A boy crossing a divided street - 2018 - Source Zaher Abdelmawla; A boy crossing a divided street - 2018 - Source Zaher Abdelmawla;

Architects in war zones: how to protect the future

Contemporary  warfare is no longer waged in trenches and on battlefields, but rather in cities, towns and villages. In the last two decades, from Syria and Iraq, to Yemen and Libya, we have witnessed how cities can be radically reshaped by intense and deliberate destruction of the built environment. But even during the destruction, there are some ways to support architects, engineers, planners and activists to save what remains of a places’ character, history and future.

Architecture might not seem an immediate priority in the middle of a war. But recent and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East show how monumental architectural artefacts  are wilfully targeted, to erase communities’ identity by destroying their history. The term ‘urbicide’, the deliberate targeting of the built environment, including residential areas, goes beyond historic buildings, and has been a feature of the eight-year war in Syria. It’s a cold, calculating attempt to reshape future life on the ground, in line with the dominant party’s own vision of the future.

Re-opened shop in a ruined building in Homs_ Source Zaher Abdelmawla Re-opened shop in a ruined building in Homs_ Source Zaher Abdelmawla
A shop reopens in a ruined building in Homs. Image source: Zaher Abdelmawla

Documenting the future

Despite a myriad of other day-to-day difficulties, architects in Syria have been attempting to respond. They’ve been mapping damage, protecting and documenting local heritage amid the ongoing damage and destruction. As a Syrian architect myself – from Homs, where over 50% of the city has been heavily destroyed – I have been researching how practitioners from outside the country could provide better support to architects on the ground. Here are some of the  ideas and priorities suggested by architects in Homs:

  1. Form research collaborations and partnerships with universities outside the country. These can provide vital information and hope to architects in war zones, and will help young architects by reviewing their work and providing guidance. Such collaborations will enable local architects to access the latest research on the built environment, especially at times where many Syrian academics and scholars have fled the country, and will help academics and researchers outside Syria to understand urban and community resilience in warzones.

  2. Transfer knowledge through online workshops and academic courses. This could include a wide range of themes such as research methodologies, project management courses, and digital skills to collect and analyse data. 

  3. Develop online libraries to share learning materials, educational tools and project case studies. During the Syrian conflict students have had no access to online academic libraries, there is a need to create these libraries to learn about the emerging debates in the built environment. But what many architects noted was the need for knowledge on different cities that were destroyed and then rebuilt in the past (as Warsaw, Berlin and Beirut), to learn from these situations.

  4. Translate materials into local languages. It’s vital that architectural materials are in the local language, not lost to the local population because the NGOs involved use English for example. 

  5. Provide training opportunities outside the country, via conferences and other programmes.  These could include visits to cities that went through conflicts and were rebuilt in the past, and further explore how urban environments through the materialisation of reconstruction could either divide or bring people back together in war-torn cities. Other ideas could include training to use digital tools and technologies to achieve, document, 3D scan and map damage, focus groups on urban activism, and creation of community engagement platforms where architects can collect people’s needs and wants for the future reconstruction of Syria.


These are just a few of the ways that solidarity between practitioners in distant countries can be turned into tangible support. Despite the desperate nature of the context, these activities would allow architects to stay fully involved in their communities, perhaps more aware of how their discipline can alleviate some of the social, economic and development crises caused by war.

Architecture is a fundamental part of a city or town’s identity and a community’s history. By offering support to local architects from outside war-zones we can help those communities to retain a future that they recognise.