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Road back to Damascus

The AR’s recent Exploring Eye is essential reading for unraveling the human urban condition.

A digital version of Georgina Ward’s ‘Damascene Dereliction’ essay in last month’s issue

I enjoyed Georgina Ward and Niall McLaughlin’s essay Damascene Dereliction (Exploring Eye, April). Damascus is essential for anyone attempting an analysis of the human urban condition. As the longest occupied city in history it exhibits the scars, few of the areas of destruction satisfactorily restored with any eye to historical accuracy. Yet that is not its purpose. Damascus is a city of history, not in history. It functions. It is messy, often ignored, occasionally restored with little regard to accuracy of materials or history. If you look at it with a UNESCO heritage eye, it is a problem of overwhelming proportion.

When I visited the ‘new’ School of Architecture at the University of Damascus, the Professor I talked to trained in France and had inspected Corb’s Unité on many occasions as it rose out of the ground. While noting my version of the case made by Ward and McLaughlin, his concern was reserved for the undocumented and thus unknown number of ancient structures reclaimed by the eastern desert.

Yet underlying all of the apparent deterioration I glimpsed sight of something almost intangible yet ineluctable − perhaps in among it all was a paradigm for future sustainable living. The layering of the city is legible. Its ages exposed like rings of a tree trunk simply because nothing is removed.

The past an asset for the future. The longevity of every single piece stretched in form across time. A city based on the utility of necessity, not of desire. As a life support system where a fragile ecosystem acts as a thin membrane giving a minimum of support to the maximum amount of people. Threadbare. As the Dickensian world of Nicodemus Boffin in Our Mutual Friend who made his fortune from dust − everything is useful. Everyone clinging on, like the houses on Jebel Qassioun. A persistence that was overwhelmingly positive and life affirming.

There is a sense of a working city here but one on a fragile edge of functionality where anything might tip the balance into chaos. This is a city whose essence is not its relationship to historical perfection nor an architectural aspic but its functionality as a living breathing organism. The closest to the idea of a city that understands the secrets of old age, of survival. Damascus has of necessity developed and adapted its own Darwinian Urban Genetic Code − its future is assured just not a future that an old Europe would grasp, yet. Maybe one day we will, of necessity, require to unravel such genetics.

Gordon Murray, University of Glasgow


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