Destroying cities during war targets people's sense of home: architect

“Urbicide” — the intentional killing of a city — is a brutal tactic of war, designed to destroy people’s sense of home and belonging to a larger collective. But even in peacetime, architecture and urban planning can become part of a more subtle kind of war over who gets to call a city home. The fourth episode in our series The Idea of Home.

'People who still remain in Homs, they tell me they feel a sense of disorientation,' says Ammar Azzouz

A damaged building in the old city of Homs, May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. Architectural critic Ammar Azzouz points out that the destruction of buildings and spaces during war punish the community and take away their sense of home and belonging. (Rim Haddad/AFP via Getty Images)

*This episode originally aired on June 16, 2022.

This is the fourth episode in a five-part series called The Idea of Home exploring the multiple and contested meanings of home. In this episode, IDEAS explores how conflict and togetherness are produced through architecture and urban planning. Scroll to the bottom for other episodes in this series.

In Homs, Syria, architect Ammar Azzouz lived on a narrow street with apartment buildings of four floors.

"In Homs there was a sense that everyone knew everyone. So you must know the story of every family living on the street, on every floor," he said. 

"There is a beautiful sense of community and a beautiful sense of belonging. I always say when I tell my friends about what it means to be exiled, I say it means that nobody knows about your last name and nobody cares about it."

When he left Homs in November 2011, the city "was already a site of fear, and already the theatre of the battlefield," he said. 

'A city of urban decay'

By 2014, roughly 50 per cent of the city had been heavily destroyed, and another quarter was partially destroyed.

"So it's a city of ruins, it's a city of urban decay, and it's a city that it's synonymous with displacement and destruction."

Now based in England, Azzouz studies urbicide, which means the killing of a city, and domicide, which means the killing of home. He's the author of a forthcoming book called Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria

In 2011, Ammar Azzouz and his students at the School of Architecture were in class when the studio glass shattered from an explosion in a building next to them — everyone evacuated. He says fear and division were already present at the university, 'it was already a site of war.' (Debbie Humphry)

"It's not only about the destruction of the tangible home of the people, but it's also destruction of the sense of home," he said. "We are perhaps living in the comfort of cities of exile, but still witness the loss of our home and [feel] the weight of the struggle almost on our shoulders, no matter where we are."

"People who still remain in Homs, they tell me they feel a sense of disorientation. One person, for instance, told me it wasn't only about the destruction of his own family home, which caused a huge sense of grief and injury for him and his family. But it's also about the changing face of the city and the changing people around them.

"There are people who have been displaced 25 times inside Homs in the last 10 years. So it's also about the sense of exile because the faces, the familiar people around you are no longer there."

A city scene of Homs before the war where people are celebrating after a football match. (Submitted by Ammar Azzouz)

Urbicide is a brutal tactic of war in many conflicts, including the current Russian war against Ukraine, and it has deep roots in history and religion. MIT professor Nasser Rabbat, who developed a course on the history of urbicide, traces it all the way back to the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

"Why does God punish moral infractions with the destruction of the whole city? And it's definitely not the fact that he is destroying the walls and the doors and the window. But the city, for all intents and purposes, is the most sophisticated social tool that we have developed to create a notion of connectivity," he said. 

A Russian soldier walks in front of the damaged Metallurgical Combine Azovstal plant, in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, June 13, 2022. Leveling cities like Mariupol is a brutal and common strategy of war, according to scholars who study urbicide — the intentional killing of a city. (The Associated Press)

"We are going back to the notion of citizen — just notice the word. We are going back to the notion of being an active political agent in an environment that is very well defined, which is this city.

"So when God comes and destroys it, God is destroying the attempt of humanity to organize, and that is his punishment. I'm actually destroying what makes you feel that you are part of a larger group, which actually gives you a sense of belonging, a sense of security, a sense of safety."

Guests in this episode:

Ammar Azzouz is an architect and writer from Homs, Syria, now based in England. He is an architectural critic and analyst at Arup, as well as a research associate at the University of Oxford. His book Domicide: Architecture, War and the Destruction of Home in Syria will be published by Bloomsbury in 2023. 

Nasser Rabbat is a professor and the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. He has published numerous articles and several books on topics ranging from Mamluk architecture to Antique Syria, 19th century Cairo, Orientalism, and urbicide.

Marwa Al-Sabouni is a Syrian architect based in Homs. She is the author of The Battle for Home: The Vision of a Young Architect in Syria and Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging, both published by Thames and Hudson.

Hiba Bou Akar is an assistant professor in the Urban Planning program at Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Her research focuses on planning in conflict and post-conflict cities, the question of urban security and violence, and the role of religious political organizations in the making of cities. She is the author of For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut's Frontiers.

Nada Moumtaz is an assistant professor in the Department of Study of Religion and Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto. She trained and worked as an architect in Beirut, Lebanon, and is the author of God's Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modern State.

*This episode and the Idea of Home Series was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

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