Interview: IWlab on addressing architectural practice in Syria

A finalist for Tamayouz’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, Syrian multidisciplinary practice IWlab speaks to Round City about its efforts to improve the built environment of its home country.

Shortlisted for Tamayouz’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, also known as the Middle Eastern Architectural Personality of the Year Prize, IWlab started in 2009 as a response to the conditions of architectural practice in Syria. According to the lab’s founders, Iyas Shahin and Wesam Al Asali, graduated architects in Syria are usually transformed into “trackers of applications of building permissions, roaming between municipal offices”. Architecture, as a practice within its socio-economic context, was not an option. In response, the founders composed IWlab as a platform for cultural programmes with art, urban and heritage studies to promote a model of architectural practice that proactively negotiates and participates in the city of Damascus.

Since its establishment in 2009, the lab has had two phases: the first was between 2010 and 2012, when the lab completed two urban installations, two heritage and architecture education programmes for children, and research on Sarouja, a threatened historical area in Damascus. The second phase is marked by the decision to run the lab between two countries, first Syria and Denmark and then Syria and the UK. Since 2012, all of the lab’s projects are coordinated, planned and prepared online. Today, IWlab advocates localised practice instead of thematic practice, and its activities are centred around and inside Damascus, as well as online. Since 2017, the lab has had more than 300 students enrolled in workshops in Syria (documentation, mapping, and modelling), published three books about these workshops, and led construction training programmes in Jordan and Spain.

Here, Round City speaks with Al Asali about the lab and its impact on the field of architecture, as well as its upcoming projects.

Tell us about starting IWlab.
IWlab started as a protest against the fossilised definition of architectural practice in Syria. Graduates of architecture spend their careers roaming municipal bureaucracies in pursuit of building permissions. Architecture as a practice within its socio-economic context was not seen as part of the practice. I decided with my friend Iyas Shahin to start IW (Iyas and Wesam) Lab. The lab combines cultural programmes with art, urban and heritage studies to promote a model of architectural practice that proactively negotiates and participates in the city, especially in tackling questions about how to represent the city in architectural education and practice and who is mandated to do so.

The lab is an extension of the partnership between its founders that began in the early stages of university studies. It took its final form after our graduation as an architectural office in 2009.

What really brought us together was our interest in Damascus, with all its ambiguities and contradictions, where the built environment is an unfolding story that melds the past with the present and the future. Within this set, we sought to carve out a space for critical thinking—hitherto marginal and antagonised because it went against the grain of formal and technical expertise and sought to craft a societal urban practice. That space was our aim, for which we used tools from art and education to open discussions about historical and contemporary Damascus.

Our work started along with and at the service of our closest neighbours. IWlab’s office was at the entrance to Sarouja, a historical extra muros neighbourhood threatened with demolition for urban development. Our first project was on Sarouja and its historical and current significance to Damascus. This interest in the history of the city also expanded to design educational programs for children and adolescents implemented in schools and cultural centres. With these activities, our laboratory began to be presented as an educational and artistic observatory of urbanism and architecture in Syria in general and in Damascus in particular. While such an observatory was important in the beginning of our project in 2009, it is more necessary now given the crisis in Syria and its conjunction with the enforced and rapid changes witnessed by its urban, environmental and societal violence. These changes had a significant impact on our architectural approaches and tools to address issues such as displacement, urban oppression and post-war reconstruction policies.

How has the lab impacted the architectural practice in Syria so far?
We can trace the origins of our laboratory back to two interconnected impact routes. The first is related to education and architectural practice, and the second is research-oriented, focusing on problems and phenomena in the city as case studies.

In the vein of education and practice, we pushed our lab to be a platform and free space for students and young architects to rethink architecture and the city. Through workshops, talks and research, IWlab is becoming a collective space for architectural discussions outside the traditional educational system. Since 2010, the laboratory has worked with over 200 students inside and outside Syria producing several exhibitions in Syria, Denmark and Britain.

In terms of research, our lab focuses on bottom-up mechanisms for producing and interacting with the city. The laboratory highlights marginal narratives of urbanisation in Damascus, especially those related to self-planned and self-built areas labelled as ‘informal’. We use visual and textual communication tools to explain the constructional, structural and architectural make-up of these areas. This helps communicate them in a clear and accessible manner to architects and architecture students on one hand, and to the general public on the other. In demystifying informal construction, IWlab proposes counter-code as a method to resist and negotiate with the centralised planning systems. It also serves as a powerful tool in advocating for the recognition of other situated and informal mechanisms that swell outside of formalised systems. We also led a number of workshops that mixed art elements, from theatre to performance, with architectural expression tools, such as cartography and 3D drawing.

How does your work proactively negotiate and participate in Damascus?
The architecture profession offers expressive tools capable of visually explaining the complexities of the city, allowing the specialised and general public to understand and interact with them. In our work, we focus on three themes.

The first is spatial. It relates to the impact of architectural and urban practices on the environmental and spatial justice of the city. We conduct research, reports and workshops related to housing policies before and after the crisis. To the extent possible, we avoid framing housing in the easy duality of informal and formal and instead view it as a process resulting from the nature and limitations of environmental and economic resources.

‘Transitional Housing’, a collaborative workshop on temporary housing (2015)

The second is methodological. It is related to studies of heritage and constructional crafts, in which we assume that studying and re-considering crafts in the production of the built environment can be an approach to achieving justice, development and well-being in city production. In one example, we focused on the craft of weaving reeds on the banks of Wadi Barada and the role of this craft in securing building materials for the self-built areas adjacent to the valley.

The third theme is pedagogical. It is related to architectural education. Participation and interaction with students of architecture and recent architects played a fundamental role in the work of the laboratory in its activities in and outside Damascus.

How have you kept the lab’s focus as you’ve grown? Or would you say that your focus has changed over time?
The crisis in Syria constituted a crucial turning point in IWlab’s course of action, given the specificity of working inside Syria and its associated challenges, namely the absence of safety in fieldwork and the isolation from global academia due to sanctions and inaccessibility. Parallelly, in its historical and contemporary manifestations, Damascus is an inspiring, layered and rich source. Recently, and in addition to the city’s temporal manifestation, its geographic horizon has been expanded as its displaced inhabitants carried the city in their memory. 

Those challenges necessitated the adoption of flexible methodologies to reduce fieldwork risks on the one hand, and to use these methodologies as an ‘excuse’ and an opportunity for collective work in which students can participate on the other hand. For example, we worked on developing videos as a methodology of urban studies. We also ran photography workshops as a method of data collections and impact projects at the same time. 

On a personal level, the relocation of one of the founders of the laboratory to Denmark and then to the United Kingdom had an impact on how the projects were managed. Instead of permanently closing the lab, we decided to take advantage of our geographical locations to mend the rift between projects and actors inside and outside of Syria, a rift that has come to define the Syrian cultural field. This decision had inevitable repercussions on the nature of the projects, whether individual or organisational. This has meant that projects no longer enjoy coherence and uniformity, something we welcomed and integrated into our expansive definition of architectural practice. Lastly, and since 2012, all our work was carried out remotely and online, as the founders were not able to meet in person. We consider that an accomplishment and a challenge, which we have overcome with continuous coordination and sustained trust.

Tell us about some of the lab’s projects.
The laboratory projects can be described as a series of successive experiments, which, since founding the laboratory in 2010, have used architecture and art as a tool for community dialogue. Such an approach was evident through the project ‘Moment’, an urban installation in Sarouja. In defence of the historical district threatened with demolition, we considered Sarouja a large piece of art and introduced subtle installation scoped to highlight its details.

Our work extended to include education for children through two projects. The first is the ‘Ma’abar’, an interactive education curriculum on the urban heritage of Damascus. The second is ‘This My City’, a participatory exchange between children in Syria and their peers in Finland. Both projects involved around 50 children each in Syria and abroad.

‘Ma’abar’, an education programme for children (2011)

In 2014, we worked on our project ‘Syria pre-pro-post Change’ with participants from Damascus and Copenhagen. Held between Damascus University and the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy, the project pushed the discussion toward challenging, somewhat uncomfortable, zones that addressed the needs and consequences of “change” in Syria at different levels. This project was followed by two further projects: ‘City Incarnation’ and ‘The Cognitive Mapping of Damascus’. Both had the participation of more than 60 architectural students.

Within this trajectory, the most comprehensive project in IWlab was ‘Architecture as a Craft? Building and Environmental Justice’. The project explored how builders construct informal areas in Damascus, as well as the history of informal construction and its relationship to the Guild of Builders in the late Ottoman period. The project produced four publications and a film. However, the most significant output of this project was an interactive online platform called ‘Informal Observatory’. The observatory shows how design tools can help visualise and thus understand informality through the lens of scarcity, illustrating the richness of the locally-driven design solutions in tackling temporal or material limitations.

Finally, our research on the built environment in the context of the Syrian war extended our practice as architects; we were part of the design and build of two schools for refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. The last design projects were a play space in the Jusoor school for refugee children in the Bekaa Valley. In partnership with Les Architectes Workshop, we worked to develop unbuilding and demolition, which is cheaper than building, as a determinant of space. We sliced and cut the existing concrete slab floor of the playground leaving room for earth to enter the space.

Currently, we have started on a new project with Arab Urbanism called ‘Tafseela’, which we hope extends our work regionally and in exchange with similar initiatives working in and on the Middle East.

What have you achieved in your workshops? What are the general outcomes of them?
In the short term, the workshops have had a direct impact by enriching architectural education and providing students with knowledge and fieldwork resources. In the long term, we work so that our laboratory will turn into a vast network of students and architects, and we hope that these workshops will produce a collective movement of Syrian students inside and outside of Syria working towards a critical understanding of an important stage in the life of the city: post-war reconstruction.

Our workshops resulted in publications and further initiatives. Syria Change (2013) and City Incarnation (2016) were both produced with reflections on the participants’ work. The Syria Change workshop also led to establishing the Urbegony Educational Initiative, which brings together Syrian students of different school years through tutoring programmes. All workshops led to architectural and art exhibitions with architects and planners, which academics are invited to attend and reflect on. It is worth also mentioning that these workshops are essential to the research at IWlab. The Informality workshops played a crucial role in collecting data. The students’ work was an integral component of the research that led to forming the ‘Informal Observatory’, where all students’ work was made open-source and became available to researchers and students further investigating the theme.

What do you have planned moving forward?
We are constantly working on two themes. The first is finding more ways to explore the city. The second is reaching out to partners and collaborators. We have set the following targets for IWlab:

  • Moving from the safe zones of working within the close circle of IWlab to pursuing dialogues with similar initiatives at a regional scale.
  • Creating innovative ways of collaborations, using art as a medium for communication and interaction.
  • Finding new grassroots methods to represent people’s everyday interaction with the built environment in the city with a focus on environmental design.

Currently, the laboratory is furthering its open-source collaborative work in the ‘Architectural Theater’ project, where we seek theatre as an open space to think, create and express the city, specifically in cases of isolation due to the pandemic and economic inflation. On a research level, we plan to further investigate our work for the ‘Architecture as a Craft’ project in construction work.

Finally, we have embarked on an exciting initiative with Arab Urbanism. The project, called ‘Tafseela’ (detail) calls for contributions from architects, planners, geographers and archaeologists, among many other disciplines to submit and explain one detail from their work or research on the built environment. Tafseela is available on Arab Urbanism’s website.