Ghassan Jansiz, Homs, Syria
I was among those who raced to see the aftermath of the bloody conflict in Old Homs after it was declared a "safe territory". However, anyone who lives in Homs knows that this conflict extended much further than Old Homs to take in the whole city.
I saw the extent of the destruction which - although we were living around it day by day - I hadn’t, nor had anybody else, imagined the actuality until we stepped right into it.
Since the war first started we had discussed the form and shape of the reconstruction process, how it could be done carefully without prejudice to any of the people’s surviving property and memories; even if it now exists only in their minds. At our architectural portal Arabic Gate for Architectural News, we acted instantly and actively to communicate with well-known intellectuals such as British philosopher Roger Scruton, announcing an initiative with architects to figure out a solution to reconstruct this and other devastated cities in this ancient country.
With all the controversy and discussions held, I see the solution as being different from what everybody else is looking into. Everybody today is baffled by how to put right this mass destruction under the frightening pressure of horrible suffering of millions of refugees and displaced families.
Inhabitants of Syria know that the average Syrian citizen saves money all his life puffing and huffing to own at the end a decent home; owning such a home is the critical criterion for proposing marriage and a very important factor for establishing quality of life among the Syrians.
Those who live in the city know already just how enormous are the unregulated housing areas which have turned into a natural texture of the city. These areas reached the size of one third of the inhabited areas in Homs and amount to half the urban areas in the whole country. Obviously with absolutely no government control, stimulated by corruption and real-estate mafia.
My plan for reconstruction is based on observing the history and touching on the desperate need of people to settle down and find a safe place to live. History constantly reminds us of cities abandoned due to wars and disasters; their people left them to build new ones adjacent to the old ones. Their solution was based on the simple fact that the cost of fixing the crushed old city is always far higher than building a new one. In most cases this would be more fitting because after destruction, it is not only the cities that change but their people also change with them. You definitely need new regulations for new lifestyle.
For instance, the ancient city of Palmyra which is administratively affiliated to the province of Homs is a historic well- known site and once was a kingdom on its own in the time of the Great Roman Empire; tourists used to come and visit from around the world after its ancient people abandoned its ruins and built an adjacent new city to live again.
Before the war, the city of Homs had many urban issues to deal with. The most urgent and serious one was the existence of a petrol refinery to the west side of it - the upwind side. Therefore, people of Homs have ever since suffered from pollution and its consequent illnesses. Beside those illnesses, another serious one also spread out in the city and the whole country; the administrative corruption which allowed the property speculators to build housing that does not achieve the minimum health and safety requirements. In most cases, these deprive many of the buildings jammed all over each other in the old city and other neighborhoods from natural sun light and air. Those speculators also made the city center unattainable: house prices reached over a million dollars in some places of the old city.
With so much destruction and the urgent desperate state of people I see the solution as being to evacuate the old city from the current housing, build an adjacent new city on the far western side of the petrol refinery - designed urbanistically to be the substitute new Homs. There, a new city centre, social activities and housing could be built to replace the damaged and destroyed, to be like any civilised urban city of the 21th century. In that case, government instead of granting financial compensation it could not pay, could instantly grant ownership of new housing to those in the new city. Those who have larger ownerships would be granted equivalent equities and shares.
Present surprisingly restrictive building codes (such as a four floors height limit within the city) can be changed where appropriate in the new Homs to encourage private-sector investment.
Of course, such a solution could only be implemented in the destroyed areas, while the inhabited ones would stay the same. These are already close and could be connected to the new suggested site to the west. This plan is helped by the fact that the government ownership of the required area site - in fact prior to the conflict, urban development of the same site was suggested as a new expansion of the city of Homs. But in that proposal the city would have been disconnected, with only scattered building in between. This land is not suitable for agriculture.
As for the destiny of the old city, I imagine the ancient part being transformed into traditional markets and hotels. The largest part could be given over to public parks and museums, the thing that is totally absent and missed in Homs. There, original owners could own shares in the investments to be. Absolute assurance should be given to keeping, saving and restoring the old and ancient buildings especially the religious ones such as Khaled Ibn Alwalid mosque and St. Mary church, a few examples among many.
In other words, creating cultural, educational and entertaining life that could keep the blood pumping in the veins of that old part and not turn it into ghost town. All in a modern urban vision that preserves the traditional value of the ancient buildings, removes the destroyed housing, keeps the traditional landmarks and revives them through follow-on institutions and urban green landscape.
This solution not only can solve the urgent crisis of housing the displaced persons who have become destitute. It also will provide a suitable standard housing type rapidly, for a very urgent situation. In addition, it will solve radically the long pressing pollution problem, while most importantly, it will provide the required investment and create what Homs needed in the first place to be alive.
I realize the radical nature of my suggestion and what a shock it would be for many. However, with a little bit of calmness and thinking its logic becomes clear. Think of it as you would any case of clinical death when there's absolutely no use in keeping the life-support machines on, and money and effort are wasted. Facing the bitterness of reality is the perfect way to treat it. Trying to pump life into a dead body instead of picking up the life just next to it is totally in vain. So, I ask - isn't it more rational, more appropriate to declare the death of Old Homs and look for the birth of New Homs?
Ghassan Jansiz is an architect in Homs and the founder CEO of Arabic Gate for Architectural News.
Translated by Marwa al-Sabouni and edited by Hugh Pearman of the RIBA Journal, London, ribajournal.com.