Terrain Vague; Neighboring

by Sara Adam


Two women in all black, holding white papers and sitting with their backs to a wall that has a large, irregular hole in it.
Through the hole, we can see another room, empty and decaying, and through a further opening we glimpse an assembly of people who seem to be waiting in line. We cannot see the women's faces, but from their body language we can sense that they are having an urgent yet ordinary conversation. The whole scene is happening in a monochromatic color palette of gray, black, and white, which gives a feeling of fogginess. [image 1]

1. Women wait to be examined in a hospital in Douma, outside Damascus, Syria, September 17, 2018 | Ⓒ REUTERS  

In the background, we can see a beautiful blue sky trapped between two buildings, or for accuracy, the remains of two buildings. It is the middle of September, and the weather is suitable for a day out, so why not buy a cooked sweetcorn from the little boy with the black cap passing by these ruins? [image 2]

2. A child pushes a cart selling cooked sweetcorn in Douma, outside Damascus, Syria, September 17, 2018 | Ⓒ REUTERS

"Where the city is no longer", in the districts circling Damascus, lays the inheritance of the war. The war started in 2011 and caused nearly 5.7 million registered refugees around the world and another 6.7 million people to be internally displaced.
The previously described scenes are part of the everyday routine in these "forgotten places." According to Ignasi de Solà-Morales, "These strange places exist outside the city's effective circuits and productive structure." And in this case, not just the post-war terrain vague are left nonfunctional and in the past - the people who stayed during the war are also forgotten and turned into vagueness. In this essay, I refer to them as human terrain vague. The term comes from merging the term human terrain, which means "characterizing cultural, anthropological, and ethnographic information about the human population and interactions within the joint operations area", with the term terrain vague, the subject of the essay.
The fact that the terrain vague conditions surrounding Damascus are not thoroughly deserted, and people are coexisting with it, gives us a wide-angle to approach the concept of terrain vague. The districts which were separated from the urban system of the city may seem strange to us. Whereas for the human terrain vague, it is home, it is the new familiar, and naturally, it is considered the urban fabric of the functional side of Damascus. Furthermore, there is no more objective way to acknowledge the events a city went through than to observe it in the fabric of the terrain vague. Terrain Vague is constantly reciting the city's history while symbolizing a turning point in its timeline. To utterly replace this condition means to erase a valuable segment of human history and to eliminate the experiences gained in the past eleven years, accompanied with the collective memory of the human terrain vague.
Throughout history, every time the conversation about post-war reconstruction is on the table, all the stakeholders involved in the process prepare their agendas. Political, financial, or even experimental - in the case of some enthusiastic architects who have new theories that need to be examined. For instance, the reconstruction following WWI had Modernism as the most common visual identity to guide urban planning. However, even though the 20th century architects stressed the importance of contextualizing architecture and preserving its link with the past, some critics believe that modernism damaged the historical identity of the urban fabric more than the bombing could have ever done.

How can we intervene in the post-war terrain vague conditions surrounding Damascus, with its uniqueness and the existence of human terrain vague?

Solà-Morales, in his essay, suggests that the most convenient way to intervene with terrain vague is "attention to continuity". He emphasized the intangible solutions by focusing on "the flows”, "the energies," and "the rhythms established by the passing of time". For him, architecture and common urban approaches to terrain vague are violent, and this conundrum could be solved with an "architecture of dualism."
Regarding the terrain vague conditions neighboring Damascus, Solà-Morales's solutions could be effective, when considering the balance between where to intervene and where not to. These terrain vague conditions are predominantly residential areas, where the displaced someday will return, and the human terrain vague will someday require adequate infrastructure. Therefore, the intervention is inevitable and only the stakeholder involved in the process (government, developers, architects, and planners) must bear  in mind that these lands are filled with trauma and soaked with blood.
To respect the history of the terrain vague conditions neighboring Damascus, selected parts should be kept untouched to preserve their strangeness.
This way preserving the terrain vague as a memory of past atrocities represents an act of resistance and revolution. Its absence of use and the sense of freedom will stand out as a reminder of who is absent today, maintaining the narration of the city’s history.
The untouched terrain vague could be used temporarily for cultural events and occasional local gatherings. The future potential of terrain vague is  tremendous, and it holds great possibilities for innovation.
Finding a balance between intervention and preservation  in terrain vague conditions is imperative, working with both simultaneously could be the future approach.
Riga charter defines reconstruction as "evocation, interpretation, restoration or replication of a previous form."
Therefore, to start the reconstruction process of terrain vague, there is a lot to consider. First of all and most importantly, the humanitarian aspect. There is a legitimate fear among some Syrians that when the reconstruction begins the last to be included in the process are the Syrians, whether it be the displaced or the human terrain vague.
Another aspect that needs to be entirely respected is the environment. The environment in Damascus and its surrounding terrain vague has suffered, as have the lives of the individuals who inhabit these terrains. As if the bombing were not enough, the chemical attacks exacerbated the damage further.
It is essential not to forget the local identity, which struggles to remain strong with each new attempt at intervention.

Intervention could be acceptable and beneficial if appropriate interdisciplinary approaches were adopted. Masterplans could be generated for the existing terrain vague conditions, in lieu of new schemes on cleared land. We can do this with the help of AI and technological innovation by adopting the process of urban adaptive reuse, where we can regenerate previously existing urban processes. Applying the principles of adaptive reuse to architecture and urban planning means less demolition, resulting in the preservation of the city’s culture, memory, and history.

An acknowledgment that individuals (human terrain vague) inhabit the terrain vague conditions surrounding Damascus could be a starting point for the future thinking of these conditions, and in forming a stronger relationship between the city and its people. War torn places are still places rich in culture, memory, and history - to preserve these rich qualities we must begin by acknowledging their inhabitants.


Sara Adam↩


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