by Stefano Serafini
Originally published November 15, 2017 in the Journal of Biourbanism Volume V Issue 1&2/2016
One cannot reduce biourbanism to design techniques, a tool, or a style. Biourbanism aims at a deep understanding of culture and nature as a whole, which allows for designing accordingly. It is about the human intentionality of the built environment.
Since its foundation in 2010, the International Society of Biourbanism (ISB) has had an honorary president—Prof. Nikos Salingaros, whose seminal works and insights inspired the establishment of our institution. Seven years later, the governing body of ISB—Antonio Caperna, president; Marco Casagrande, vice president, and Stefano Serafini, secretary general and research director—agreed to award the first honorary membership to three distinct scholars and practitioners for their contributions to both the understanding and realization of a biourban practice.
We are honored to welcome Prof. Arch. Besim S. Hakim (USA), Arch. Marwa Al-Sabouni (Syria), and Prof. Arch. Sergio Los (Italy) to our Society.
Prof. Arch. Besim S. Hakim
Besim Selim Hakim, FAICP, AIA, graduated in Urban Design from Harvard University. He taught for 13 years at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, Canada and then in several Faculties of Architecture in the U.S., North Africa, and the Middle East. As an authority on traditional and vernacular design, he has worked with and consulted different cities. Prof. Hakim contributed to the 2014 ISB summer school on “Neuroergonomics and Sociogenesis” and has been a member of the scientific committee of the Journal of Biourbanism since its first publication.
His fundamental research on the codes that underlie the traditionally built environment of the Mediterranean region, namely Northern Africa, Spain, Italy, and Greece, has fundamental relevance. On this subject, he has published several seminal works. Among them: Sidi Bou Sa’id, Tunisia: Structure and Form of a Mediterranean Village (Hakim, 1978); Arabic-Islamic Cities: Building and Planning Principles (Hakim, 1986), and the ponderous volume Mediterranean Urbanism: Historic Urban/Building Rules and Processes (Hakim, 2014). The reader can find other valuable papers by Prof. Hakim at historiccitiesrules.com, a Web site worth several visits.
Prof. Hakim’s work has received great appreciation from several scholars worldwide. Yet it has not had the large audience it deserves due to two elements as Abu-Lughod (1987), who had immediately noticed the high value of Hakim’s work, foresaw more than 25 years ago. First, his solid, objective research did not match the Orientalist fashion that had taken over the modern study and practice of so-called “Islamic” architecture (see discussion on this subject by Al-Sabouni, above). Further, his results were totally at odds with Modernism and its related real estate interests, which rather preferred to forget and even destroy the heritage of ancient Mediterranean building wisdom, calling it “barbaric”. An Author paddling against two significant fashionable currents at the same time, such as Orientalism and Modernism, and working on what most people think of as a niche subject, is not likely to become popular among mass publishers and average academics—no matter the value of his findings. The editions of Hakim’s books have thus lacked proper distribution or have been made too expensive for individuals. Paradoxically, while Prof. Hakim has been nearly left alone in his effort to understand and save the hugely precious heritage that is at risk of being lost, someone has even ventured to label him as “Orientalist” (Alsayyad, 2015, pp. 23–24). Such superficial judgment apparently does not understand that the Author’s admiration for the ethical ground of Mediterranean urbanism, which includes the important contribution of Islamic civilization, has nothing to do with what Edward Said stressed to be a Western projection (Said, 1978) and, on the contrary, has always been accompanied by genuine historical and philological rigor. One must say though, that despite every difficulty, the work of Prof. Hakim is finally becoming more and more renowned among a larger public, especially in Italy, where his ideas are receiving an especially warm welcome.
The codes pointed out by Prof. Hakim are a kind of “urban entelechies”. They come before the patterns proposed by his colleague Christopher Alexander, which rather are “formed forms”, structures after a goal (Alexander, Ishikawa, & Silverstein, 1977). Alexander too has a clear morphogenetic vision of the built environment, but he looks rather at the designed side of it (Alexander, 2002, vol. 1 pp. 371–402; vol. 2 pp. 508–510), while Hakim focuses on the underlying vectorialities (social, ethical, and functional) that may produce a certain formal order (Hakim, 2014). In fact, codes represent the link between the actual, social life of a city and its physical design. Urban codes are the invisible logic of a civic community that manifests itself through built forms, thus connecting the civitas to the urbs.
One of the most fascinating discoveries of Prof. Hakim relates to the fact that, for centuries, Mediterranean people shaped their own built environment bottom-up without blueprints by means of these powerful tools. They were capable of translating into urban forms the (changing, fluid) ethics and customs of their communities.
Prof. Besim Hakim’s work sheds light on a fundamental category of spontaneously built cities, as studied by biourbanism, i.e. their connection to the cultural layer of life. Nowadays we can find such a quality in slums more than contemporary cities, as also found by Alexander from an aesthetic point of view (Alexander, 2002, vol. 1 pp. 58–60) and by Neuwirth from an anthropological and political perspective (Neuwirth, 2005).
Arch. Marwa Al-Sabouni
Arch. Marwa Al-Sabouni was born in Homs, Syria, where she lives and practices. She achieved a PhD in Islamic architecture and focused her research and disseminative activity on the stereotypes that affect Islamic design, among others, hosting the online Arabic Gate for Architectural News (arch-news.net), which won the 2010 Royal Kuwaiti Salem Al-Subah Award for best media project in the Arab World.
The most interesting aspect of Arch. Al-Sabouni’s work, according to ISB, is her capability of enduring the horror of the war that has destroyed her city, reflecting on it, and formulating a convincing analysis on how urban design played a role in such an outcome. The Battle for Home (Al-Sabouni, 2016) is the book that collects her questioning and thoughts on how architecture and urban design can destroy or strengthen a community and its sense of identity, and how this can lead to greed, selfishness, indifference, and eventually hatred—or rather, support inclusiveness, sociality, and compassion.
She has stayed in Homs for six years watching the war tear her city apart, and believes that architecture and a century of thoughtless urban planning played a crucial role in the slow unraveling of Syrian cities’ social fabric, preparing the way for once-friendly, now-fragmented groups to become enemies instead of neighbors.
“The harmony of the social environment got trampled over by elements of modernity,” says Al-Sabouni. “The brutal, unfinished concrete blocks and the divisive urbanism that zoned communities by class, creed or affluence.” (Cook, 2016)
Her housing project for rebuilding the destroyed city district of Baba Amr, Homs, Syria won the UN-Habitat competition for the revitalization of Mass Housing.
Not by chance, Marwa Al-Sabouni is a fierce enemy of the external imitation of features and forms currently sold as “tradition” by too many designers. She knows that considering design a matter of mere aesthetics and decoration is all but a naïve and innocent stance. In fact, this means denying the social and political life of the city, substituting it with the apolitical agenda of profit and consumerism that will inevitably hollow the city leading it toward conflict and decay. Buildings have reciprocal relations and this produces cities. Cities shape our interactions and have an effect on our lives and destiny. Thus, their forms are a matter of substance, not of external features. Using mashrabiah and arches in order to allure people into a fake representation of identity is a further step towards the abysm of the loss of identity. The same can be said about whatever form we use for the sake of style—in short, when we use design to “dress” a reality rather than embody it, a deception that means division.
What is the right option for architects, then? Being themselves and connecting to the deep substance of the city they work in. In order to achieve such a goal, they must be locally rooted rather than international artists or show business stars, as many architects are nowadays, because understanding needs time, communication, love, study, and hard work.
Al-Sabouni shows that tradition is not mimicking. Rather, one has to be tradition, an active attitude that has nothing to do with imitation from the outside. On this subject, the Christian Orthodox Saint Silouan the Athonite offered a great answer to the hypothetical question: what would happen if all the written records of the Christian tradition were destroyed? The staretz said that there would always be saints capable of rewriting them when conditions permit because the written tradition springs from the depth of a real life experience (Markides, 2001, ch. 2). What would happen if all the architectures of the past were destroyed, as it happened in Homs, first with the French colonial urban plans, then with modernistic real estate development, and finally with war? The courageous answer of Marwa Al-Sabouni is: there will be people able to rebuild it because the human, ethical, and social substance of architecture is alive in us.
Prof. Arch. Sergio Los
Born in Marostica, Italy, Sergio Los is the father of Regional Bioclimatic Architecture and one of the most interesting European thinkers and practicioners at the intersection of design, ecology, and politics. He is a retired professor of Architectural Composition, Interior Architecture, and Urban Planning at the University IUAV of Venice. He has served as the scientific head of several researches on sustainable design for the Italian Ministry of University, the Italian National Research Council, the European Union, and the International Energy Agency as well as directed Passive and Low Energy Architecture (PLEA), an organization promoting sustainable architecture worldwide, which honored him and his wife Natasha F. Pulitzer with the 13th PLEA International Award in 1993. Los also won the Wren Pioneer Award (Florence, 1998) and the Eurosolas Prize (Berlin, 2003).
Los studied at the IUAV University of Venice and worked with Carlo Scarpa, to whom he devoted four important books (Los, 1967; 1985; 1993; 1995). In his search for an epistemological criterion of design, he had inquired into the early Christopher Alexander, Lionel March, and Philip Staedman, and introduced their work in Italy with the first translation ever of Notes on the Synthesis of Form (Alexander, 1967) and The Geometry of Environment: An Introduction to Spatial Organization in Design (March & Staedman, 1974).
Prof. Los’ ideas about bioclimatic architecture were first presented in “Un approccio bioclimatico al regionalismo architettonico”, an introduction to the Italian translation of the homonymous work by the Hungarian pioneer of bioclimatism and Princeton professor Victor Olgyay (1910–1970) (Cook & Los, 1981). He then unfolded and deepened his thoughts through several works, especially tackling the problem of complexity (Los, 1976; 2013; Los & Pulitzer, 1977; 1984; 1998).
Los has focused on developing an architecture that, like vegetation and fauna, adapts to the local environment and climate and takes advantage of natural energetic sources such as solar exposition, wind, and water streams. Hence, his idea of “building as farming”, and the attention towards the heritage of localism and regional traditions in architecture, which he sees from the point of view of their seminal, inspiring intuitions, and practical solutions (Los, 1990). Along his career, Los designed buildings and urban plans characterized by sustainability and resiliency from both the environmental and the civic perspective. Small, self-sufficient, and environment-preserving towns that can produce enough food and energy by themselves are, according to Los, the right places where deliberative democracy can flourish because their size and the necessary engagement of inhabitants in the daily urban management and design allow for the construction of a common language and an authentic share of values and responsibility. This reappraises the role of over-size profit that has hijacked modern and contemporary metropolises, where society fades in the heterodirect anonymity of individuals’ selfishness and solitude. The city envisioned by Sergio Los is incompatible with the actual capitalistic system because it does not sustain a never-ending production and consumption cycle but rather nourishes a “learning community”, which in turn is the only real subject entitled and capable of designing an alive and sustainable city.
The “graffiti meets fine art” portaits of Prof. Arch. Besim Hakim, Arch. Marwa Al-Sabouni, and Prof. Arch. Sergio Los for their International Society of Biourbanism honorary membership are by Artist James Wilson (2017, courtesy and copyright Stefano Serafini). The idea is to have the graffiti of Besim, Marwa, and Sergio on a wall from the people of the dispossessed cities of the world—i.e. from those who can appreciate their work more than developers, urban planners, and architects.
On James Wilson, see: Bissen, S. (2017, August 29). James Wilson—Newark, “when it’s your hood then you’ve never felt more at home”. International Society of Biourbanism. Retrieved from http://www.biourbanism.org/james-wilson-newark-hood-youve-never-felt-home/
Abu-Lughod, J. (1987). Review: Arabic–Islamic cities: Building and planning principles by
Besim Selim Hakim [Review of the book Arabic–Islamic cities: Building and planning
principles]. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 21(1), 29–31.
Alexander, C. (1967). Note sulla sintesi della forma. (S. Los, Trans.). Milan: Il Saggiatore.
(Original work published 1964)
Alexander, C. (2002–2005). The nature of order (Vols. 1–4). Berkeley, CA: Center for
Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., & Silverstein, M. (1977). A pattern language: Towns, buildings,
construction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Al-Sabouni, M. (2016). The battle for home: The memoir of a Syrian architect. London: Thames
Alsayyad, N. (2015). Medina; the “Islamic,” “Arab,” “Middle Eastern” City: Reflections on an
urban concept. In R. Saliba (Ed.), Urban design in the Arab world: Reconceptualizing
boundaries (pp. 17–26). London: Ashgate.
Cook, J., & Los, S. (1981). Un approccio bioclimatico al regionalismo architettonico [Bioclimatic
approach to architectural regionalism]. Introduction. In V. Olgyay (Ed.). Progettare con il
clima. Un approccio bioclimatico al regionalismo architettonico [Design with climate:
Bioclimatic approach to architectural regionalism] (pp. vii–xvi). (G. Mancuso, Trans.). Padua: Franco
Cooke, R. (2016, April 3). One woman’s battle to heal her home city of Homs. The Guardian.
Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/apr/03/homs-syria-marwa-al-
Hakim, B. S. (1978). Sidi Bou Sa’id, Tunisia: Structure and form of a Mediterranean village.
Albuquerque, NM: EmergentCity Press
Hakim, B. S. (1986). Arabic-Islamic cities: Building and planning principles. London: Kegan
Hakim, B. S. (2014). Mediterranean urbanism: Historic urban/building rules and processes.
Los, S. (1967). Carlo Scarpa architetto poeta [Carlo Scarpa, poet-architect]. Venice: CLUVA.
Los, S. (1976). L’organizzazione della complessità [The organization of complexity]. Milan: Il
Los, S. (Ed.). (1985). Verum Ipsum Factum. Il progetto di Carlo Scarpa per l’ingresso dell’Istituto
Universitario di Architettura di Venezia [The project for the entrance of the Architecture University
Institute of Venice by Carlo Scarpa]. Venice: CLUVA.
Los, S. (Ed.). (1990). Regionalismo dell’architettura [Regionalism of architecture]. Padua: Franco
Los, S. (1993). Carlo Scarpa. Cologne: Benedict Taschen.
Los, S. (1995). Carlo Scarpa, guida all’architettura [Carlo Scarpa, a guide to architecture]. Venice:
Los, S. (2013). Geografia dell’architettura [Geography of architecture]. Padua: Il Poligrafo.
Los, S., & Pulitzer, N. (Eds.). (1977). L’architettura della evoluzione [Architecture of evolution].
Los, S., & Pulitzer, N. (1984). L’architettura del regionalismo [Architecture of regionalism]. Trento:
Los, S., & Pulitzer, N. (1998). Caratteri ambientali dell’architettura [Environmental features of
architecture]. Trento: ARCA.
March, L., & Staedman, P. (1974). La geometria dell’ambiente. Una introduzione alla
organizzazione spaziale nella progettazione [The geometry of environment: An
introduction to spatial organization in design]. (S. Los, Trans.). Milan: Gabriele Mazzotta. Editore.
(Original work published 1971)
Markides, K. C. (2001). The mountain of silence: A search for Orthodox spirituality. New York:
Neuwirth, R. (2005). Shadow cities: A billion squatters, a new urban world. New York: Routledge.
Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
For the present publication, see: Journal of Biourbanism Volume V Issue 1&2/2016
Serafini, S. (2017). In recognition of the first honorary members to the International Society of Biourbanism. Journal of Biourbanism, 5(1&2/2016), 285–290.