religious holidays and others.

2-     In other days of the year this location will have a food carriages market for traditional an untraditional foods. This will bring new jobs, investments, street life and integration.

3-     The park will be a green, safe, and fun breather for the children and families not just the locality also to the whole city as one of its kind in its specially designed slobs and landscape for traditional games.

-        The mosque of Baba Amr; in each housing locality there is always a mosque. In the crisis of Syria these mosque had been taken advantage of and used for wrong reasons; the proposal will propose returning the mosque to its essential function as a guide to the community to the good. People of Baba Amr as the analysis showed are educated yet they are strong believers, very religiously committed, and religion means a lot to them. Hence, the mosque should be an educational center. Unlike the view that might go for suppression, the design will go towards reinforcing in the right direction.

This urban integration with the surroundings will create:

1-     New jobs and investments.

2-     Active community in terms of street life.

3-     Social responsibility and affiliation.

4-     Environmental regeneration and conservation.

The proposal will propose a religious cultural center; the mosque has an educational role next to the religious: it contains a library underneath, and a conservatory adjoined to it.

This huge center will create a vibrant heart including people from the area and other neighborhoods.

The parking lots will be underneath avoiding the scene of many cars and traffic problems.

The study of the housing:

-        The proposed design proposes a basic housing block “the tree”; this “tree” resulted from the overlaying of housing units with a planted patio and roof top. At the bottom, retail shops are suggested. The urban fabric resulting from the interweaving of the “trees” creates shaded passages in between, yet they are not completely without light due to punctuations of the “tree” block. This means overcoming the hard climate circumstances: strong sun in summer and heavy rain and wind in the winter. Old cities in Syria had this cohesion before, and still an admirable advantage to all their visitors. The design suggestion similar approach yet dealing with the modern life necessities for example: car mobility.

-        The “tree” concept” offers flexibility in both architectural and urban levels; more housing units can be added or taken away, also arranging the blocks can be made in multiple patterns creating deferent outcomes.

-        The “tree” concept also has a physiological relativeness to the community of the locality due to their rural background; it creates a related environment to their roots in particular and to the human nature in general. In addition to the aesthetic and environmental aspects that it brings to the locality.    

-        People of Baba Amr have many social events and close social relationships. They gather in large numbers including their small children. Therefore, the respect of the locality peculiarityis essential. In addition, they tend to have small gardens in each home. And the patio and the roof is essential to the lady’s way of life so she can do food processing and household duties on these two areas: (sun drying for certain kinds of food, barbecuing for recurrent big social events, washing carpets and clothing,…). Of course, respect of the locality peculiarityis essential too as the analysis showed.

-        In addition, due to the rural nature of the people in Baba Amr they tend to have small gardens where they plant their own. This could be made use of; the design suggests roof patios that would be planted by the residences. The motivation to that, in addition to the natural drive, the economic interest will motivate people to plant and sell at the retail farmers market suggested in the proposal.

This also has environmental effect by increasing greens and by that oxygen, in addition to the aesthetic effect on the resulting blocks.

-        Women in Baba Amr are handy and crafty women; they always make food products of their own and they sell some to each other. This could be expanded into an investment by suggesting retail shops at the bottom of the housing blocks, that women can open very close to their families, and to the production place: which is the patio and the roof, production instrument are available at these two also: plants + sun. As the analysis showed this kind of mixing uses is existed in residential blocks informally in Syria; where people usually, on their own, transform a room of their residence or a garage into a grocery shop. The proposal suggests designing this need in an architectural studied form, and organize the investments through suggesting involving and growing of the women forces in the community. Their products are wanted by the whole city market this could mean real business.

-        In addition, the people of the locality value their independency deeply; living in residential towers with total strangers to them means leaving the locality back to their villages. By interviewing few of them this was the answer, of course they refuse to share names due to the current events. However, independency could be made by the proposed design where each unit stands independent to the others and has the key elements: the patio and the rooftop.

The design concept:

The tree:

-        A human concept close to human instinct.

-        Has a special value to the psychology of the residences of the locality of Baba Amr, they are originally attached to their villager nature.

-   Design flexibility and expansion ability (the block design allows taking off or adding to in variable shapes according to need).

-   Variable urban skyline, eliminate the dullness of linearity.

-   Creates shadowed open places suitable for playing and protected from strong sun and climate circumstances.

Details of the design:

-        Mix use: shops for local trade activity very close to their homes facilitating the engagement of women as a producer and shopkeeper in work environment and enhancing the local minor industries such as handmade food processing.

-        The ground floor of the blocks:

This floor offers spaces for:

  • Creating small coffee shops, small diners, and social meeting places.
  • Enhancing the concept of "almanzool"(which a place for social gathering for men who are connected by family or friendship usually is large room taken from a ground floor and can be entered from the street). The design present a place for it at the foot of each block.
  • Retail shops for the products of the locality and other vital products to the residences.
  • Offering residential studios for newlyweds, students,… this minimizes the cost for this forgotten group.

-        the tree block offers:

  • Different types of residential apartments with different spaces: studios, 2,3,4 bedrooms, double story.
  • Private patio to each apartment providing: ecofriendly environment, space for accomplishing their day to day vital functions (cooking: there are local recipes require such a place, processing food: sun drying, cleaning: drying laundry, washing and drying carpets and furniture) this all can done with privacy and avoid the unwanted visual mess that can be created otherwise, agriculturing (home plants for personal pleasure, specified plants for food processing)
  • The design of windows: provide privacy and climate protection through the design's flexibility in directing according to the position of each apartment.
  • The use of the "light and wind column" "Almalkaf" which is an architectural element that had been used in "traditional architecture" and can provide cool air and sun light through its design. The proposal benefited from this idea and created a modern glass shape that does the same function.
  • The functional study of the plans of each apartment respects the lifestyle of the residences through: providing:
  • two distinct functional sections (for day activity, for night activity)
  • Separate movement paths for the owners and the guests for privacy issues.
  • Spacious reception room for having the many guests and a space for living room which can be either divided or attached accommodating to different occasions.
  • Separate appropriate space for kitchen to function without the disturbance.

The visual experience:

-        The form of the residential block overcomes the solid "frozen" form of a rectangular typical block by spreading like a tree in different directions: minimizes the sharpness of story height which is unfamiliar to the original residences of the locality(they used to live in 2-3 stories max) and generates a feeling of movement that enrich the visual experience.

-        The cohesion of the tree blocks each block holds a part of an apartment at level 6 and by "holding hands" with next block they composes together a whole apartment. This created a cohesion form and shadowed passages in between and added vitality and movement to the compound.

-        These coherent blocks also bind in color: strips of graduated colors from bottom up alternate one color grade at a time which will create a moveable stripes of color along the urban facade that variate according to the observer position and way of travelling (car- by foot- bicycle,…)

-        The patios each planted according to one's interest will develop another richness to the visual aspect of the residential compound.

-        The unwanted scenery (laundry ropes, water and fuel tanks, satellites,…) those all have been concealed out of sight by placing them inside cubes part of the total design.

The urban center:

This center enhances the mainstream culture and common interest in religious knowledge through providing an educational center of a mosque and library for this purpose so this interest doesn't spring in wrongful ways in contrast it grows inside an educational religious environment that teaches only the right and develop ways of thinking by embracing instead of excluding.

The center is composed of 5 main parts hold 5 functions:

1-     The mosque: this large area can accommodate the number of men who prays the Friday prayer from the locality and the neighboring ones, also the prayers of religious celebrations for the whole residences (families) also the design gives the mosque it's old function back in educating and enlightening (calligraphy,

2-     The public library: Taking advantage from the resulting height under the mosque, lighting can come natural from the design of crystal ball above attached to the mosque volume also from the north side where the natural hole of "Alhakoora" is existed providing natural day light and scenery. The library in this locality is vital also because of the existence of near university.

3-     The underground parking: provides protection, additional space, minimizes traffic, conceals unwanted scene of large numbers of cars..

4-     The conservatory: will invite visitors to walk by and enjoy plants exhibitions, which the residences can participate in and have entertaining activities.

The public park as a breather for the whole neighborhood.

5-     The food carriages space and "Alhakora": provides cultural entertaining center to have simple yet exciting experiments that are new with each occasion also provide a wide range of jobs with the verity of shows that can be done in this place: (a circus, horse riding show, skating and free cycling,…).

The project has won first place on National level in the UN Habitat competition for Mass housing revitalization.

Study and report by: Marwa Al-Sabouni

Design and architecture: Marwa Al-Sabouni