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See Future Aleppo, a 3-D Architectural Model That Imagines a Post-War Syria

Walk into the Skirball Cultural Center, just before the main exhibits, and you will find a three-dimensional model of Aleppo — not its war-torn reality, filled with rubble and wreckage — but a gleaming city with rooftop pools instead of missile outposts and lush gardens. Violence may reign in the Syrian province, but within the plexiglass that holds “Future Aleppo,” a hope for peace and prosperity prevails.

“Future Aleppo” was made between 2012 and 2015 by 10-year old Mohammed Qutaish.  Working in temporary, makeshift studios — his neighbor’s roof, an unused bedroom — he built a colorful, four-by-four foot model of Aleppo made of cardboard and glue, styled after architectural scale models he found online.

“My sorrow, caused by this destruction, has inspired me immensely,” Qutaish writes in the wall text. “Sometimes I feel very frightened. Sometimes I cannot think or work. Optimism gives me the power and determination to finish the works I have started.”

Mohammed Qutaish works on a paper model of the city of Aleppo | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Qutaish works on a paper model of the city of Aleppo | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

Qutaish’s neighbor, citizen journalist Waad Alkateab, captured a video of the project — which aired on Channel 4 news in the UK and was later circulated on Youtube. When the New York-based curator Alex Kalman saw Alkateab’s video, Mohammed’s story resonated; “Future Aleppo” struck him as a skillful art project with an important message that merited deeper engagement. He wanted to bring Mohammed’s work to Mmuseumm, the unusual modern natural history museum he founded in a converted elevator shaft in Chinatown, New York.

Inside Aleppo: the boy who dreams of rebuilding his city

It took months to organize the transportation of "Future Aleppo," but once all the details were finalized, a volunteer crew successfully shepherded the piece across Syria and Turkey to finally arrive in the US in a span of just 72 hours. The improbable success of the shipment is underscored by the fact that relations between Syrians and Turks, especially near the border, are quite tense.

Since “Future Aleppo” went on public view at Mmuseumm last spring, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime captured rebel-held parts of Aleppo, killing thousands of civilians and forcing more, including Qutaish’s family, to flee to surrounding countries. In April of this year, Assad killed hundreds of Syrians in a chemical attack on the town Khan Sheikhoun and the Trump administration sent nearly 60 missiles to strike an airbase in response.

Deeply moved by Qutaish’s project, especially against the backdrop of ongoing violence in the Syrian province, the staff of the Skirball Cultural Center reached out to Kalman about exhibiting the piece. They came up with a two-pronged lobby plan and installed Qutaish’s model ahead of the main exhibitions to keep it open to the public. Elevated by a plain white plinth, the meticulously kempt model is encased in clear plexiglass and adorned with minimal explanatory plaques. “We’re treating it like we would any other artifact,” curator Cate Thurston explains. “It was shipped, had a condition report and was handled with gloves in a delicate manner.”

Osama, a fourteen-year-old boy who lost his foot in an air strike led by Syrian government forces, walks on a street in the rebel-held side of the nothern city of Aleppo | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images
The streets of the northern city of Aleppo on September 2015 | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Qutaish works on a paper model of the city of Aleppo | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Qutaish works on a paper model of the city of Aleppo | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images

In the model, solar panel-clad buildings, sleek suspension bridges, amusement park rides and helicopter landing pads are rendered in cheerful pink, tangerine-orange and green watercolors. Vibrant trees comprised of sponges dot the foreground and a wavy-lined, painted-blue river bisects the city. The medieval Citadel, which is now all but destroyed, crops up in concave paper segments that blend seamlessly into the modern cityscape.

Kalman considers Mohammed’s imaginative model “a testament to the human capacity to persevere.” The model, he points out, invites questions of “How do we confront the darkest of times? How do we survive the darkest of times? What do we turn to?” As Kalman explains, “we turn to vision and hope and the arts and design and architecture to carry us through.” Mohammed’s model, in other words, provides a hopeful vision in the wake of horrific violence and warfare.

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“Future Aleppo” — on view at the museum until August 18 — is installed at hip-height for an adult, allowing an easy aerial view of the project; most children encounter the cityscape at eye level. On a recent afternoon, one parent explains to her inquisitive daughter the situation in Aleppo, to a rejoinder of “but why did it get destroyed?” Another parent tries to tug her child, who is transfixed by a series of shiny toy cars, away from the installation by assuring her that they can work on a similar art project at home.

“When you try to unravel the threads of the conflict in Syria, it’s really complicated and involves a lot of actors,” Thurston explains. “We wanted to push past that and home in on Mohammed’s story.” By looking at the conflict through the eyes of a child and a first-person account, the curator believes the project “de-politicizes the dialogue about refugees.”

Thurston has led several tours in which visitors are struck by the contrast of “the unimaginable horror of Aleppo and this bright, beautiful world that Mohammed has created.” Bright orange and sky-blue walls set a welcome tone for visitors, but as Thurston pointed out, the exhibition designer was wary of making the text and color palette too whimsical, and not give it the serious treatment that the subject merits.

​Kalman explains that the roads once used to transport “Future Aleppo” are now closed and many of the Qutaish family’s belongings — including additional parts of the model — have been destroyed. The family has since resettled in Turkey, where Mohammed and his four siblings are enrolled in local schools, but their current situation is precarious, as it’s difficult for the parents to find work. (The family is trying to emigrate to the U.S. or Europe, where Mohammed plans to attend architecture school; Mmuseumm has set up a fund to support the family, to which readers can donate.)

As the crush of the news cycle grinds on and the violence in Aleppo fades out of international focus, this installation encourages viewers to revisit the humanitarian crisis — and imagine a joyful future for Syria. Mohammed’s model provides an accessible entry point to the ongoing war in Syria as well as the global refugee crisis.

“Future Aleppo” is a model for not only a post-war Syria, but for an alternative mode of cross-continental creative exchange. As Kalman puts it, “I think that the public is fortunate to have individuals like Mohammed creating work for us to learn from.”

Detail of "Future Aleppo" | Photo courtesy of Mmuseumm
Detail of "Future Aleppo" | Photo courtesy of Mmuseumm
The park in "Future Aleppo" | Courtesy of Mmuseumm
The park in "Future Aleppo" | Courtesy of Mmuseumm
Solar panels in "Future Aleppo" | Courtesy of Mmuseumm
Solar panels in "Future Aleppo" | Courtesy of Mmuseumm

Top Image: Mohammed Qutaish works on a paper model of the city of Aleppo | Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images​

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