Interview: British-Syrian academic Ahmad Sukkar speaks on architecture education in the region
Currently at the University of Sharjah, the Mohamed Makiya Prize finalist shares more insight into his work and how he hopes to contribute to the region’s intellectual discourse, as well as the Syrian crisis.
Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, Ahmad Sukkar is a British-Syrian architect and academic who currently holds a teaching position at the UAE’s University of Sharjah. A member of the steering committee for a project led by the AUB’s Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, as well as a postdoctoral fellow at MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Sukkar’s recent achievements include winning a Middle East Studies Association’s Global Academy Award.
In 2018, he led a comprehensive course on Syria’s reconstruction and development while working as a Postdoctoral Visiting Fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut. Sukkar has lectured at the architecture department of the University of Cambridge, and has completed doctoral and postdoctoral studies on topics related to architecture and urbanism in the Islamic world, and reconstruction in the Middle East, especially Syria. While his research can be found in peer-review journals, such as the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, he is also currently preparing for several publications including two volumes.
Here, he speaks with Round City about his many academic achievements and how he hopes to contribute to architecture education in the region.
Tell us briefly about yourself. A student of life and a citizen of the world, I am a British-Syrian architect, academic and educator. My academic and professional experience in the past three years spans three continents: Asia, Europe and North America. My lifelong journey in the world has been a continuous shuttle between the East and the West, from Syria to the UK, Lebanon to the US and, more recently, the UAE. In these and other countries, I have held research and teaching positions in leading universities and institutes, and I have worked at prominent architectural offices. I am a member of several international organisations and professional bodies and have served as a chief editor, examiner, critic, consultant and member of steering committees for numerous universities, think-tanks and policy institutes. My individual and teamwork research and design have received many international awards.
I completed a master’s of research and a doctorate in architectural humanities and cultural studies at the University of London, a master’s of architecture in architecture and urbanism at the Architectural Association (AA), and a postgraduate diploma in architectural design and a bachelor’s in architecture at Damascus University.
I am currently an assistant professor in Islamic art and architecture, cultural heritage, urban conflict and modern design at the University of Sharjah (2020-2021), a Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) Global Academy Scholar (2019-21), and an associate member of the University College London-led Relief Centre’s Global Associates International Network (GAIN) (since 2017). I recently completed an Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture Postdoctoral Fellowship at the School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (2019-20).
I was previously a consultant and a course leader for the Arab Reform Initiative, a postdoctoral fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut, a visiting lecturer and an examiner at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Architecture, an Andrew William Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) Centre for Arts and Humanities, an Imam Bukhari Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Islamic Studies (supported by a Barakat Trust Award), and a teaching and research fellow and a studio lecturer at Damascus University. The leading architectural offices in the Middle East and the UK where I worked include Zaha Hadid Architects.
Tell us more about the stages of development in your professional and academic life and what brought you to where you are now. My academic and professional experience is best described in stages of development. As a child and adolescent, I loved the musical philosophy of Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers and traveled throughout Syria. During this period, I received a national award in geometric drawing, and studying architecture became an obvious destiny for me. As an undergraduate at Damascus University, I excelled, especially in architectural design, history and theories. Before graduation, I designed and constructed my first project for a computer and mobile phone company. I graduated with a project about the Hijaz Railway as a national museum and received an award for academic excellence from the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education.
I then completed a postgraduate diploma with research about the architectural and urban settings of the Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, which received a grade of distinction. I concurrently assisted my teacher, architect and Professor Wael Samhouri for almost three years on award-winning government projects and competitions. These included Damascus University’s Faculty of Letters and Humanities, which received a Cityscape Special Award (Highly Commended—Master Planning) in 2010, and the Eastern Park of Damascus, which received a Cityscape Architectural Review Award (Master Planning) in 2004. The Faculty of Letters and Humanities is now being built to accommodate thousands of students. I also worked as a teaching and research fellow at Damascus University. I later received a scholarship to complete both a master’s and a doctoral degree in the UK, with the aim of subsequently returning to Damascus University to start a tenure track assistant professorship.
In London, my first master’s degree group thesis project in algorithmic architecture and parametric urbanism at the Architectural Association received a grade of distinction and a Far Eastern International Digital Architectural Design Award. The project was exhibited and published in several languages (English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish), including in AA publications and the Architectural Design journal, as well as the exhibition and book of the 2006 Beijing Biennial, Emerging Talents, Emerging Technologies. I next worked on the Pierresvives Building of the Département de l’Herault in France with Zaha Hadid Architects, which received the Royal Institute of British Architects’ European Award in 2013.
I realised that it would be helpful for my future career as a professor at Damascus University and as a practicing architect in Syria to have a theoretical focus in my doctoral studies different from, but complementary to, the professional focus of my master’s. My second master’s degree and doctorate in architectural humanities and cultural studies at the London Consortium—a unique collaboration between the University of London (Birkbeck College), the AA, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Science Museum, and the Tate—therefore focused on the philosophical concept of the body, space and architecture in the Islamic world, especially the Levant. Professors Samer Akkach, Nader El-Bizri, Mark Cousins and Neil Leach supervised my doctoral thesis, which was shortlisted for the British Association for Islamic Studies’ De Gruyter Prize for the Study of Islam and the Muslim World and won an international Gorgias Press’ Classical Islamic World Book Prize. I have set on a dense programme of publications, including an article on mystical philosophy that appears in the Brill journal Mawlana Rumi Review and a creative story on architecture that appears in Al-Adab, one of the Arab world’s leading literary journals.
Before completing my doctoral studies, I began the Imam Bukhari Visiting Fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. During a three-year stay in Oxford (following a 10-year residency in London), I conducted research seminars at the Oxford Centre, the Khalili Research Centre and several area universities and institutes, most notably as a keynote speaker at the Light and Knowledge symposium that took place in 2016 at Wolfson College, University of Oxford.
The eruption of the Syrian crisis before the end of my doctoral studies changed the course of my personal, academic and professional life. Touched both emotionally and intellectually, I dedicated my research to contested heritage, urban conflict, reconstruction and development in the Middle East, especially Syria. In order to be able to apply my previous theoretical and practical studies and professional experience, I widened my scholarship from the humanities, architecture, and design to social sciences, urbanism, and activism, which took years of postdoctoral research and social activism to include contemporary aspects of the Middle East and the Arab world. Ethics, in connection with aesthetics, became even more central to my research, teaching and activities.
Ultimately, I received two offers to work on this topic from MIT’s Department of Architecture and AUB’s Centre for Arts and Humanities. I was also offered a visiting lectureship at the Cambridge University Faculty of Architecture and History of Art. I wanted to gain local experience in Lebanon before extending it globally to the US; therefore, I deferred the MIT offer and taught simultaneously in Beirut and Cambridge, traveling weekly between them.
I experienced Syrian displacement and informality while living and working for two years in Lebanon. I designed and taught the first seminar course on Syria’s post-war reconstruction at AUB’s Centre for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies. My students for this course had Syrian, Lebanese, American and European backgrounds, and they came from different departments and centres, from the Department of Architecture and Design to the Centre for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies. Their diversity greatly enriched the seminar discussions on urban conflict and post-war reconstruction in Syria at both the local and global levels. Their research-oriented projects, which came at the end of workshops with international scholars, were invited for presentation at the University of Cambridge and were exhibited at Westminster University as part of the London Festival of Architecture.
In Cambridge, I developed and taught a core theoretical course in Islamic architecture. My students there were also very diverse, with backgrounds from all around the world, which again enriched the discussions of architecture in the Islamic world from the European and international perspectives. This simultaneous teaching to such diverse students in Beirut and Cambridge manifested the eastern and western sides of the world for me, so to speak, as a unified double eye panoramic view of one world.
During my fellowship at the Orient-Institut Beirut, an institute of the Max Weber Foundation–German Humanities Institutes Abroad, I published a précis of the 2018 international conference ‘Reconstructing Neighbourhoods of War’ in the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, drawing on lessons learned from places of conflict and reconciliation around the world, including Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and elsewhere.
Because of my experience establishing university programmes about Syria and my academic and professional experience teaching and working there and in Europe, the Arab Reform Initiative invited me to lead the design of an online course on Syria’s reconstruction and development, funded by the EU and Germany. Through international partnerships with global institutes and with a specialised team of international academics and practitioners, I am preparing for publication of a comprehensive book and teaching toolkit, including an interactive online platform and audio-visual materials, on socially just urban planning and development in Syria.
While in Lebanon, I also served on the steering committee for the project, ‘The Lay of the Land: A Social Mapping of Daily Practices in Informality amongst Syrian Displaced Communities in Lebanon,’ led by AUB’s Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship and funded by the Ford Foundation. With my colleagues and urban activists Hani Fakhani and Sawsan Abou Zainedin, I co-authored a comprehensive peer-reviewed research article on Syrian displacement and architectural informality in Lebanon, published in the Asfari Institute’s Syrian Displaced Challenges Series.
I left Lebanon for the US shortly before Lebanon’s October revolution in 2019. At the MIT’s Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture within the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art Program, I continued my research on Syria’s contested heritage and future reconstruction and development in connection with culture, politics, history and religion. I gave a public lecture and worked on publishing my research in a peer-review journal. Supported by a travel award from the Middle East Studies Association’s Global Academy, I received many invitations from American universities to give lectures and participate in conferences, workshops and seminars. My research and travel activities in North America were suspended as Covid-19 put the world on hold and gripped it in uncertainty. Nevertheless, the University of Sharjah offered me an assistant professorship, where I currently am.
Tell us about your new position at the University of Sharjah and what you are hoping to contribute to architecture education in the region. My new role at the University of Sharjah has placed me in a unique position to connect my interdisciplinary theoretical and historical research with practice-based modern architectural design teaching. My extracurricular activities at this university serve the wider community include collaboration with government agencies. I teach theoretical and design studio courses at the College of Engineering and the College of Fine Arts and Design. I also contribute to teaching at the Master of Science in Conservation Management of Cultural Heritage Program, offered by the Architectural Engineering Department in collaboration with the Arab states regional office of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM-Sharjah).
Collaborating with colleagues, our design studios participate in international competitions, addressing topics in parametric urbanism in European contexts. My new theoretical courses include hot topics in modern design and in Islamic and Emirati art and architecture. Under the guidance of the university, I am currently leading the design of a new master’s programme in these fields in the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic worlds, with a focus on the Arab Gulf, especially the UAE. The course’s plan currently includes interdisciplinary courses in contested urban heritage and post-war reconstruction and recovery in countries including Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya.
You have many passions and achievements—what connects them? The search for reality and the design of the absolute, from a purely theoretical vision to a detailed practical application, connect my passions. My cross-disciplinary research and teaching areas lie between architectural and urban theory, history, criticism, design and activism, on the one hand, and religious philosophy, cosmology and spiritual studies, on the other. My research interests include architecture and urbanism in the Islamic world and the modern Middle East, especially the concept and application of the sacred and the secular in the built environment of the Arab world in comparison with the Western world.
Within architectural humanities, urban social sciences and Islamic studies, I am particularly interested in design ethics, spatial theology and justice, urban conflict, contested cultural heritage, urban displacement and architectural informality, resilient and sustainable conservation and reconstruction, and urban development planning, especially in Syria. In European and Middle Eastern universities, I have designed and taught theoretical courses and design studios in Islamic architecture, traditional and vernacular architecture, Emirati art and design, social urbanism, Syria’s reconstruction and development, and contemporary and digital design.
You have held several academic and professional positions around the world—what do you hope to achieve in the classroom? As an assistant professor at the University of Sharjah, an active Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) Global Academy Scholar, and an experienced former MIT Aga Khan Postdoctoral Fellow and former fellow of several other organisations, I hope that my international institutional connections will enable me to actively contribute to bridging Arab, Islamic and Middle Eastern intelligentsia with global artistic, architectural, urban, intellectual, cultural, spiritual and social movements. At the scale of my home country, I hope to contribute to reconnecting the lost generation of Syrian intellectual and professional capital in the diaspora with Syrian society and universities, especially Damascus University. My theoretical classes aim to complement my design studios. I aim for research-informed teaching across these disciplines to improve the quality of teaching and the learning experience, focusing on what is fundamental to boost the future careers of my students.
The cornerstones of my teaching philosophy are based on building a dialogue with students to help them think critically and learn independently with confidence and enjoyment. I aim to stimulate them with critical questions, allowing them to experiment with methods, discover facts by themselves, and develop their own ideas creatively.
Aspects of my attempts to develop these creative ways of teaching appear in the architectural and philosophical short story I published in the Lebanese journal al-Adab. I presented an older version of this piece to audiences in Damascus University’s Faculty of Architecture and the International University for Science and Technology’s Department of Architecture. My presentations consisted of telling the architectural story with musical background on a theatrical stage built in collaboration with my students. The story is about a student of architecture turning into a wall and questioning his identity. During his metamorphosis, he recalls events of his childhood and youth. Using the theme of walls, the story brings together issues of spirituality, art, politics, gender and architecture. The main title, Dijrit minni al-Hitan (Walls Are Bored with Me), was derived from a lyric of a Fairuz song. Mixing creative writing with quotations from classical and Arabic music, the story questions concepts of traditional and modern architecture, including concepts of the contemporary architecture of Zaha Hadid in a fictional yet purposeful comparison with the prudent housewife and the student’s mother, using the trope of suspenseful storytelling à la Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights. The text and the performance aim to develop a new way of teaching architecture relevant to spirituality and cultural and critical theories. Students read the story in research courses and design studios at universities in the UK and the Middle East to which I was invited as a guest speaker. Publishing the story in a literaryjournal then brought it to a wider audience.
Creative ways of teaching and learning architecture have become even more important and urgent since the onset of Covid-19. Teaching online rather than in a classroom or a design studio poses both challenges and opportunities; this was the subject of a paper I presented during the webinar, ‘The Challenges of COVID-19 and their Effects on Architecture and Urbanism in the Arab World,’ organised by the Federation of Arab Engineers, the Organization of Arab Architects, and the Order of Engineers and Architects – Beirut. The Federation is also publishing my paper, ‘Design Studio between Sacredness and Elimination,’ which discusses comparative views of prominent educators and deans of important schools of architecture from the Arab and Western worlds. The paper examines topics such as equality, democracy and globalisation in connection with architectural education and learning, and analyses the positive and negative effects of virtual education from the perspective of those who exaggerate as well as those who underestimate the importance of studio culture. I aim to demonstrate that while teaching is science and art, teaching architecture is architecture.
You are active in discourse revolving around Syria’s reconstruction—what do you find to be the biggest priorities regarding the country’s post-war development? How does your research provide support? The biggest priorities regarding Syria’s post-war development are education and learning, both theoretical and practical. Reconstruction without quality education and effective training is destruction. While formal education at school and university is essential, it is not enough given the complications of post-war reconstruction and development. Formal education in Syria has witnessed an unprecedented disruption because of the war, which has also led to increasing informality in the built environment. In informal architecture and society, informal education flourishes with learning outside a curriculum in a regular classroom or traditional studio of architectural design. My research-informed teaching and teaching-oriented research attempts to provide support formally and informally within quality-education-and-effective-training development.
Examples include my formal seminar course on Syria’s reconstruction at AUB, which provided a bridge to the more comprehensive, collaborative, informal, educational and training online course for the Arab Reform Initiative, yet to be implemented fully. Like my teaching that tends to develop collaboratively and comprehensively, my research grows in the same way to address similar issues of informality that results from displacement. My article Syrian (In)formal Displacement in Lebanon: Displacement as Urbanism, Informality as Architecture is part of ongoing research at AUB’s Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. Contextual knowledge based on case studies and interviews conducted by younger researchers was incorporated into the textual analysis of well-established scholars, making the research project a process of collaborative and comprehensive learning. Therefore, my role on the project’s steering committee was meaningful at this institute. Likewise, my review of the conference Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War at the Orient-Institut Beirut for the International Journal of Islamic Architecture is immersive, comprehensive and collaborative in that it addresses the conference’s research papers as well as the research agenda of the institute regarding questions of connectivity and relations between people, people and what they produce, people and the environment, and people and the divine.
You have thoroughly researched Islamic architecture—what about this topic interests you most, and how do you find it relates or can be applied to today’s development in the Middle East and other Muslim societies? What interests me most about ‘Islamic architecture’, or what can be described as ‘the architecture associated or connected (directly or indirectly) with Islam,’ is that it is both timeless and timely.
As for the timeless aspects, I am interested in the immaterial, intellectual aspects of traditional Islamic architecture, such as the premodern Islamic concept of space in comparison with that of ancient Greece as well as in modern discourse. This was one of the main research areas of my doctoral studies at the University of London and of my postdoctoral research at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Examining unpublished premodern manuscripts, I focused specifically on the conceptual structures of the body, space, and light in philosophical and mystical schools of thought and practice about human reality and its bodily and spiritual manifestations in the mundane world as demonstrated by both early and late premodern masters including Ibn ‘Arabi, al-Suhrawardi, and al-Nabulusi of Damascus. Along these lines but in contexts that transcend architecture, spirituality versus rationality was the subject of a key lecture that I gave at Oxford. A recording of this lecture, entitled ‘The Structure of Divine Light and Human Knowledge,’ is published on the internet and has attracted a large audience and debate.
As for the timely aspects, two major topics interest me. The first is premodern and modern Islamic architecture and urbanism as currently perceived in the Western world. This constituted the heart of my teaching at the University of Cambridge to British and international students who knew little about Islamic civilisation and culture and who were able to develop a critical analysis of its architecture. The second includes the contested aspects of heritage architecture in connection with urban conflict, reconciliation and recovery, the lessons that can be learned from the traditional city, the dramatic social changes associated with transition into postcolonial urbanism, and modern architecture in the hybrid world of religion and secularism in the Middle East, especially Syria. This was the core of my teaching at AUB and my research at the Orient-Institut Beirut and the MIT Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture. At the Orient-Institut Beirut, my research fit with the annual topic of ‘Neighborliness: Neighborhood Relations.’ The Aga Khan Program at MIT that I completed, entitled ‘Research in Islamic Architecture, Urbanism, and Conservation: Destruction and Reconstruction in the Middle East and Beyond,’ focused on the issues of heritage conservation, destruction and reconstruction, especially but not exclusively in the Middle East. In collaboration with other fellows, our research helped to identify, grow and extend research in these fields. Our research inquired about, and aimed to demonstrate, how the geographic, cultural, environmental, ethical technological, and comparative aspects of architecture and urban planning apply to the present issues of conservation and revitalisation.
‘Islamic architecture,’ as I understand, research and teach it, is not a static field of study of religious architecture of the past in a particular geography, but is a dynamic and practical sphere of intersections between research and teaching in the present and for the future. While I see architecture as a multidisciplinary field and a field within larger transdisciplinary fields of science and art, I believe that Islamic architecture, in its widest sense, helps to achieve a timely and needed cross-disciplinarity for a better understanding of the world and an immersive experience in it. In this sense, Islamic architecture is very modern when it is studied and taught beyond dogma and a preset agenda. It operates vis-à-vis the modern, open-minded streams of architecture that define themselves against other modern streams that see architecture merely as a formal study of starchitects, a technical craft, or a response to the neoliberal market.
You have multiple research, teaching, and design projects currently being prepared for further implementation and publication. Tell us more about them and how they impact the wider community. I am currently working on publishing a series of peer-reviewed research articles and two volumes based on previous long-term research. Many of my publications, such as those in the Asfari Institute’s series, Al-Adab, and the Mawlana Rumi Review are introductions to larger works that I am developing towards publication. I am also publishing the outcome of socially informed research projects and futuristic perspectives in non-academic venues, such as Al-Ittihad, one of the oldest Arabic newspapers issued in the United Arab Emirates.
I am also participating in extracurricular activities, including giving a lecture at the International Winter School for Postgraduate Students 2021, organised by the Sharjah International Foundation for the History of Arab and Muslim Sciences (SIFHAMS) at the University of Sharjah in collaboration with King Abdulaziz University and the University of Cologne.
Further, I am working on implementing my online, educational, team project on socially just urban planning in Syria in collaboration with institutes and foundations specialised in distance learning and creative projects. My forthcoming projects also include an encyclopedic dictionary of architecture. As a member of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, I serve as an international expert and consultant to the committee establishing the Syrian National Committee.
Beyond my own publications and teaching, I support and contribute to both new and well-established academic and educational initiatives in the Arab region, such as the Iraqi Journal of Architecture and Planning, for which I serve as a consultant editor and vice president of the Editorial Advisory Board. The Syrian Researchers have published some of my opinion on heritage, art and architecture. I am also participating in round tables, juries, conferences and activities organised by notable universities and institute in the world.
Constant inspiration for my work is innovative bridging of the theory-practice gap between architectural humanities, urban social sciences, ethics, activism, and technology. The impact is best achieved through shared experience, and thus my audiences vary according to the focus of my publications and talks; however, the majority of my publications speak to and influence those who, like myself, consider themselves students of life and citizens of the world.