Interview: Reparametrize Studio on using AI for Syria’s post-war reconstruction
Meet the international architecture and research platform applying 3D scanning for the post-war smart city redevelopment of Damascus.
Shortlisted for Tamayouz Excellence Award’s Mohamed Makiya Prize 2020, Reparametrize Studio is a network of architects, researchers, experts and partners based between Damascus, Beirut, China and Vienna who strive to achieve well-articulated and unbiased research that promotes a sustainable post-war smart-city redevelopment plan for Damascus, Syria.
Founded in 2016 by Mohamad Ziwar Al Nouri and Bilal Baghdadi, the studio’s data is collected from and shared among local inhabitants and has led to projects such as ‘Re-Coding Post-War Syria’, a think-tank within the studio that works towards a transparent image of innovating a new methodology to regenerate the post-war smart-city. A research and data platform, Re-Coding Post-War Syria focuses on innovation, collecting comprehensive infrastructural and socioeconomic analytic data, which is used to map the future of Damascus. The aim is to present a solution that does not rely on simply imitating what Damascus was like before the war, nor using the Civil War as grounds to exploit the inhabitants of the city for urban development schemes. Rather, the platform aims to enhance interdisciplinary advanced thinking and research to train the new generation of architects, designers and urbanists involved in the future of Damascus.
In addition to its research platform, which has published data in international magazines and websites, as well as hosted an exhibition, the studio also adopts advanced technologies in its design work, and has designed projects across various sectors including commercial, education, hotel, religious, residential and more.
Here, the studio speaks about its different layers of operation and how its project ‘Re-Coding Post-War Syria’ gained international attention.
Tell us about starting Reparametrize Studio. Reparametrize Studio (RPZ Studio) is a global company with establishments in four countries: Syria, Lebanon, Austria and China. Our global vision is to introduce state of the art technologies in the architectural discipline. The diverse backgrounds and nationalities of our group define the title of our framework and identity. We try to achieve a regeneration of the thought process to establish a new vision, new language and new concepts.
RPZ Studio started with the strong vision of MHD Ziwar Al Nouri, an architect from Damascus. He is the founder of Reparametrize, and was previously a member of Studio Zaha Hadid Vienna. Ziwar holds two masters’ degrees and had been synthesising his master’s thesis titled, Damascus Re-Coding, under the mentorship of Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima. This later served as the foundation for his PhD, during which he lectured as the main tutor of both studios. Ziwar is a computational designer with expertise in parametric design. He contributes greatly to a rich international environment of computational design and exchange of knowledge, and he visualised the company with the aim of helping the Syrian case, as well as other cities facing similar challenges.
Ziwar later met Bilal Baghdadi, an architect from Lebanon. Bilal is the co-founder of Reparametrize, who maintains his own visions; he studied architecture at the International University of Science and Technology and obtained his bachelor’s in architecture in 2011.
Prior to RPZ studio, Bilal worked in various architecture firms for several years. He is a computational designer with expertise in parametric design with an interest in innovation, materials and new building techniques. Over the past two years, he has developed an international reputation and a significant diverse portfolio of projects both locally and abroad. His thesis Beirut Revival was on the Post-War Lebanese case, and presented the cultural and local identity of the city of Beirut by proposing a museum with a new vision of merging modernity, culture and the history of Beirut.
In 2016, both architects, with their mutual vision and international partners, initiated RPZ Studio – a network of young architects, researchers and experts from different parts of the world connected through universities in Europe where they pursued their higher degrees in design and architecture under the mentorships of Zaha Hadid, Patrick Schumacher and Kazuyo Sejima. Each member put forward views based on the experiences of the countries to which they belong. The unique style of project management contributes to RPZ Studio’s recognised brand as a firm that is able to deliver high-quality products that make a difference. The Syrian office was created with the vision to participate in the rebuilding of Syria and the whole of the Middle East region.
What does ‘reparametrize’ mean? Reparametrize refers to the attitude and core value of the practice. Our research aim is not to just accept the state of art design now – we practice the design but reorganise and reinvent the value judgment, which reconstructs the design process in order to respond to more complex questions in realistic conditions. It reunites the innovative mind and practical hand to work in order to make new contributions to the profession.
The word reparametrize also encompasses our vision to re-generate post-disaster cities into the most advanced urban environments on earth. The important fact here is that the word does not mean rebuild or redevelop. We are not simply bringing lifeless structure and shelters back to life. Being able to detect and analyse various parameters, the physical (i.e., physical structures, their conditions and operational capacity, etc), as well as the emotional (i.e., human behaviour and expectations, change in needs, etc) means we are able to regenerate the city in a smarter way, not only through clever infrastructure, but also through the re-establishment of human interaction.
What is the mission of the studio, and what does it hope to achieve? RPZ Studio’s work spans design, research, consultancy, publication and project realisation. The studio works as an equal, flat, decentralised system with interdisciplinary cooperation and a procedural and rigorous research system. It is a strong network of architects, researchers, experts and partners. Together, the multiple objectives of design could take care of and make for a new alternative to the future.
RPZ Studio also adopts advanced technologies in its design work, and has designed projects by reflecting the methodologies of the studio in various sectors, including commercial, education, hotel, religious, residential, product and furniture design.
RPZ Studio also launched Reparametrize Foundation and Reparametrize Design, which are conceived as mirror images of Reparametrize Studio: Reparametrize Foundation (RPF) is a non-profit organisation promoting interdisciplinary thinking and research to help new generations build their future, and work towards broader issues around culture and identity. It also pushes boundaries to coexist in the new technological era based on modern scientific principles. Reparametrize Design (RPD) presents a new flexible model, enriching the methodology of design for innovating a variety of products.
Reparametrize is a leading firm in AI, which we use to simulate post-war smart city redevelopment. We are working to pioneer a new methodology to regenerate the future of post-war smart city and we are one of the first companies to apply 3D scanning and socioeconomic data by using AI driven analytics methodology for the post-war smart city redevelopment of Damascus.
We are working to promote this strategy by creating an open platform of advanced data called ‘Re-coding’ to help the other cities in their redevelopment plans, which does not rely on complete demolition but incorporates the existing (still useful) urban fabric using advanced AI technology. The aim is to accurately analyse large social and structural data volumes and upgrade the existing infrastructure into a smart grid in a very short period of time with limited resources. Where multiple systems (tools, apps, platforms, social media, etc) can communicate automatically and simultaneously through AI.
We aim to achieve well-articulated and non-biased research that works in parallel with our methodologies in the studio, and to share the data. The methodologies by which we research and the strategies we develop will be disclosed as open-source data in order to help professionals, companies and governments be inspired and envision meaningful and realistic solutions for post-war Syria. We believe our data and strategies as well as our research methodologies can help not only Syria, but also other similar regions in different parts of the world.
Our global vision is to see the world as one unit sharing all knowledge and progressing equally among all social groups, religions, nationalities and ethnicities. We are ready to spread our optimism to our people, as we are pushing for better quality of life. A lot of work lays ahead of us, but we always say: “A simple unit is the perfect unit.”
Tell us about some of your projects. Detecting and analysing various parameters, and using AI technology based on current buildings status analysis, with 3D scanning combined with state-of-the-art rapid FEM structural analysis, allows us to create a catalogue of the possibilities of BIM building destruction models. We can use this catalogue to apply interventions to regenerate the urban fabric and collect data related to the affected city on a high documentation level. This helps us to envision a new ecosystem, and upgrade the divested infrastructure using smart grids to build the post disaster cities.
Highlighting the history and heritage of the ancient city of Damascus, and closely studying statistics related to demography and urban infrastructure, and the change of the socioeconomic landscape of the city, enables us to better envision the lifestyle of inhabitants after the war.
Our research project ‘Re-Coding Post-War Syria’, courtesy of our non-profit firm RPF, contributed to the building of the country’s future by providing new generations with expanded architectural production towards broader issues around culture, identity and organisation. It also pushed boundaries around coexistence within the new technological era based on modern scientific principles. We offered younger generations a series of professional and technical workshops under the platform ‘Re-Coding’, which linked Syrian and international students through collaborations among different universities and firms in the Middle East, Europe and China.
We have organised and co-hosted multiple international conferences, competitions and exhibitions in Europe, the Middle East and China under ‘Re-Coding Post-War Syria’, and our activities have been recognised in the Middle East and beyond. In our exhibitions, we showcased two years’ worth of research and development over the Post-War Smart City redevelopment of Damascus through a stunning 360-degree projection mapping focusing on analysing the damaged fabric and developing future sustainable co-living of post-war cities. The approach was to reactivate the past and reimagine the future through the eyes of those who witnessed the war, and to learn about the evolution of the city through illustrations.
In parallel, RPZ Studio’s involvement in several major masterplanning endeavours is the result of methodical expertise in evaluating and devising at both the macro and the micro levels of smart post-war city development. Our extensive planning services respond to anthropological needs, available resources, municipal and metropolitan limitations, as well as economic viability and feasibility. Due to what we witnessed in war, our urban approach is sensitive to the human condition and the experience of the natural environment. This approach allows the critical appraisal of the human scale and human needs, based on a collective concern for three-dimensional spaces, as well as public areas between buildings.
In addition, we strive to be leading experts in the application of computational design techniques in architecture to achieve intelligent, smart, creative and sustainable solutions for cities.
We have several projects that were nominated in multiple international architectural competitions, including ‘Re-coding Smart Oasis’, ‘Re-Coding Smart Building’, and ‘Zamalka into the Future’. Readers can learn more about our projects on our website.
Why did you find it necessary to launch the research and data platform ‘Re-Coding Post-War Syria’? How does the work of the research platform differ from your studio’s other activities? Hope, challenge, adaptability – these three words were the main inspiration for RPZ Studio in 2017 to establish RPF. RPF works to push boundaries and develop a future production line through global expertise and local young researchers to encourage inhabitants to return and rebuild their society, economy and homes.
There is a big difference between ‘rebuild’, ‘redevelop’, and ‘regenerate’. We don’t want to just build the city back to its previous condition. We want to use this disaster as an opportunity to create better quality of life for future inhabitants by innovating a new methodology to regenerate the post-war smart city, and involving the local communities in the rebuilding process.
This can be achieved by bridging the gap between local authorities, architects, planners, researchers, builders, and – most importantly – the local community and refugees. The aim is to enhance interdisciplinary advanced thinking and research to train the new generations of architects, designers and urbanists to anticipate the future and challenge traditional ideas in design and architecture, thus enabling them to better prepare strategies for post-crisis reconstruction.
By presenting data accumulated through new technologies and methodologies, we help illustrate that a better future is possible.
‘Re-Coding Post-War Syria’ gained a lot of attention in international media – why do you think this project has been so effective? The Syrian civil war is without a doubt the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. The cost of war cannot be quantified and the price Syria now has to pay far exceeds what it can afford. Even if we assume that the conflict is solved, daily life is impaired. For us, the challenge is to create a strategy to revive the destroyed neighbourhoods and encourage inhabitants to return. We hope to build a place that respects the past, responds to the present and incorporates the possibility of a bright future for Syria.
Therefore, we invite the whole world to participate in regenerating the new post-war smart city through thought, design and research. As we mentioned before, our methodology is to involve the local communities in the rebuilding process, to ensure that all members of society are accounted for in the new community, as effective members. This is why we target all sectors of society, including different generations.
What are your main concerns regarding Syria’s reconstruction? Our main methodology is to be on the ground, walking around each postwar district with local inhabitants to understand the needs of the site, its characteristics, social structure, infrastructure and urban fabric. The information gathered by these tours serves as an important database upon which we begin our proposals. During the last five years, we have encountered a lot of challenges and obstacles, and our concerns can be summarised as the following: effectiveness of reconstruction in relation to phase (short-term responses to recovery needs, like housing, that do not always translate into successful long-term development strategies); community expectations; the lost identity of the city and its traditional architecture; the huge psychological impact of the war and its effects, such as violence, displacement and severed family ties, on the children of Syria; lack of institutions; lack of resources and needs; and lost and forgotten heritage, such as the ancient site of Palmyra, the ancient city of Bosra and many others.
How are you addressing these concerns? Our vision is to make ‘post-war smart city development’ a global term, and provide a more transparent image of innovating a new methodology to regenerate the post-war smart city by unifying minds, working hands and the local community with AI advanced technologies. These renowned ways will hopefully encourage refugees to return, and by involving the local communities in the rebuilding process, we will form an open platform of data that merges with local culture and society. We encourage community participation to achieve a humanitarian approach, and this is the core of the new post-war smart city that takes into consideration all points of view, including the children’s. The data we gather about their expectations is the basis of our future development.
We are also trying to challenge traditional ideas in design and architecture and push their boundaries to coexist in the new technological era based on modern scientific principles. At the same time, we also envision our future buildings with the spirit of heritage, and using available local resources and recycled materials as essential means for current views of post-war reconstruction.
We aim to challenge and encourage new generations from different backgrounds worldwide and encourage experts and architects to generate renewed ideas and exchange experiences, sharing their thoughts for the next phase of post-war redevelopment. We’re doing this by offering a series of local and international workshops called ‘Re-Coding’, as an essential part of our foundation’s framework, and established international architectural competitions.
What projects are you working on now? We are working to expand our platform to the Middle East with a focus on countries suffering from war and ravaged by the global pandemic, such as Lebanon and Iraq. This will be done through new cooperation and joint re-coding research revolving around post-war effects in both countries.
We are also trying to raise awareness and attract foreign attention to our cause. As we were invited to showcase our Re-Coding project at the Design for Peace Exhibition in New York, we have also been invited to help with the smart city redevelopment of other places around the world such as the city of Leipzig, Germany.
In addition, we are working to exploit the possibilities of generating new post-war building materials. Facing the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis, we hope to present a unique online experience interconnecting our network of faculty, industry collaborators and laboratories to develop new recyclable materials from war waste. We also hope to redirect our international academic cooperation with a new joint summer school titled ‘Echo of Children’ over the post-war smart city redevelopment of Damascus. This will be an online educational summer course facilitated between RPZ Studio and HCU HafenCity Universität in Hamburg.
We also have a new project titled ‘Damascus Dialogues’, held in partnership with the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and Damascus University. It is an online research project that aims to give a more transparent image of the destructed areas, urban conditions and social structures of Damascus, revealing adaptive prototypes fitted to the current situation and based on self-sufficiency.
Our studio also adopts advanced technologies in its current design work, and we are working on projects across various sectors including commercial, residential, religious spaces, public plazas, and product and furniture design, which take our material research into consideration. This is done through our specialised firm Reparametrize Design, a contemporary design practice that aims to explore and innovate in a variety of disciplines.