Israeli Architecture Student Sets Her Sights on Rebuilding Aleppo, Her Grandfather’s Hometown

'The proposal defines the channels of infrastructure for the continued rebuilding of the city, while also providing for the inhabitants’ welfare during and after the rebuilding process'

An illustration by Chen Shimoni. 'I’m proposing to 50 percent of the city’s residents an internal move that embraces the existing cultural patterns in the local society'
WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education

Since she was a little girl, Chen Shimoni has heard the stories of her grandfather Gamliel Keisar (Jamil Qasar), who grew up in the city of Aleppo in Syria and made aliyah to Israel when he was 14. Now, as an architecture student at the NB Haifa School of Design, she decided to do her final project on the city – after she heard a lecture by architect Aline Khoury on the Palestinian village of Suhmata in the upper Galilee, which was abandoned during the War of Independence in 1948.

“When she spoke about her grandfather I thought about my grandfather, only from the other side, on the uprooting of the Jews of Aleppo,” said Shimoni. “Through the architectural work I learned about the city and heard his stories once again while working on the project. The words turned into pictures that reflected a different reality.” 

A significant portion of Aleppo’s Old City, which was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was destroyed in the Syrian civil war. Shimoni used Facebook to try to contact architecture students who live in Aleppo and sent emails to architecture firms there, but she got no response. “Given that nearly two million people in the city were uprooted, I can guess that some of those accounts aren’t active.

From Shimoni's proposal. 'according to the information I collected, the cost of rebuilding the city is estimated in the billions of dollars'
WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education

I finagled my way into closed Facebook groups of Aleppo residents, where they share memories of their traditions and way of life before the war. I wrote to the UN and its UN-Habitat organization for building housing and shelter. A guy replied who said he had just left Aleppo for Damascus, after depositing the city profile with the authorities.

Through him, I was able to collect data on the magnitude of the disaster and the inconceivable amount of destruction. I contacted the German architecture firm that drew up the city’s master plan in 2009, which wasn’t able to be completed, and I located all the information about the city before the war. I also wrote to architects and city planners who took part in a conference in Holland about proposals to rebuild Aleppo.”

After gathering the information, Shimoni divided the map of the city into a criss-crossing network. She mapped each area, compared the situation in that part of the city prior to 2010 and currently, and marked all the gaps that were created. “The approach I’m proposing does not say how the city should be rebuilt and has no pretensions of deciding for the inhabitants how they should live. What it does contain is a proposal for spatial infrastructure for rehabilitation of the city.”

Workers remove rubble from a damaged shop in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, on July 27, 2019.
Hassan Ammar,AP

Her final project, conducted under the guidance of architect Irit Tsaraf-Netanyahu, covers numerous cities that have experienced disasters – from cities that were destroyed due to war, as in Germany, to those damaged in natural disasters in places like Thailand and the Philippines.

“You can reconstruct the city the way it was built before the war as they did in Hiroshima, or you can rebuild the city with a more contemporary approach as they did in Damascus. You can also redesign the space with historic characteristics that aren’t necessarily connected to the history of that place, as they did in Skopje,” she notes.

In all three of these cities, the planning was under the responsibility of the international community and private companies. She says the new planning methods created a city cut off from its past, lacking historical symbols and a local identity, while direct reconstruction doesn’t always match the original and can be perceived as kitschy.

Her proposal calls for Aleppo’s Old City to be reconstructed and restored to its original form.

An image from Chen Shimoni's project. One thing she proposes is building a factory for making construction materials out of the rubble of the houses.
WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education

“The residential areas that were under the rebels’ control were the hardest hit in the war,” she says. “Forty percent of the city’s territory was built illegally. The administration has no intention of granting legitimacy to a continuation of these settlements and they are under a military regime.

“I’m proposing to 50 percent of the city’s residents an internal move that embraces the existing cultural patterns in the local society, providing tools and opportunities for empowering self-building as a solution to the city’s rehabilitation. The proposal defines the channels of infrastructure for the continued rebuilding of the city, while also providing for the inhabitants’ welfare during and after the rebuilding process.”

One thing she proposes is building a factory for making construction materials out of the rubble of the houses, and rehabilitating the public spaces in the neighborhoods using irrigation systems for landscape development. She also has proposals for places that would provide urgent medical services, physiotherapy and treatment for the traumatized, as well as dining halls, kindergartens, schools, houses of worship and solar energy systems.

'The project has economic values, but also a fundamental architectural value to create a complex, multilayered city similar to how it looked before.'
WIZO Haifa Academy of Design and Education

As for the economic aspects of such a project, she says, “according to the information I collected, the cost of rebuilding the city is estimated in the billions of dollars. As part of the project, I propose opening a manufacturing plant that makes use of the rubble that is currently piled up and converts it into materials for rebuilding.

“There’s a plant in Herzliya that makes new building materials out of demolished buildings, and it’s possible to attain 100-percent recycling with this. The project has economic values, but also a fundamental architectural value to create a complex, multilayered city similar to how it looked before. The rebuilding must be gradual, similar to what has been happening in Berlin for decades. That is how you get a city that is not generic, one in which it is possible to balance the need to house masses of people whose homes were destroyed with the need to have a city that will continue to survive for thousands of years.”