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Photo: Park in Future Aleppo by Mohammed Qutaish. (Mmuseumm)

'Future Aleppo' and the battle for home 13 MIN, 12 SEC

"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.

Cate Thurston, Skirball Cultural Center (@Skirball_LA)
Alex Kalman, Mmuseumm (@alextkalman)
Marwa Al-Sabouni, Arch-News (@marwa_alsabouni)

See Future Aleppo, a 3-D architectural model that imagines a post-war Syria
How Skirball's Future Aleppo exhibit shows teen's vision, optimism
Mohammed Qutaish's Future Aleppo is a beacon of hope in the midst of war
Aleppo rebuilt, with cardboard and colored pencil
The 14-year-old Syrian refugee who built the Aleppo of his dreams
Marwa Al-Sabouni: How Syria's architecture laid the foundation for brutal war

The Battle for Home

Marwa al-Sabouni

Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of 20th Century America 14 MIN, 11 SEC

Do you feel overwhelmed by huge technological change? Well, imagine how folks felt when they saw Futurama, a model of a Utopian future city shown at the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The huge model displayed cars racing down seven-lane automated highways between suburban homes and high-rise office towers, floating airports and experimental farms.

Shot of Futurama's interior (1939 New York World's Fair)

Six hundred visitors at a time flew on a simulated airplane ride across this vision of America circa 1960. General Motors sponsored the immersive exhibit which cost today's equivalent of $90 million and attracted around 27 million people during its two-season run.

The designer Norman Bel Geddes created Futurama. Born in 1893, he was a ninth-grade dropout who went on to become a towering innovator of the early 20th century -- shaping products, advertising, stage design, buildings, aircraft, dance clubs and cities. His designs ranged from an Art Deco cocktail set to the bright orange, round-cornered Patriot Radio, a streamlined ocean liner, the Palais Royal nightclub in 1922, and plans for a pilot television studio for NBC in 1954.

Photo of B. Alexandra Szerlip by Adam Keker

But he never got his due, says writer B. Alexandra Szerlip, and was upstaged in design history by near contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy. So she decided to correct the record by writing a book about him, called The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America. The book traces the journey of a penniless man who made his way from the Midwest to New York, armed with the gift of drawing and plenty of grit.

B. Alexandra Szerlip, author

Inside every Utopia is a Dystopia
The Believer: Colossal in scale, appalling in complexity
Back to the future with Norman Bel Geddes
Rediscovering Norman Bel Geddes, the visionary who laid out America's future

The Man Who Designed the Future

B. Alexandra Szerlip

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