by Dima Dayoub
“We need not be so concerned about perfect conformity to past form but ought to seek to use remains to enhance the complexity and significance of the present scene. The contrast of old and new, the accumulated concentration of the most significant elements, will in time produce a landscape whose depth no one period can equal” (Lynch, 1972).
Drawing on my own professional experience working as an architect for restoration and rehabilitation projects in the old city of Aleppo for several years, as well as my personal view as a (former) resident of the city, I have witnessed first hand a shift and new mix present in the local community. Typically described as conservative, Aleppo’s community has been confronted with new complexities and typologies due to urban interventions on different scales.
The following one day in Aleppo (before the war) may illustrate that:
Entering Bab Qinnasrin, one of the historical gates of the ancient city, and walking down the cobbled stone alley in the morning to get to the construction site, I pass by a small local bakery. At the bakery, I buy my hot croissants, which my French friends, who used to live in the area, claim taste just like those made in Paris. I continue to my destination where I must bend down to pass through the small entrance door. There, I stand inside the open courtyard to discuss with workers drawings of a swimming pool. The pool will be incorporated on part of the roof of three combined Arabic houses, as it is the wish of the (foreign) client who is renovating his own guesthouse in the heart of the old city.
The same street hosts a delightful surprise unnoticeable from outside. No sign announces the hidden boutique hotel, an exclusive oasis of exotic rooms that were built in the late 16th century and have been renovated to reveal the architecture’s original glory. I take my lunch from a well-known fava bean (Foul) shop and walk through a narrow alley to reach our two-storey office. Here, I eat my food in the courtyard under the lemon tree.
I finish work and go to my friends’ courtyard house to roll sushi in an atmosphere full of music and laughter. I wonder whether the neighbor next door is rolling Yabrak.
I drive back home leaving the old city and arrive at my newly built monotonous neighborhood in the western side of the city.
The above narrative of a single day in my life in Aleppo serves to shed some light on the alternative life styles and diversity that used to exist in this historic city prior to the war. The local community has managed again to adapt and accommodate new cultures and living patterns to their own purposes and customs just like it did in the past. Aleppo’s long history portrays this phenomenon which can be found in the many layers of sequential periods whose visible remains are written in every bit and corner of Aleppo’s urban fabric. Some might encounter these practices as disturbing or overwhelming to the built fabric, while others see them melting in and complimenting the local distinctiveness. In both cases, conserving the rich spirit of the past with continuous reference to the multiplicity and cultural diversity present in the local urban heritage, in which a unique contemporary image is conceptualized within it, should be the interest of any future reconstruction efforts in the old city of Aleppo.