Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership

Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”

By M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin

Construction of everyday life, Damascus, Syria 2018. (Source: Infotography submission by Sidra al Ayoubi – IWlab)

Post-war reconstruction has always been proposed and studied as a set of strategies and plans that are led by the state and reinforced by international aid. When post-war reconstruction plans are to be translated into cities, it uses systems of regulations to produce a formal and planned built-environment. However, in cities like Damascus and Aleppo, where almost half of the built environment neighborhoods are informal, this approach needs to be rethought. Within the current discussion and planning to rebuild Syrian cities, one can ask: Who are the producers of the built-environment in Syria? And how could any plan exclude or include them?

Informality has been long discussed with questions about its nature, extensions, and drives in cities. The term is almost as old as the concept of planning, based on the functionalist paradigm and understood as formalizing the production of the built environment with tools of centralized and hierarchical control of the city.  Debates about informality examine the encodable dynamic use of spaces, shedding doubts over any a priori acts of foreseeable urbanism and framing urbanism “as a way of life.” Throughout the twentieth century, this concept was manifested as a tool of resistance against the central figure of the modern planers, claiming an inclusive set of references, or focusing on the behaviors of the individual.  Recent studies about informality make moves from the separated models of formal and informal into considering informality is then an integral part of the city where the complex intersections between the two are usually seen in the in-between. By looking into how formality and informality alter the built environment, we realize how they both share an indefinite, continuously evolving image and transform the city in the same significance, leaving us with different knowledge that can contribute theoretically to our attempts to reconstruct such neighborhoods of Syria. However, there is almost no discussion about reconstruction inside Syria that doesn’t suggest the demolition of informal settlements.

Plans have already been taking place in Mezzeh, Kafar Soseh, Liwan, and Darya. Some of those areas were not directly affected by combat yet are considered to pose a threat to the city, in urban and perhaps a social threat. But does replacing informal or popular housing result in a planned city that can accommodate the same displaced population who used to live in this area?

Studies about the formal and informal duality already exist about Syria, most of which examine questions of justice, participation, and inclusivity from a holistic planning perspective, but they still function within top-down apparatus of planning. Instead, we believe approaching the question through craft can offer a different view, one that examines the production of the city from its very in situ components, relinquishing centrality of planning in favor of acknowledging grassroots actions as the main vehicle of the production of the city.

To be able to embark on this task, it is important to understand the historical context of building craft in Syria. Builders have traditionally been part of both private and state construction. Builders’ guilds regulated the ways with which they could be part of the making of the city through their participation in state planning decisions. When builders’ guilds, like other craft guilds in Syria, ceased to exist, planning was shifted from the hands of everyday builders to a group of legislative entities, while building with local materials was prohibited in new construction. As a result of this, the official representation of such private housing construction was that of its ‘illegality’. Building craftsmen were no longer used as problems solvers but rather opposed as possible threats. Craftsmanship was limited to traditional methods and techniques, such as masonry and brickwork, which are now only seen in restoration projects. Traditional artisan work is now marginal, isolated, and continuously deteriorating.

By examining informal settlement, we propose that place making in such a scenario is more likely to be attached to everyday craft than to abstract values. In everyday craft, “dignity” in making is replaced with the “possibility” to make. Similarly, a relationship between the making and the maker is uniquely redefined in a completely different way in each locality. When crafts are part of the “possible” and the “everyday,” the absolutism of authenticity must be relinquished, and the understanding of crafts in construction cannot be inclusive until it excludes “heritage” for a while.

Examining informality through the lens of post-war reconstruction might shed light on new mechanisms for rebuilding and overlaying the planned and unplanned. With a central focus on the “production” of the built environment, where housing becomes a verb, such an approach proposes informality as part of a solution. Popular construction, most of which is in the form of informal settlements, is rarely examined through the techniques with which it generates a neighborhood. There is a need to understand the embedded mechanism of how popular construction functions both technically, i.e. the selection of materials, design, and standardizations, and socially, i.e. the role of the builders in mediating between neighbors and the codes of conduct or competition between builders. It is with this understanding that reconstruction plans can find new implementation channels that underpin policymaking.

By putting out a call for applicants to our Infotography workshop, we could work with students of architecture in Damascus University on the documentation and observation of informal settlements in Damascus. Various informal neighborhoods in Damascus were examined in more than 50 submissions. The submissions highlighted a system whose rules are based on bottom-up processes manifested through optimization, speed, and efficiency. Interviews with three builders consolidated how the speed of construction can be part of budget saving, and how builders can build a single-family residential unit in under twenty days. Such pressure to finish the structure as soon as possible comes from its illegality. It implies, however, a set of techniques that, in the absence of rigid building codes, focuses on the roof as the most important structural element. Furthermore, builders exhibited a sense of craft in dealing with vertical circulation and pedestrian paths. Those elements are not dealt with as static urban elements but rather as modifiable mediums that can be tailored to accommodate the changing needs of the residents. Finally, builders integrate houses into the site’s land typography with minimum excavations. All this shows engagement with materials and function, making the role of the builder crucial in mediating between material needs and residents’ needs.

In conclusion, informal settlements are not only the consequence of modernity and migration to the city, but rather are natural extensions of the spatial arrangement of the city. Construction craft is not only about the inherited traditional techniques; it also extends to adaptation and customization in popular housing. The popular builder is an extension of the traditional craftsman but in an antagonistic environment and a market of limited materials.

The current economic crisis forces builders to use local materials in construction and thus reconsider the praxis of craft in the production of a modern architecture, shifting from restoration to new ways of implementation and interpretation.

Formal and informal construction, Damascus, Syria 2018. (Source: IWlab)

References and Further Reading:

IWlab: www.iw-lab.com

Al, Asali, M Wesam  and Iyas Shahin, (2016). “Rural Habitation In Syria: The Culture Of Traditional Architecture and its Role in the Reconstruction Process,” METU Journal of the Faculty of Architecture. Vol. 33, No. 2, https://doi.org/10.4305/metu.jfa.2016.2.6.

Lutzoni, Laura (2016). “In-Formalised Urban Space Design: Rethinking the Relationship between Formal and Informal,” City, Territory and Architecture. Vol 3, No. 20, https://doi.org/10.1186/s40410-016-0046-9.

Wirth, Louis (1938). “Urbanism as a Way of Life,” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 44, No. 1: pp. 1–24, https://doi.org/10.1086/217913.

Hernández, Felipe, Peter Kellett, and Lea Knudsen Allen, eds. (2012). Rethinking the Informal City: Critical Perspectives from Latin America. New York: Berghahn Books.

Rafeq, Abdul-Karim, (1981). “Aspects of Crafts Organization in Bilad Al Sham during the Ottoman Era” [Mathaher men al-Tantheem al-Herafi fi Bilad al-Sham fi al-Ahd al–Othmani].” History Studies [Dirasat Tarikhyy] Vol. 4: pp. 30–62.

Al Asali, M. Wesam, (2019). “Craftsmanship for Reconstruction: Artisans Shaping Syrian Cities,” in F. F. Arefian and S.H. Moeini (eds.) Urban Heritage in the Middle East.

Etienne, Léna, (2012). “Mukhalafat in Damascus: The Form of an Informal Settlement,” in Popular Housing and Urban Land Tenure in the Middle East: Case Studies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, ed. Myriam Ababsa, Baudouin Dupret, and Eric Dennis, http://cairo.universitypressscholarship.com/view/10.5743/cairo/9789774165405.001.0001/upso-9789774165405-chapter-2.


M. Wesam al Asali is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge and a co-founder of IWlab-research and design in Damascus, Syria.

Majida Malo is an architect graduate from Damascus University currently working as an architect at Fouad Takla Co. and a research assistant at IWlab.

Iyass Shahin is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture in Damascus University and a co-founder of IWlab-research and design in Damascus, Syria.


Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:

Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.

Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.

Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.

Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.

Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.

Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.

Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.

Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, 24 October 2019.

Kefah Ahmed M. Najjar, Youth Teams and Reconstruction, 7 November 2019.

Zoya Masoud, A Treasure of Heritage for the Poor of Aleppo: Neighborhoods between the Hammer of Political Insecurity and the Anvil of Warlords, 14 November 2019.


Citation: M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin, Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.11.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/20385.


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