'Future Aleppo' and the battle for home

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"Future Aleppo" by Mohammed Qutaish
Photo courtesy of Mmuseumm

The will to invent can flourish even in situations of extreme duress. You’ll find the evidence of that in Future Aleppo, an installation at the Skirball Cultural Center. The four-by-four-foot model was made by a young Syrian boy and aspiring architect named Mohammed Qutaish. He made it with the help of his father between 2012 and 2015 while living in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war.

As he watched his city get demolished, Mohammed carefully crafted his vision for a future Aleppo using paper, wood, colored pencils, and glue. He lovingly recreated destroyed landmarks, like the medieval Citadel and his favorite park, and added imaginary, forward-looking buildings and design features: gardens, rooftop pools, bridges, roads, solar panels and helicopter pads.

While much of his model was destroyed when Mohammed and his family fled to Turkey, the surviving portion was brought to the US by Alex Kalman, founder of Mmuseumm, a pop-up gallery in Manhattan. Kalman talks to DnA about this “powerful symbol of creativity and resilience.”

DnA also spoke to Marwa Al-Sabouni, who grew up in the city of Homs in western Syria, the third largest city after Aleppo and Damascus. She was trained as an architect and was running an office with her husband when rebels took hold of her city. The Syrian government retaliated, and the three year siege of Homs left thousands dead and its buildings in ruins. Al Sabouni stayed put, but had to give up designing buildings and opened a small book store.

She wrote a book The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria,” out in paperback in September, in which she argues that even before the bombs started falling, her hometown’s buildings bore all the tensions that were unleashed in the conflict.

She says old Islamic cities like Homs were planned in a way that enabled Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic communities to live, trade and worship in harmony. This balance was thrown off first by French colonial planning, then by modernist urban renewal, and then the extreme corruption of today’s Syrian authorities and the “cream-taking class.”

Our conversations by Skype and phone were repeatedly interrupted by the daily power outages, as Al-Sabouni told DnA about the urban perils of separating and isolating groups from each other.