Wednesday, October 22, 2014

UNDERSTANDING PLACE - KOBANE




One can recall that, after years of modernism entertaining the idea of architecture as space – e.g. Sigfried Giedion Space, Time and Architecture, (Harvard University 1941) and  Bruno Zevi Architecture as Space, (Horizon Press, 1957) - that it was Aldo van Eyck in Alison Smithson’s Team 10 Primer, (Cambridge, MIT, 1968) who was one of the first to articulate the importance of place in architecture: ‘place, not space.’ This started a broader debate on context, regionalism, that was taken up by others, e.g. Christian Norberg-Schulz Genius Loci, (Academy Editions, 1980). These ideas and theories were instrumental in promoting the changes that became Post-Modernism, popularised by Charles Jencks Post-Modernism, (Rizzoli, 1987), and still things keep changing. Lingering behind all of this thinking and theorising lies the experience that one knows as place, everyday place. It is a word that we freely use with little thought. But there is a rich complexity of senses, feelings and emotions that is an intimate, a subtle part of living and participating in the infrastructure and shelter required for social habitation that we so easily overlook when a location, a village, a town, a place is named. We interpret and categorise the world with our familiar selective, schematic diagrams.



Kobane. Why Kobane? It is in the news every day as the fight for supremacy and control continues. Some reports corrected this spelling to Kobani or Kobanê, but generally the media seemed happy with the ‘error.’ The news was, (7th October 2014), that IS, also referred to as ISIL and ISIS, was getting closer and had placed its flag on a four-storey building on the outskirts of the town and on a nearby hill. One Kurdish report said that this was merely IS playing mind games. But one remained interested in this town from the glimpses of it in the news. Exactly where was it? What did it look like? What did it feel like? Reports noted that it was near the Turkish border in Syria, in the Aleppo district - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/new-gehry-projects-in-aleppo.html  - but that was all. So Google Earth was opened, and ‘Kobane, Syria’ was typed in.









Ayn al-Arab appeared on the map. Maybe all spelling problems could be sorted out by referring to this place using its Arabic name? As the image cleared, the aerial view of the town was revealed. The line nearby was the border with Turkey. It was indeed a border town. This was apparently why the IS wanted to take control, seemingly to manage border crossings into the territory that it held. Who knows what the future holds for this place that Turkey said would never be held by IS? Many residents had crossed the border and were watching the shelling of their town with sadness and a growing frustration.







The Google Earth image of the town presented an integrated organic clustering of pieces and parts that ebbed out along roads that crisscrossed through the tiny town squares and stretched out in the surrounding voids. Small blue boxes appeared over this intriguing aerial view. These were photographs. Each was opened in order to see more of this place. Small mud buildings and larger apartment blocks were shown both in detail and in the broader context of the town, its streets, public spaces and districts. Surprisingly, the areas beyond the north-eastern limits of the settlement were bright green. It appeared to be a very beautiful, fertile place, even though its general colouring appeared dusty, the soft beige of the open landscape.













Very quickly one realised that the report in the news that referred to Kobane as a location, was talking about much more than an abstract dot on the map, a strategic military ambition or an insignificant, remote settlement – a ‘nothing’ in the northern deserts of Syria: an outpost, elsewhere. This place was home for people. It was real, of some size, (about 160,000 people), seemingly complete with everything to support life and its expectations. The Google Earth images revealed a diverse snapshot of this place that offered shelter and sharing as towns do, providing an interface for life within its civic structure. People lived and loved here; families grew up here; children played here, were educated here. Folk travelled, worked, relaxed, worshipped and shopped here as everyone does, but in this unique context, in their unique manner: home. The details of places in the images suggested more and more intimacy and prompted an understanding that one has to feel to know; that one has to consider circumstances in depth with an open mind and empathy. Appearances do not a place make. People make places, their lives lived and fulfilled; their hopes revealed; their concerns shared. This complexity is as much about place as the images. There is a wholeness here that reverberates like the call to prayer that reaches out and enfolds as it reminds – as tradition explains, ‘puts back in mind.’







Our cliché guessing that this Arab place might be a scatty, struggling desert settlement with desperate occupants in ‘backward’ Arab attire is our problem. Like all of our assumptions, we make schematic overviews that suit our preferences or match those presented to us. This place is as rich and complex as any great city or tiny village, at its own scale, with its unique characteristics and relationships to history, geography and landscape - native place. But for some reason we do not readily recall this, assuming similarly for other unfamiliar settlements, as we bring all of our preconceptions to bear, that, say, Tehran is a sprawling, ‘backward’ place too. One can only be surprised that such ‘foreign’ places will always be more than this, much more: and, of course, it is; they are. One might be amazed to know that Tehran, like Dubai, has recently constructed a metro; in Tehran’s case, linking the city to the airport. The image of the rambling souq drives imaginations to consider the city otherwise retarded, in another era remote from ours.

The story became the paradigm of Muslim spirituality, outlining the path that all human beings must take, away from their preconceptions, their prejudices, and the limitations of egotism.
Karen Armstrong Muhammad Prophet for our time Atlas Books, Harper Press, London, 2006, p.96


Kobane may be perceived as a collection of shabby buildings by other standards and expectations, but this is architecture too: it embodies life with its space and form, offering places of various scales, for various purposes. Pevsner and Ruskin must be declared to be wrong. Architecture is not ‘special’ building. Architecture is a place loved, lived, that supports, shelters, and enriches the body and the spirit, no matter how humble this circumstance might be. It is the fabric of life, existence: its framework, its scaffold, that forms for functions and functions for forms, with ‘functions’ being a most diverse combination of facts, emotions and feelings, intertwined into one complex being, being there - thinking, sensing, laughing, chatting, caring, wondering, loving, involving both people and place in their most multifarious forms, their dreams.








Kobane, Ayn al-Arab, (or is it Ain al-Arab - maybe the Arabic is just as confusing?), is such a place, as are all settlements, whatever their size; wherever there location, each in its own way. This is PLACE. Alas, it is indeed sad that one has to learn to see a place under such circumstances as this siege. Imagine the impact of this war on ordinary lives: simply shattering. Will the call to prayer continue to echo, to reverberate through place, space, bodies and minds to help decipher the world, with latent ideas, ideals and a beautiful demarcation of light and time, by worshipping Allah, ‘the Most Gracious, the Ever Merciful’? Grace, mercy and the wonder of beauty linger in this place as a yearning; a place much loved by those who know it as home; sadly ignored by others looking at ‘the big picture’ from ‘outside,’ elsewhere, and see it only as somewhere different, alien.


We spend too much time on the big things in life, and in architecture too. We indulge ourselves with self-important, lazy trite truisms. It is the little things that make ‘place’ what it is: a local habitation and a home.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a home.

William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night’s Dream

KOBANE: MORE GOOGLE EARTH IMAGES







































P.S.
31 January 2015
After looking at this piece again, I am reminded of a beautiful CD. It was produced after the George W. Bush statement of 2002. The title of the CD is Lullabies from the Axis of Evil. One does not have to say any more: see - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lullabies_from_the_Axis_of_Evil

1 February 2015
The Guardian published this report on the aftermath:
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/31/kobani-kurdish-forces-retake-isis-destroyed-power-sanitation-bombs-residents-hopes

Kobani: destroyed and riddled with unexploded bombs, but its residents dare to dream of a new start
Kurdish forces triumphed over Isis in Kobani but the Syrian town is devastated. Emma Graham-Harrison was one of the first reporters on the scene


Emma Graham-Harrison
Sunday 1 February 2015 

Kobani residents return after Isis retreat: ‘It was beautiful. Now it’s like a destroyed city’

The concrete eagle in what used to be Freedom Square still surveys Kobani imperiously. But around it almost nothing stands. Buildings have vanished during months of heavy shelling, replaced by snarls of steel and rubble, and the yawning craters left by US air strikes.
One side street is blocked by the bodies of Isis fighters, rotting where they fell – a pile of bones marked only by a foul smell. On the muddy track that marks where another road led, a series of tattered sniper screens veils the destruction of the schools and homes where sharpshooters had sheltered.
Everywhere there are bullet and shell casings, the twisted metal of spent mortar rounds and, often, the alarming outline of an unexploded shell, bulbous nose to the ground and tail fins spiking into the air.
The Kurdish forces’ unexpected victory in this north Syrian town marked a huge strategic and propaganda loss for Isis, which once seemed unstoppable in their rampage across the region.
But the mountains of ruins, the shells and booby traps, the decaying corpses and shattered power and water systems means that while Kobani has been freed, it is no longer a town in anything but name. Salvation from Isis came at the price of Kobani itself.
“There are no words coming back to a destroyed city that was your home,” said Shamsa Shahinzada, an architect who fled Kobani days before Isis arrived and who was our guide to the shattered remains – still off-limits to most of its former inhabitants.
“This was the main square where people crowded every week to ask for freedom,” she said, eyes filling with tears as she surveyed what was left of Kobani’s centre. “This was our friend’s home, we used to stay there. Oh God. Beside there, there was a school – my high school.”
Over half the city was destroyed, officials say. Entire blocks are pancake flattened, as if an earthquake had struck. Even in quieter areas, no building seems to have escaped unscathed – those still standing are missing windows, doors, whole sections of walls, scorched black by fire or looted during the fighting.
Some things that inexplicably survived only highlight the devastation around them: an unsold tray of snacks sat in one shop window like a perfectly preserved museum exhibit on a street littered with jagged metal, piles of rubble and the twisted bodies of cars used for suicide bombs.
Even on the streets that still look like streets, there is an eerie silence – broken only by the crackle of distant gunfire, the pop of a nearby shot from training grounds and the echoing blast of air strikes and attacks by Isis tanks – a constant reminder that while the militants have been kicked out of the city the frontline is still just a few kilometres away.
“The battle is not over yet,” said Anwar Muslim, a former lawyer and head of Kobani’s government who stayed in the town through the whole campaign and has already brought his wife and children back to camp amid the devastation. His joy at driving Isis out of his home is tempered by concern for the rest of the district; most of it is still under Isis control.
 “As you can hear our villages are still fighting, and we will only have finished our work after we free all our countryside,” he told the Observer.
“We, here in Kobani, are on the frontline, fighting against terrorists on behalf of all the people of the world … you can see here the cost of asking for freedom.”
The battles and the devastation inside Kobani mean that tens of thousands of civilians huddled in freezing refugee camps across the Turkish border, who celebrated victory last week in the hope of returning, may not be back in Syria for months.
Many no longer have homes to return to, and the town is far too dangerous and unsanitary to house them all. “We know people are waiting for us but we can’t bring them back here because there will be disease – because of the bodies – and because there is no kind of service,” Anwar Muslim said.
Turkish authorities are also noting down the names of any Syrians who cross, warning them that they cannot return. With Isis still just 10km away, and likely smarting at their defeat, that is a gamble that even those whose houses survived are reluctant to make.
Certainly Kurdish officials are not taking their victory for granted, at a time when there is still a steady flow of casualties into the field hospital from the nearby frontline.
Soldiers keep a wary guard on all tall buildings and main junctions, huddled round improvised braziers for warmth in driving winter rain. Many are caught between elation at their victory and grief at its cost.
“We are so happy, as if we were flying through the sky. As if God had created us again,” said 35-year-old Mahir Hamid. “But we can’t celebrate because we had so many martyrs.”
Isis lost more than 1,000 fighters, but hundreds of Kurds were also killed in the initially lopsided battle. It pitted hundreds of militants armed with heavy weapons plundered from Iraqi arsenals against the ageing Kalashnikovs and ancient Russian machine guns of the Kurds. At one point, officials warned that food stocks were dwindling dangerously low as well.
The victory was as epic as it was unexpected – to everyone except perhaps the Kurdish fighters themselves. Kobani had been all but written off by the outside world last autumn. The US came to its aid with air strikes in late September but officials in Washington warned the bombs were not enough to save it, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also forecast collapse.
Kurdish vows to hold on to their base were dismissed as poignantly, but tragically, naive. Isis was well-armed, and its fighters eager to die in battle. They poured resources and men into taking the town, and even took hostage John Cantlier there to make a propaganda video claiming that Isis was just “mopping up” the last Kurdish fighters.
Instead they were being slowly driven back by outnumbered, outgunned but disciplined forces whom the city’s leader compared to heroes of ancient Greece in their ingenuity and bravery.
They even devised a homemade version of an armoured truck to face off against Isis tanks. Steel plates and half-pipes welded to a flatbed lorry created a safe area, gun turrets and a battering ram to attack. It looked more Mad Max than modern military, and still reversed with the warning beeps of the original humble lorry, but was part of their slow slog to victory.


 The improvised tank that helped defeat Isis

“We bow down before these fighters, who were like the legions of ancient Sparta, holding off terrorism, fighting Daesh against the odds,” said the city president Anwar Muslim, using another name for Isis.
He has set up a committee of architects, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other experts to look at the massive task of clearing and then rebuilding Kobani, which will take years, perhaps decades. For now, they cannot even get heavy moving equipment across the Turkish border and fear a simple clearance of the ruins would be too risky.
“We have unexploded mortars, rockets, bombs, and maybe some traps for explosion the terrorists left behind to surprise us, to kill our civilian people or fighters when they clear up or check the destruction of their houses,” said Idriss Nassan, deputy head of the government.
“There is no food, no medicine, no children’s milk. If our people come back now, there will be a humanitarian crisis on this victory ground.”
Rebuilding will inevitably be slow because even if the military campaign is entirely successful, it will stop at Kobani’s borders, so Isis will still surround its people on three sides.
The Turkish border is the only route with safe passage, so the government is lobbying for a humanitarian corridor, and the creation of new refugee camps inside Syria, where they can help with rebuilding.
They are hoping for help from the allies who sent military aid, and benefited indirectly from the blow dealt to Isis. The priority is funds for reconstruction, experts in bomb clearance to help dismantle the ruins, and pressure on Turkey to open up a humanitarian corridor into Syria.
The damage is so bad that some have questioned whether Kobani should be rebuilt on a new site, but Nassan said that would be emotionally devastating.
“Unfortunately the city is destroyed, but people have memories here and this is our land. We don’t want to move everything from here,” he told the Observer near the ruins of an institute where he once taught English, before Syria’s convulsions propelled him into another life.
“We have to just clear it, but maybe keep some parts as a museum for foreign people to come here to see how Kobani resisted the terrorists.”
The city is still full of evidence of lives dramatically interrupted by the speed of Isis’s ferocious advance; tiny children’s clothes hanging to dry on a washing line months after their owners fled to Turkey, shelves stacked with food in areas where Kurdish discipline stopped looting.
The front wall of a nearby house was ripped off by an explosion, but a display cabinet in one of the rooms sat pristine – with television and a wedding photo in pride of place and untouched stacks of china tea cups and plates, as if the owner had just popped out. Some civilians are starting to filter back despite the risks. Most are fed up with terrible conditions across the border.
“I was in Turkey four months but, for me, it felt like four years. I am taking my family and coming back,” said Fatima, queueing in the dusk to pass through the Kurdish border gates with her five children. “If we have to die here that’s OK.”
Their house had gone, she has been warned, but they were fed up with sleeping on the floor of a shop in the Turkish border town. “I will find somewhere, even if I have to sleep in the street I will come back.”
There are perhaps 400 families in the western part of town, estimates Azad, a cook for the Kurdish YPG – People’s Protection U – fighters. His home survived undamaged apart from a hole torn in one wall to allow food deliveries without risking Isis snipers in the street.
He brought his family back a month ago, including 10-month-old son Fouad. With a well, a generator and rations distributed by the military, he says they are living well, even though Kobani is a virtual ghost town without shops, neighbours or any communal life.
Two ducks, rescued from an abandoned village, quack happily in their small yard and the soundtrack of battle no longer bothers even the baby.
“He is used to it now,” he says. “My wife was frightened at first but now it’s normal for her, too. We are upset about the destruction but happy we got Isis out. At least we have that.”
The only person leaving Kobani permanently was a Turkish member of Isis, returning to his family in a coffin after dying on the front line.
“We are telling the world those people came to kill our children, take our women. But if they ask for their bodies, we will give them,” said Kobani defence minister Ismet Sheikh Hasan as the coffin was carried through the steel border gate into Turkey.
It passed beside a crowd of fresh-faced recruits for the Kurdish forces, shuffling with nervous excitement. They clapped and sang until the door swung open, then raced into their battered home town with shouts of joy.
They had come from refugee camps to carry on the fight against Isis, and must have known that many of them would fall in battle, but just then, elated with victory, no one seemed to care.


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