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Q&A: Marwa Al-Sabouni on mass housing, sustainability, and the social role of architecture

"Architects and planners have the responsibility to be engaged in the lives of those for whom they design - and offer solutions. We often lack this in our profession."

By Clotilde Angelucci
January 11, 2018

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by, a project of Geoplast, edited and reposted here with permission.



Marwa Al-Sabouni heads an architectural studio in Homs, Syria. She is author of the critically-acclaimed book The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria, has written for Architectural Review and Wall Street International, and is co-founder of, the first and only online media site dedicated to architectural news in Arabic. Al-Sabouni was interviewed by Cape Town, South Africa-based Clotilde Angelucci.



Clotilde Angelucci: Marwa, I am fascinated by your work and take on Syrian architecture and its social counterpart – you have written extensively about the social impact of architecture and its role in expressing social identity in Syria.


I would like to talk about mass housing; this is an issue that is affecting cities all over the world. Even though the international forum is rife with discussions, not much has advanced. What do you think are the issues that surround mass housing?


Marwa Al-Sabouni: That it exists! Mass housing, as its name indicates, is a herd-encapsulating approach, where people are meant to be boxed away out of sight. There, no sense of neighborliness can grow, nor businesses thrive, no architecture, nor streets, merely box blocks where no one would live by choice.


Clotilde: It is easy to associate mass housing with large developments that follow an industrial “cookie-cutter” approach, and all too often sustainability issues are not taken into consideration – a sort of function distant from the form. However, “Tree Unit,” your submission to the 2014 UN-Habitat Mass Housing Revitalization Competition, won first place in the national results for Syria and changed the game of mass housing.


Tell me more about how the design was developed, and what cultural motifs you drew on for the development of the design?


Marwa: The Tree Unit is a unit made up of a cluster of courtyard houses, where privacy and nature are the main focus. All courtyards, while open, should be protected from being seen by others from neighboring windows.


The task was to reach this goal while maintaining the traditional setup of the apartments, and to create an urban unit that unfolds in four directions and connects with the mirrored units around it. Namely, to extend the architectural cluster (the tree unit) into an urban cluster by connecting to the unfolded surrounding units.


In this way, the quality of growth was established so it is not a literal reference to “tree” as one might imagine at first, but rather the quality of what a tree does; i.e. grow. It can grow horizontally (in the urban sense) and vertically (in the architectural sense).


That’s how you can spot the conceptual difference between this design and the design of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 in Montreal. Some people made the connection by comparing two shots from the two projects. I have to admit that, at first sight, they may appear very similar, but I see no real connection specifically because the two spring from totally different concepts and understanding; they fundamentally reach different outcomes in their creation, adaptation and design logic, and organization. My design is built on a unit able to grow not randomly or accumulatively, but rather intertwined geometrically and rooted in traditional culture.


The real resemblance I tried to make was to the street bridge, which can be found in the old Islamic cities in Syria. I’ve always been fascinated by this structure and what impact it can have on the street view, shade, light, and weather protection, as well as the design fluidity and flexibility in space-making within the apartments. This is applicable in the Tree Unit where neighboring units can be combined according to the determined apartment size.

[Ed. note: a “street bridge” is “an upper room connecting two adjacent buildings (houses),” according to Al-Sabouni.]


Clotilde: What is the role of sustainable solutions for the built environment in your design?


Marwa: My design was based on a comprehensive study I did of the locality’s social make-up, economic activity, lifestyle forms, property status and sizes, main infrastructure network, surrounding amenities, and so on. I didn’t look at sustainability as an isolated layer. The design used courtyard housing as a cultural, sustainable, functional, and social form. The same goes for the street bridge and wind tower (inside the unit), etc. These solutions were embedded in the design thinking, as were other “pieces” of the design. The aim was that none of the pieces targets one goal or achieves merely one end – all the details work in the service of the whole – a confirmation of Leon Battista Alberti’s famous quote on beauty. [“Beauty: the adjustment of all parts proportionately so that one cannot add or subtract or change without impairing the harmony of the whole.”]


Clotilde: When Bjarke Ingels talks about hedonistic sustainability, he mentions that there are misconceptions on the matter, and that sustainability is perceived as a moral sacrifice. However, even though sustainable design has been extensively linked to improvements in quality of life, it is seemingly predominant mostly in high-end designs. What, in your view, hinders a sustainable approach from being incorporated into mass housing programs in emerging economies?


Marwa: I think the main issue with sustainability today is that it is being used as a marketing tool, namely, to sell certain structures and building materials more widely or more expensively than others. While architecture is essentially about targeting several goals to be integrated into a coherent whole, functionality, efficiency, and sustainability should be among these goals, and not each as an end in itself.


Sustainability used to be regarded as part of function; a building would function well if it’s efficient, durable, and pleasant to use in different contexts, such as different climate zones, site resources, and energy needs. Only because mass housing is not intended to be part of any marketing process, but rather as a last resort for people who cannot afford otherwise, there is no need for the use of “sustainability.”


Clotilde: “Architects design ecosystems, so not only the flow of people but also resources” – do you agree with this statement? Do you think this is upheld in the international architectural scene?


Marwa: I completely agree. Jane Jacobs is one of those who addressed very powerfully the economic impact of urban planning. But from the scale addressed by Jacobs, we can note how it also trickles down to various scales of architecture. As I try to describe in The Battle for Home, at the same time architects are creating certain routes and routines for people, they are designing networks that control and often dictate the shape of their relationships and flow of resources created and exchanged.


Clotilde: I am writing from Cape Town, which, like most African cities, reflects different cultural streams with the coexistence of suburban areas and industrial and informal settlements. Besides the high-end projects, housing developments are not often being designed with a community-driven approach, which looks at the creation of spaces for public participation. Given the nature of segregation that has characterized many cities in the world, how feasible is it to introduce and promote urban planning that creates generous spaces to foster community interaction?


Marwa: The Battle for Home has proved to me that we face a common, universal problem in all cities around the world. As with any serious problem, it may sound too complex and challenging, while in fact, once identified, all it takes is the power of good will. I’m convinced that it is a matter of decision-making. The challenge is how to convince the wealthy and the greedy that it is to their benefit as well to build in a fair and just way, and how to let them trade immediate profit for a longer and more sustained one. I believe the war erupting in my country [Syria] could make a good case.


Clotilde: Architecture literally surrounds us, but its impact is sometimes hindered by personal issues/problems in our daily lives. How do we start conversations at a community level to appreciate or critically engage with the forms that surround us?


Marwa: Architects and planners have the responsibility to be engaged in the lives of those for whom they design – and offer solutions. We often lack this in our profession, which begins with the early stages of our architectural education. I find comparing architecture to the medical profession offers a helpful analogy. Architecture, as medicine, is a serious profession (although many tend to take it much more lightly) that affects the lives it touches very powerfully and deeply, but is mostly overlooked. The war in my country shows that the consequences can be equally as deadly. But unlike doctors, our education is not properly based on the user; often we are far too immersed in the act of “creation” and we forget all about the user, or alternatively, we “invent” for our buildings “special” kinds of users; they could be critics, magazine editors, art historians, or public figures looking to be immortalized by our designs. Hence my view is that the conversation should not start at a community level, but rather at the educational and professional level that could end up (if needed) at a community level.


Clotilde: What and who inspire you?


Marwa: When honest and genuine, everything and everyone inspires me. In our Islamic culture we have a prayer that asks to be “of those who listen to the saying and follow the best of it.” I find this approach most rewarding as it presents in its holistic concept everything as a source of knowledge, but also as a subject for scrutiny – nothing is excluded and nothing is taken for granted. An act of constant refinement.



Follow @marwa_alsabouni
Marwa Al-Sabouni’s (fabulous!) TedTalk
Marwa Al-Sabouni on ArchDaily
The Conversation Podcast on BBC



(click on pictures to enlarge)

Marwa Al-Sabouni

“Tree Unit” is Marwa Al-Sabouni’s submission to the 2014 UN-Habitat Mass Housing Revitalization Competition. It won first place in the national results for Syria.

Marwa Al-Sabouni

“Tree Unit”

Marwa Al-Sabouni

“Tree Unit”

Marwa Al-Sabouni

Marwa Al-Sabouni

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