Ahead of the opening of Birds Eye View Film Festival at the ICA on Thursday 4 April, Birds Eye View caught up with director Soudade Kaadan as well as two leading writers on architecture to discuss some of the themes explored in her film Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise.
"Old Damascus architecture looks like a labyrinth," says director Soudade Kaadan. "It was a cunning way to mislead enemies. And the walls of Damascus made the inhabitants believe this city is protected, and that it will always be. Even now, with the mass destruction, death toll, and the shelling, we still believe it is protected; as Mark Twain once said, 'Damascus is a type of immortality.'"
With the landscape and traditions of her city under threat, Kaadan’s film Damascus Roof and Tales of Paradise is an extraordinary documentary charting architectural change alongside its effects on the culture and population of her ancient city. With a few days to go until the film screens at BEV 2013, we caught up with Kaadan as well as two leading writers on architecture to discuss some of the themes explored in the film.
To begin with, we asked Kaadan how she sees Damascus now. “Walls, buildings, streets are the soul of a city. That’s why totalitarian regimes try to change the landscape of the cities they conquer. They want it to look like them: monotone, grey and cold, as different as possible from its diverse, creative, dynamic inhabitants. That’s why I chose to talk about architecture in this film: I felt like this regime stalled and deformed my city.”
Kaadan’s film tracks this architectural power balance alongside cultural changes in the city’s make-up, such as the decline of traditional storytelling; and Dr Michael Buser of the University of the West of England concurs that the two are intrinsically linked: “Culture is expressed through built form. Indeed, the two are inseparable as the things that we make (e.g. architecture) go on to make us… Expressions of architecture and urban design are some of the most visible terrains of cultural production.” As such, it’s no surprise that a military regime might concern itself with a city’s architecture: “Built form is all about power – it is a physical, material expression of equality and inclusion (as well as inequality and exclusion). Moreover, the extent to which citizens can define and truly make their city – their right to participate in processes of city-building is not pre-given. Rather it is a right that must be actively pursued and claimed.”
Dr Deljana Iossifova of the University of Manchester elaborates: “Every step in the architectural process is tightly linked to the full range of notions that make up the cultural landscape of a place: knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs habits and interactions…. All interactions are embedded within a landscape of continuously negotiated and ever changing power relations determined by the cultural context in which they happen. Architecture is simultaneously part of this complex system and a reflection of cultural patterns. Why, where and how buildings are built, appropriated, maintained and used reflects the complex and specific cultural setting within which they exist.”
It follows, then, that the nature of change in a city varies depending on the nature of the cultural traditions. Deljana Iossifova: “Every city has an oral cultural heritage in that social practices, traditional knowledge, competences etc. are intrinsically embedded within the city and the consciousness of its residents. Not every city, of course, might have a written cultural heritage, and then we are faced with potentially more and greater responsibilities in terms of the preservation of the continuity of the built environment and the stories and lives of the people who inhabit it… This is where I see the danger for many ‘developing’ cities today: that the speed of development is based simply upon the potential for economic growth and processes of accumulation. This lack of continuity or possibility of co-evolution for the people who inhabit a city and the easy erasure of their histories, associations and lifestyles often fuels enormous injustice and inequality that become explicit in the spaces of the city. In many of these cities, ‘modernisation’ is commonly mistaken for the process of eradication of architecture connected to the past (and often associated with the indigenous and the poor). It is commonly misunderstood as the need to produce ever more iconic architectures in the hope of branding the city, attracting more investment, stimulating consumption and pushing economic growth. What often happens is that we see the preservation of older such monuments as the solution to the preservation of culture and forget about the things and places and people that actually give a city character, identity and meaning.”
Modernisation, then, is not in itself a destructive force, so long as the histories and memories of the city’s inhabitants are not destroyed – “preserving buildings and displacing the people whose histories or livelihoods these buildings have been a part of can be regarded as yet another way of erasing parts of a city,” notes Iossifova. Soudade Kaadan again: "Modernization is not a curse, if it is planned in a way that won’t erase the historical identity of the city. Once a place, a house or a historical street is demolished it affects us immediately as a human being. It is like erasing one part of our memory, or like having suddenly a sort of amnesia. One of the challenges that we will have to face, after our conflict for freedom in Syria is resolved, is the total destruction of the country. Until now the list of world heritage sites damaged during Syrian civil war includes the Archaeological Villages of Northern Syria, Bosra, Palmyra, the Crack of Chevalier, the old city of Aleppo and the Medieval souk of Aleppo. It’s just one of many challenges that we will have to face once the killing stops.”
With thanks to Dr. Michael Buser at the Centre for Sustainable Planning and Environments, University of the West of England, and Dr Deljana Iossifova, Lecturer in Architectural Studies at the University of Manchester.