They want to help rebuild their home city. Syrian architects Emad Alsaleh and Layla Kandakji are guest researchers at the Department of Conservation. Together with Swedish colleagues, they plan to study what the city of Aleppo could look like in the future.
“The aim is to achieve democratic city planning with a focus on people’s everyday lives,” says Emad.
Photos of magnificent buildings from their home city of Aleppo flicker past on the computer screen. A black and white image appears, showing an old woman with a bent back, dressed in ragged clothing, who has just passed through what was once an ornate city gate but is now just a pile of rubble. Emad Alsaleh points to the photo.
“This was one of the main entrances to the old town of Aleppo,” he says with a touch of sadness in his voice. “Hundreds of thousands of people live here. The buildings date back to antiquity, and many of them were over five thousand years old. But most of them have been destroyed by war.”
The old town of Aleppo is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. It is hard to estimate what percentage of the buildings has been destroyed. And the ruins only give a hint of the human suffering in Syria.
“No-one dares to bury their dead in the graveyards any more,” says Layla Kandakji. “The risk of being shot by snipers is too great. Instead, cars collect the dead bodies which are driven away and buried in playgrounds or parks. People no longer know where to go to grieve their dead.”
In November, the married couple left the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Aleppo to spend ten months as guest researchers at the Department of Conservation. Together with researchers from the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology, they aim to investigate possible ways of restoring the cultural heritage of their home country. This involves discussing what should be repaired and what should be rebuilt.
“There will be monuments that absolutely must be recreated, as they are symbolic places for people who live in the city,” says Layla. “It’s a question of identity. However, I don’t think it will be possible to rebuild everything that has been destroyed in the old town of Aleppo.”
Aleppo is a divided city, with a wealthy area and a poor area. However, half of Aleppo’s more than 3 million inhabitants live in so-called ‘informal districts’ where people have simply settled and built temporary homes. Conditions are tough in these areas. Sometimes there is no water or electricity, the roads are of a poor quality, and there are no green spaces or healthcare. Emad believes that development is essential. Aleppo has now also been divided by war. A front line runs right through the city, forming a bloody wound. The opposition’s flags wave on one side, and the government’s flags on the other. Emad and Layla become emotional when they think about their home country. And the conflict is far from over.
“But we try to look ahead. We have to think about future generations.”
They want to learn from others who have studied rebuilding after wars and devastation. Examples include the reconstruction of Germany after the Second World War and the rebuilding of the Balkans.
Before war broke out in Syria in 2011, the old town of Aleppo had a commercial centre, a unique bazaar area with twelve kilometres of winding streets that were protected from the rain and sun. Spacious enclosed courtyards with lush plants and beautiful façades were also a feature of the old town.
“In the bazaar quarter, traders sold things that you could only buy there. Everyone came there. The feel of the area gave people an identity. There was an atmosphere of freshness, liveliness and tranquillity at the same time.” Could it be rebuilt? “I don’t know,” says Layla.
It is not always obvious what should be restored and what should be modernised.
“Many people think we now have an opportunity to build a more modern Aleppo,” says Emad. “Others want to recreate everything, but I think a balance is needed The infrastructure in the old town needs to be improved, but the feel of the area needs to be preserved and buildings must be reconstructed. We need to start with a pilot area and then evaluate the results before continuing.”
Both Layla and Emad hope for productive cooperation with the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers, and look forward to discussing experiences of city planning.
“Our goal must be for people’s everyday lives to work well, and architecture is the tool. We get very emotional when we look ahead and think about future generations.”