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Syria weighs national and international influences in a post-Socialist age

Correspondent's Fi

By Seif El Rashidi

Until the 1990s, visiting Syria was like flipping through a 1960s design magazine. Oversize cars trundled by stark, aging Modernist buildings. Like a Middle Eastern Cuba, decades of Socialist political isolation kept the '70s and '80s away, making Syria a treasure trove of now-antiquated Modernist design. It also preserved traditional architecture and quality of life: Respectable middle-class families continued to live in well-kept 18th-century houses in the historic quarters of the city (which continue to be well-preserved).

Today, with a new, young president, Bashar al-Assad, promising reform, there's hardly an old car in sight. On the highways leading to Damascus, slick and Minimalist hangar-type auto showrooms with expanses of gleaming glass and chrome supply the country with its new wheels. They reflect manufacturers' corporate architectural image, rather than local tastes. Simple, age-old Middle Eastern coffee shops rub shoulders with Pottery Barn-style cafés—picture-perfect Mediterranean bungalows or futuristic boxes. Gleaming new hotels reflect historical or international styles; new government buildings trumpet progress. While the local coffee shops attract old-world Syrians whose interest in understated quality produced centuries of great architecture, the new outlets act as magnets for upstart professionals. The new and old cafés represent the two

SeifEl Rashidi is an architectural historian and urban planner working for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

By Seif El Rashidi

Three faces of Syrian Architecture: Sinan Hassan's fascinating Chocolate Factory outside Damascus (left); generic, historicist suburban housing stock (below); Wael Samhouri's al-Hasani Religious Center, a hybrid of Brutalist and whimsical (bottom).

extremes of the present design spectrum, both symbolizing a far less austere Syria trapped between the traditional world and the new.

This dichotomy between established and modern points to some worrying trends in architecture: Some Syrian architects wonder whether public whims will sweep old Syria's architectural traditions away, while others question why there isn't much home-grown appreciation for modern architecture.


It's Syrians with money that are most worrying to architects. In what were once suburban wastelands, grandiose, stucco-embellished, generic villas are springing up. It's easy to see why the country's architects are unhappy. Damascus-based Sinan Hassan sounds a lot more bitter than an accomplished 40-something architect should. He describes a "passionate, persistent effort to educate, convince, or at least neutralize [clients], along with making sacrifices of all kinds— including financial—in order to get an idea built."

Yet clients' insensitivity to good architecture isn't the only problem. Hassan points out that the Syrian establishment doesn't really like contemporary architecture, and that poor architectural education and decades of isolationism have led to

"an abundance of unexploited architectural talent, especially among the new generation, lost between computer graphics, superficial gimmicks, and architectural practices that focus largely on decoration." It's a common short-term reaction to tight-fisted authoritarianism—like college freshmen celebrating newfound freedom by partying to excess. Syria is going through a wave of consumerist exuberance, which in architecture doesn't lend itself to much substance.

The country is taking new directions and rethinking its image. But in the Middle East, searching for an indigenous contemporary identity in architecture is a major problem— and nobody seems to have found a definitive solution. For now, there's a in oc <

Correspondent's File tendency to sentimentally represent the past or to cling to the future. Finding a happy medium is difficult.

Struggle for a style

Not far from the stores and coffee shops of central Damascus, the just-completed Four Seasons Hotel, by local firm Dar al-Handassah, is a simple, limestone-clad structure that rises ziggurat-style over the Tekkiya Suleymaniya, a 16th-century mosque built by legendary Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan. It's a contrast to the country's unloved Brutalist hotels of the 1960s. Monochrome, and relatively restrained, it makes overtures to the gleaming classicism so loved by the Four Seasons chain. And while it's a clear message that Syria is opening its arms to tourism, once the novelty has worn off, somebody is going to notice that it doesn't have enough architectural flair to explain why it has made the landmarks of old

Damascus fade into its shadow. And while representing luxury, the rectilinear building still nods to the past's monumentalism and Brutalism.

Among many new public buildings now in the pipeline, a new ministry for foreign affairs by Syrian architect Bassem Barghouti clearly wants to be futuristic. The gargantuan building follows the old notion that symmetry and formality are

The new Four Seasons in Damascus (left), by Dar al-Handassah. The Japanese Embassy in Damascus (above), by Italian architect Sergio Calatroni.

inseparable. Like the country's medieval castles, the lower walls are battered; and its bicolored horizontal stripes and central courtyard recall merchants' khans, trade hubs of goods and ideas. Unfortunately, the incorporation of ancient elements into fairly banal, blocky forms seems forced—an example of revivalist kitsch.

The roots of originality

Sergio Calatroni, Milanese designer of the Japanese Embassy in

Damascus, expresses both dismay and euphoria about modern architecture in Syria, writing: "Everything is constructed badly, in a rush, cutting corners. Nothing but chaos and kitsch. But now and then the chaos and kitsch combined together result in unexpected vitality—there is something to be learned from ugliness ... A city means life, exchange, energy, stratified culture and old habits. In Damascus, antiquity is everywhere, every wall is an open diary. Here one learns to love the story architecture

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