Arab Architectural Heritage Between Mirrors And Idols

Looking Within and Beyond the Tradition-Modernity Debate
Jad Tabet

When, at the end of the Lebanese Civil War, people raised the issue of reconstruction, the discussion focused on architectural heritage and its connection to memory, as well as on the relationship of this heritage with modernization and modernity.

Hardly a month passes by without seeing a book featuring beautiful photographs of “Beirut as it was,” reading an article reviving the memories of ayam zaman (the good old days), or noticing an art exhibition showing the magic and beauty of old Lebanese buildings and traditional rural and urban homes.

It is odd that until recently architectural heritage in Lebanon had neither occasioned a position nor significance. With the exception of those tasteful few who congregated around the Association of Old-Historic Buildings and Sites, the Lebanese public has never shown an interest in this heritage.

Even the number of studies on this issue remain quite scant. The Jacques Liger-Belair book, published in 1962, represents the first attempt to study the characteristics of traditional residential architecture of Lebanon. A 1973 book written by Friedrich Ragette, an engineer and former director of the Department of Architecture at the American University of Beirut, focuses on the history of architecture in Mount Lebanon during the 18th and 19th centuries. A later book published by Sursock Museum in 1985 includes a general overview of Lebanese architecture between the 15th and 19th centuries. Except for these few contributions, the study of traditional architecture in Lebanon garnered little attention until the past few years.

In fact, legislative authorities in modern Lebanon have steadfastly ignored this issue since the country gained its independence. They passed the last laws dealing with heritage during the Mandate. One law (number 166/L.R. issued on November 7, 1933) deals with archaeological ruins. They issued a second, the Environment and Natural Scenery Protection Law, on July 8, 1936. With the exception of these two texts, the Lebanese legislature remains silent regarding Lebanese heritage.

What does this silence indicate? If it tells us anything, it probably provides a clear indication of the lack of importance assigned to that heritage in Lebanese society and culture. Except for a few critics, nobody complained about the destruction of the souks (bazaars) in old downtown Beirut. Critics of the current reconstruction project for downtown Beirut, formulated in the summer of 1991, only focused on a few of its negative elements. Later, it seemed that no one thought to resist the real destruction threatening the various quarters of Beirut, from Ain al-Mraysseh to al-Ashrafieh, where real estate competition has continued to massacre the city’s architectural heritage.

Many now consider the increased talk about architectural heritage a healthy phenomenon, a cultural reaction to the ongoing destruction and obliteration of memory. Yet this need not become a mere lamentation over lost heritage, crying over its ruins. The current discussion should not devolve into a simplistic, categorization of the positions on architectural heritage into two opposing groups – the defenders of heritage versus the innovators. This scenario portrays defenders of heritage as blinded by nostalgia, grieving for the past and protesting anything that restores life to the body of the city, which they instead wish to transform into a museum dedicated to the war’s ruins. On the other hand, this simplistic vision portrays the second group, the innovators, as those gifted with a futuristic vision, hoping to formulate modernization projects free from the nightmares of the past. As if modernity and heritage constitute antithetical concepts.

Arab architectural modernity, already present today, does not need to be invented or created anew. Instead, the public need only open their eyes to the present with all of its richness and problems, its beauty and ugliness, and its liveliness and contradictions.

Defining some concepts that clarify the problem of heritage in its various dimensions offers a way out of this dilemma. We cannot study the subject of heritage assuming it a simple, objective topic, something rigid and unchangeable. On the contrary, heritage represents a complex concept, synthetic, and subject to interpretation and judgments. We can easily say that every society at one point or another forms its own unique heritage, that it produces a heritage peculiar to its own characteristics and needs.

Examples abound in this regard. The designs drawn by Baron George-Eugene Haussmann for Paris in the late 19th century, largely inspired by modernization rationale, led to the destruction of vast quarters and structures of the old city. Still, the Haussmannian product today constitutes an essential part of the architectural heritage of the French capital. The major structures built during the Industrial Revolution in Europe (factories and storage areas) simply served as functional buildings, for a long time receiving no consideration for their potential connection to art or architecture. Today, they have become major aspects of Europe’s heritage, and have subsequently been classified as architectural treasures, and turned into museums.

Until the late 1960s, the concept of architectural heritage in the world remained confined to a small circle that focused on ancient ruins and historic buildings. However, the last few years have witnessed an increase in the field of theoretical studies, expanding the field of architectural heritage, connecting that heritage with the surrounding culture, and removing time boundaries.

The first area, the broadened field of architectural heritage, now includes the city as a major center of collective memory, and the natural domain in which to cultivate the special relationship between people and the product of architecture. It has become clear that focusing exclusively on removing historic buildings from the surrounding environment leads to a disruption of the context in which they grow. It also severs the roots that connect these buildings with their space, a space which alone has the power to grant them an artistic and symbolic value.

The second area moves architectural heritage out of the museum into people’s lives by connecting it with human activities. Instead of heritage remaining a mummified body commodity for academic or tourist consumption, it can be viewed as an active element in an ongoing social life. It can grow and develop with a renewed connection to the present, while granting the present a historic depth that continuously revives it.

The third area concerns the breakdown of time boundaries which, in the past, confined heritage within the products of old historical phases. For example, the field of architectural heritage in the West has gradually come to include Haussmannian heritage and the products of the Industrial Revolution. Along the same lines, the 21st century has witnessed an increased interest in architectural projects built during the 20th century, such as the renovated buildings built by Le Corbusier in France, and the reconstructed exhibition building in Barcelona designed by Mies Van der Rohe.

Quite obviously, Lebanon deals with the issue of architectural heritage differently than in the West. This reflects a corresponding difference in the understanding of heritage in and of itself, as well as a difference in the historic and social circumstances, and the Lebanese understanding of the relationship between heritage and modernity.

Heritage in Arab Architecture

The development of two schools or trends distinguishes the methods employed by contemporary Arab engineers in studying architectural heritage. Each builds a theoretical basis that specifies the relationship today’s Arab architecture has with both tradition and modernity. These schools have raised issues which relate not only to architecture but also include the relationship between contemporary Arab culture and modernity, as well as raising questions about interpreting our contemporary history.

The late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi represents the first school with its discipline based on a radical vision that attributes fundamental changes in Arab societies to the advent of modernity. This school claims that those changes cause societies to lose their authenticity and rich legacies inherited from past generations. This intellectual concept focuses on rejecting modernity as a cosmopolitan force which causes our societies to embrace consumerism and materialism, which leads to the loss of their distinctive characteristics and values. This school also emphasizes the notion that the modernity movement appeals almost exclusively to the upper classes, to those groups connected intellectually and culturally with the West. These practitioners use modernity as a tool to oppress populist classes, setting them apart from their cultures and histories.

Accordingly, this school rejects reinforced concrete in favor of traditional materials, such as clay and stone, and revives the use of old handicraft tools used in handicraft construction as an antidote to advanced technologies which subject our societies, economically and culturally, to the domination of Western modernity. This school urges its practitioners to confront and work to counteract the disintegration of traditional Arab culture and the transformation of Arab cities into congregations lacking order and logic – large cities made of decimated poor quarters with islands of wealth in the midst of poverty.

Yet, despite the fundamental positions embraced by this school, its experiments, conducted half a century ago, appear to have led to a dead end. The original experiment, initiated by Fathi in the town of Al-Karnah, in Al Saiid province of rural Egypt, failed because the inhabitants refused to return to the village designed for them, which would have taken them from their primary residential concentration – where they made their living out of the search for archaeological artifacts and their sale to tourists. Today, Al-Karnah stands as a ghost town, a witness to the failure of the utopian call to embrace the rural life and reject city living.

Indeed, Fathi’s experiment has backfired, creating a result antithetical to the values and ideas embraced at its inception. The experiment of building for the poor has become a pure manipulation of geometric shapes to create a geometric, and folkloric style consumed by the rich. Today, Fathi’s followers build huge palaces and mansions in the Texas desert for wealthy Gulf patrons, and design large tourist centers for international clubs. Despite its aesthetic characteristics, this school has failed to solve the actual problems facing human communities in today’s Arab cities.

The obstacles encountered by the first school paved the way for the rise in the mid-1950s of another school, best represented by the Iraqi architect Rifaat al-Jadirji. This school has exercised significant influence on the totality of contemporary Arab architecture. Employing a comprehensive analysis of the relationship of Arab architecture with modernism, it has formulated theoretical notions that have led to a dominant intellectual approach.

The first theoretical notion concerns the history of modernity. Concentrated in the West since the 15th century, modernity has gradually started to dominate the outside the world, spreading its ideas and values.

This leads to the second notion. In the 19th century, in an effort to deal with the obstacles presented by Western technological developments, Arab societies adopted modern Western principles. Instead of resolving their dilemmas, the societies found that these elements of modernity, in their Western peculiarities, proved incompatible with their own Arab cultural specificities, producing clashes of values and cultures.

The hegemony of Western modernity led the Arab world to lose some of its peculiarities and many of the idiosyncratic elements that made up its identity. Nothing illustrates this better than the decay of Arab architectural heritage, which resulted from its inability to cope with the dynamics of imported Western modernity, along with its resources, technologies, and superb organization.

Is Cairo today a traditional or a modern city, or is it a combination of both? Are Beirut’s buildings of the 1930s and 1940s traditional, or do they belong to a modern Western genre? Can we consider modernity simply as wallpaper that we can remove in order to return to our lost authenticity?

The third notion deal with the second school’s refusal, based on these clashes between cultures and values, to return to the traditional principles of Arab architecture which lead to isolation, seclusion, and a denial of modernity. Moreover, this school claims that while adopting the principles advanced by Fathi could lead to the reproduction of some traditional forms in a mechanical manner, this fails to help a society to update or create new characteristics consistent with the needs of time.

Faced with these undesirable prospects, the fourth notion concerns the use of a yardstick to judge the value of heritage. The Jadirjian School demands that features of heritage be subjected to rational criticism, choosing aspects compatible with the needs of time, and reintegrating them with recent resources and modern technologies. Through a process of separation and connection, this school calls for practitioners to transcend the contradiction between tradition and modernity, instead fusing them to produce a contemporary Arab architecture.

This analysis raises a number of questions that should be seriously debated. First, this concept suggests Arab heritage and Western modernity exist as two distinct concepts, totally independent from each other. This simplistic approach fails to take into account that modernity remains an incomplete project, unable to be confined to one domain or unified overarching pattern. Addressing the peculiarities of Western modernity in opposition to Arab heritage also proves inaccurate, especially if we consider the changes influencing modernity since its inception.

More than one stage marks modernity. The discoveries of the Renaissance in Europe distinguish the stage of “primary modernity,” soon to be followed by the modernity of the Enlightenment, a stage which introduced a theoretical reform in knowledge and world view, religion, and political and authoritative frameworks. The modernity of the Industrial Revolution represents a third stage, which introduced changes in production and transformed the social spheres in most capitalist societies. Skepticism, ambiguity, and suspicion characterize the final stage, referred to as the modernity of the latter part of the 20th century.

Throughout these stages, Arab societies have dealt with Western modernity in a distinctive manner, rejecting some parts, while allowing others to exercise extensive influence. Arab heritage in turn is neither monolithic nor unchangeable. Arab societies have undergone basic changes during the past century and a half, and especially after World War II – changes which cannot be ignored. There had been changes in the public domains of social life, imbalances between rural and urban areas, changing patterns of production, consumption, and systems of transportation, as well as transformations in manners of living, including residence and day-to-day activities. These have, in turn, produced fundamental changes in the concepts of space and time used to organize Arab societies. At the level of the material environment, the general appearance of Arab cities has undergone changes, housing migrants from the countryside in huge residential concentrations. Evolving architectural forms and new building types have also significantly transformed the features of these cities.

In the midst of all these changes, can we easily distinguish between what belongs to heritage and what belongs to modernity? Is Cairo today a traditional or modern city or a combination of both? Are Beirut's buildings of the 1930s and 1940s traditional, or do they belong to a modern Western genre? Can we consider modernity a wallpaper that we can remove in order to return to our lost authenticity?

Modernity has become one of the inseparable components of Arab cities to the extent that we can no longer talk about imported modernity and authentic heritage. Today, we do not need to invent Arab architectural modernity or create it anew. It stands before our eyes, with its all its splendor and problems, its beauty and ugliness, and its liveliness and contradictions. Most important of all, modernity has now become a part of our architectural heritage.

Should we then define the task of Arab architects today as “sifting through the salafi heritage to select what of this legacy suits for modernity” or as “criticizing imported modernity to identify what is consistent with our traditions?” In fact, the fusion between modernity and traditional ready exists in our cities, with the experiment of Arab architectural modernity, and its formative characteristics a self-existent experiment. Instead of adopting an eclectic method bound to produce half solutions, our task today begins with this reality, this fusion, as well as with a critique of this experiment, with the goal of discovering new means of voicing the demands of this stage. Hashem Sarkis, in an article published in An-Nahar in March 1995, called upon the “Great Masters,” the generation of Lebanese architects who built the monuments of modernity in Beirut of the 1960s, not to abandon what they produced, and to be aware that their modernity will soon become today’s “only remaining heritage.”

Rejecting Architectural Modernity

What then explains the approach that rejects the modernity we produced, an approach that dominates the architectural field today, not only in Lebanon but in all Arab countries? Did this rejection form a permanent element, part of an integral position that distinguishes our relationship with heritage and modernity since the Arab world opened up to the West?

When the initial Ottoman attempts to modernize Arab cities began in all parts of the empire, and Mohammad Ali engaged in similar efforts in Egypt, neither raised issues of heritage as obstacles to architectural modernity. Instead, Orientalists influenced by European romanticists wrote the only texts discussing modernization as a threat to Arab architectural heritage. This appears to have reflected their Orientalist yearning for an exotic culture free of the shocks and influences of the Industrial Revolution. Available documentation and records, in the form of photos, paintings, and texts offering descriptions of Arab traditional cities solely appear in Orientalist works. Thus, our view of our architectural historical heritage has, to a large extent, come to us as the product of the West.

Consider Beirut, for example. Despite the incurred social disaster, Al-Walli Azmi Beymet met no opposition when he destroyed the old city of Beirut during World War I. In fact, Beirut notables warmly welcomed the destruction of their old city, considering it an introduction into the age of modernity. Only Dumes nil Dubuisson, a French scholar who visited Beirut during the entry of the Allied forces during WWI, expressed regret for what he witnessed. He recorded his observations, describing the tragedies caused by the destruction, including his sorrow over the historical buildings that were swept to the sea.

Confirming this paradox, most Arab countries witnessed the emergence of an architectural style that can be described as “Arab colonial style” (Style colonial arabisant), during the stage of direct British and French colonial control. This constituted attempt to establish a distinct architectural language, using selective European architecture features prevalent at the end of the 19th century, and combining them with a romantic Orientalism through the adaptation of terms and concepts drawn from local heritage.

This means that our architectural practice today should be critical, a “resistant practice,” to use the expression of the American critic Kenneth Frampton. Resistance practice refers to a generalization of a universal culture increasingly marked by sluggishness and superficiality. It distinguishes itself from the current trends, as well as from the pathological attachment to exact traditional forms which emerge as obstacles to the development of our societies.

Arab societies experienced important changes in the post-independence era, including an increase in population, demographic concentration in cities, and a corresponding increase in demand for housing, factors necessitating the use of new materials and construction methods. These developments influenced architectural types and geometric forms, thus pushing Arab architects to abandon former experiments and adopt a pure modernizing language. The architectural production of the post-independence era dominated most Arab cities, transforming their organization of space, as well as their architectural features.

Although this production did not always succeed in offering appropriate solutions, mainly due to improvisation, and blind trust in imitating Western types, it elicited few if any questions until the late 1960s. Instead of questions subjecting the first period of Arab architectural modernity to criticism, they evolved during the 1970s and 1980s into a complete rejection of the language of modernity, as well as an open invitation to cling to traditional forms and return to the “Eastern” style of architecture.

Why did these questions arise in that particular period? One notes an association between the rejection of architectural modernity and the demise of the Nasserite project, which diminished the hope in unifying the Arabs into a developed Arab state. Equally noticeable, the center of decision-making shifted to the Arabian Peninsula and the oil-producing countries, dominated by tribal societies which remained until the 1960s isolated from world developments and contemporary cultural trends.

Similar to what happened in Europe in the end of the 19th century, or in Russia in the 1930s, whenever a new social group gains control over a government, it will experience a natural inclination to base its cultural visions and artistic tastes on old forms of expression. It seems that at the economic and social levels in these societies a trend towards traditional forms of expression at the ideological level tends to accompany the compulsory process of modernization.

Several factors may help us too if we connect this with the crisis experienced by modernity in the West since the late 1970s, we can begin to understand why, today, heritage has become a refuge where we search for identity. We must also comprehensively rethink the essential premises which formed the intellectual base of this modernity since the age of Enlightenment. Heritage acts as a mirror in which we attempt to discover the features of an identity we feel we have lost.

But if heritage acts as a mirror, what images does this mirror reflect? Does the mirror of heritage reflecting our real identities, or our dormant desires, the images we would like to see?

Reflecting on the reconstruction experience in Lebanon after the war, it appears that at the same time we destroy our genuine architectural heritage, we create an imaginary heritage, clothing our new buildings with it, trying to hide their modernity behind a mask of tradition. Examples of this phenomenon abound. How architects have cloaked their new projects in a “traditional” guise, using ruins of traditional Lebanese houses or buildings from the 1930s as sites for building projects, as if attempting to hide their poor designs and lack of harmony with the surroundings? While this has become a common fashion, some take things even further, adding arches to the facades of some of Beirut’s elegant buildings of the 1960, and further defacing them with “Tarabishes” (traditional caps or fezes) of red bricks. These arches usually appear on the additional stories either illegally added during the war or added during the implementation of the famous “Mur Floor” law (a law that allows additional stories to be built in return for an additional tax).

The St. George Hotel, built in 1929, stands as one of the most significant examples of this developing relationship between our heritage and modernity. Lebanese architect Antoun Tabet designed the hotel as a declaration of the first principles of modern architecture in Lebanon, incorporating a number of distinguishing characteristics that grant the St. George Hotel a central role in the history of Lebanese architecture. The first building in Lebanon to use reinforced concrete, it serves as an exceptional model, revealing the potential of this new material to create an aesthetic architecture for long-range buildings. Based on the principles of the Rational school in modern architecture, which Tabet adapted from his teacher, the famous French architect Auguste Perret, the structure draws upon the size of the building, setting its rhythm in a way that establishes compatibility between its vertical terraces and longitudinal lines. The protrusion of their windows, the decoration of their balconies, and the details of their corners, balance and enhance the facades, lessening the harshness of the structure and bringing it a feeling of life.

More important, this modern building stands in its location as if it has always been there. Perhaps this results from the hotel rising above the seashore in the traditional manner of Lebanese houses. Or perhaps the Eastern touch imprinted on its facades connects it to an authentic heritage, despite its use of a pure language of modernity. Or does this sense of belonging simply result from the fact that the hotel has become a major formative part of Beirut’s narrative, and one of its symbols?

War hit this symbol as it did the rest of the city. Yet, the current era of reconstruction might prove more devastating than the destruction of war. Under the pretext of adapting to recent investment conditions, the owners of the St. George Hotel have proposed leveling the hotel and rebuilding it anew with two additional stories. Despite the controversy caused by this project, and the protest spearheaded by the Lebanese architectural community, which appealed the case through an open letter to the Minister of Culture, demanding that the government classify the hotel as a building of cultural and artistic value, officials granted the owners of the St. George a permit to tear it down on the condition that they rebuild it in its original style.

This decision constitutes an architectural heresy, clear proof of the abysmal level at which our official culture deals with architectural heritage. Rebuilding a new hotel that exactly conforms to the current one will prove almost impossible. How can adding two more stories to the already existing four not deface the gracefulness of the building and upset the balance and the harmony of its facades? How can new construction methods possibly reproduce a masterpiece made in an almost craftsman form? How can we restore to the concrete the character etched by the sun and the sea winds? Where then resides the loyalty to the architectural message carried by this structure, the message of openness and the characteristic honesty of expression common to the time of its construction? Are we not losing that spirit when we demolish an original in order to build a crude copy, just as Disneyland builds Roman temples out of reinforced concrete in order to decorate its recreational facilities?

Architects have employed the same method in “renovating” the structure of Beirut’s al-Sarayeh (City Hall). They completely demolished this historic building except for its exterior, then used those facades to mask the new construction, which has no relationship whatsoever to the historic configuration of the building. Under the pretext of providing new space, they have added another story to the historical structure.

Besides violating the most simple and basic principles of loyalty to heritage, these examples bear witness to official attempts to produce a “national style” of architecture, a trend that has become a basis for post-war reconstruction. We can identify the elements making up this style in a collection of buildings known for their official symbolism. Either recently rebuilt, constructed, or still under construction, examples of these structures include the Presidential Palace, the Sporting City, and the permanent residence of the Speaker of the House, etc.

This trend tends to confine itself to decorating facades with a generalizing the arch form, using copious amounts of red brick, extending at times to the edges of the reinforced concrete ceilings. A hidden model apparently lies behind this “national style,” which attempts to combine the styles of 18th century palaces in Mount Lebanon with the late 19th century buildings of the wealthy classes in Beirut. Far from being innocent, the selection of this model demonstrates intellectual, political and aesthetic assumptions.

This choice appears to make it look as if we have chosen to relinquish our rich architectural heritage. Characterized by bifurcation and the ability to benefit from various influences, starting from the architectural models inspired by Old Persian architecture to the new elements adapted from the Italian architecture of the Renaissance, these influences merged with environmental and climatic conditions, characteristics of the social structure, and manners of living, to produce a complex architectural heritage and style still continuously developing.

Today, however, we confine our architectural heritage to a rigid formation, popularized as a simplistic model throughout Lebanon, something resembling a ready-made medical prescription. This makes it appear as if we have eclectically chosen isolated elements of our rich heritage to create a counterfeit heritage, while simultaneously destroying our real heritage.

This might seem natural in a society recovering from civil war, and looking for ways to construct a unifying discourse. Other societies have passed through similar experiences, whether in France after the Second World War, or in the post-revolution Soviet Union. In the former, the Vichy regime attempted to found principles of “local architecture” in order to ward off a modern trend labeled “cosmopolitan,” while in the latter, Stalin lay down the basis of Socialist realism in architecture by choosing a neo-classic style of architecture (imitating the model used by the nobility in Czarian Russia). This development represents a reaction, which, if allowed to continue, will soon lead to the deformation of heritage and its transformation into a dead body, of no use, except to produce static images that shackle society’s dynamism, prohibiting the creation of expressive structures that conform with its development.

This attitude seems to wear the stamp of appeasement. On one hand, by meeting the inclined interest in “traditional” forms, it responds to the popular rejection of the commercialism marking most modern architectural production. At the same, it shows no hesitancy in sacrificing actual heritage for real estate speculation. Nevertheless, the “unifying” function of this attitude remains a temporary development. It cannot replace a critical review of the relationship between heritage and the current situation, which would entail defining the nature of heritage, in both its traditional and modern forms, as well as the role it can play in producing the spaces in which we live.

Nor should we perceive our heritage as a mirror reflecting masks designed to hide our faces. We should not worship it as an idol without ever daring to untangle its mysteries.

First, from this review, we could learn how to invent a foundation of new rules upon which to build our modern and present architectural practices. Today, factors that used to limit our ability to create no longer do so. Instead, technological advances and a multiplicity of available resources allow the architect to build any imagined form, creating changes in the traditional ways of life which used to form a specific framework for creativity. At the same time, we have lost the rules and laws that once protected us from the madness of greatness. Now, when we imagine that we can haphazardly reproduce the world with the stroke of a pen, nothing prevents this intoxication from consuming us. The tendency towards imitating traditional forms represents a retreat to stable positions in a world abounding with doubt and lost confidence in almost everything. Still, in order to create a new modernism, we can understand the basis used to construct traditional forms without necessarily demolishing or mechanically recreating them.

This means that our architectural practice today should be critical, a “resistant practice,” to use the expression of American critic Kenneth Frampton. Resistance practice distinguishes itself from the current trend of generalizing a universal culture increasingly marked by sluggishness and superficiality. It also distinguishes itself from the pathological attachment to the exact traditional forms which emerge as obstacles to the development of our societies. The strategic direction of such resistance practice would be to produce a contemporary architectural language formed from restructuring elements indirectly inspired by our indigenous characteristics.

Our ancestors did this when they created the 19th century model of the “Traditional” Lebanese house with the open middle living area. The architects of the Mandate period developed this model and produced the “yellow buildings,” which used to represent a unique form of architecture compatible with our environment and our way of life. Pioneers of modernity did the same thing in the early days of independence, when they used a distinguished language to express the development of our society and the influence of modern technologies.

Today, the promotion of vulgar architectural forms and the transformation of architecture into a commodity removed from any value means that we must reconnect this broken thread. We also have to give back the poetic energy to architectural practice, an energy produced from interaction with the environment and the social circumstances in which it grows.

Last year, a dear friend asked me to design a building for him in one of the quarters of Beirut. He stipulated as his only condition that he wanted the building to be “different” from anything being built today. When I asked about the function of the building, he answered immediately: “It is easy... It will be like all these other apartments which are being built everywhere.” So I replied: “If you want to build apartments ‘like all the ones being built everywhere,’ why do you want the architecture of your building to be different?”

Of course, I understood what my friend meant. He wanted me to create a different exterior, to play with the facade and decorate it so that it looked different from other buildings. But the issue lies not simply in manipulating the decorative elements and the exterior. The exterior becomes a secondary element, part of the general framework that organizes the structure of the building, defining the forms and the shapes, as well as the relationship of the building with the surrounding general space, including streets and courtyards. The exterior will also occupy a secondary position compared with the goal of creating unity within diversity, instead of simply creating an accumulation of isolated buildings. If connected to the production of space for social relationships, it will act as a space that connects and not separates.

Studying our architectural heritage (and the heritage of other cultures, since architects around the world face similar problems today) we can conclude that it should not be viewed as a mirror reflecting the masks behind which we would like to hide our faces. Nor should we conceive of it as an idol to worship without ever daring to untangle its mysteries. We should instead transform it into a living body that guides us whenever we lose direction, allowing us to produce an ever evolving modernity.

Today, this crisis of Arab architecture reflects the crisis of contemporary Arab societies. It manifests itself in the deadly search for iconic images, and in the transposition of adapted forms from any style or age, haphazardly glued together. A clear inclination towards the superficial imitation of derivative/lineage forms accompanies it, along with the dominance of intellectual confusion, and the loss of any methodology for approaching the study of architecture.

Mechanical reproduction of modern world architecture market the early 1960s in Arab countries. This reproduction failed to take into consideration the fact that architecture represents the outcome of economic and technological development, both of which have profound social dimensions. As such, these cannot be treated as generic models to be blindly copied. Today, this lack of insight and mechanical reproduction has resulted in an Arab architectural approach which focuses on the external appearances of buildings and the formalism of the form. Thus, extravagant and conspicuous buildings, demonstrating poor taste, have become the common feature of most local production.

In the 1980s, a governmental decision to use the “Abassid” arches in governmental buildings resulted in architects littering Baghdad with so many arches it appeared as if arched buildings competed in a contest. This resulted in intellectual boredom and an architectural tarnish that spread across streets, engulfing quarters, and public plazas. A similar trend sweeps most of the Arab world today, where we witness the “fashion” of adding “Arabic” or “Islamic” forms to all buildings without regard for the resulting paradox in the formalism of these forms. Architects ignore their incompatibility with the nature and function of these buildings, disregarding the surrounding environment and the technology of production to be employed.

The widespread misuse traditional forms, treated as a quasi-magical recipe to add “Eastern” flavor to buildings, creates a vulgar pattern in the Gulf countries that cannot be separated from the general tendency towards the hegemony of intellectual trends. Here, the consumption of Western technology in its most modern forms creates unique challenges in societies still intent on preserving their traditional, pseudo-tribal structures.

The blind attachment to traditional forms and sanctification of the past, common to all Arab societies, act as masks hiding the ghastly paradoxes in which these societies live. These masks serve a clear social and political function. They allow the dominant groups to open and participate in world markets without allowing their participation to upset the foundations of their traditional authority. It also allows the continuation and renewal of the Arab architectural dependency upon dominant Western thought. It chains Arab Architecture to traditional forms, while denying it the capacity to truly comprehend their relationship to modernity. This creates the necessary condition to produce a contemporary thought capable of universal dimensions.

Today we have to cut this umbilical cord. At the same time, we have to liberate ourselves from our inferiority complex towards world modernity, as well as from the tendency to cling to traditional forms. This requires that we structure a new practice for the profession of architecture. This practice should combat the culture of authority and its official conduct, as well as its drift behind the dominant market powers. On the one hand, we need to abandon the “rhetorical discourse” often used in dealing with traditional architecture, an approach which in turn petrifies heritage and transforms it into an empty, formal framework. The new practice must also create an architectural language based on expressive forms, free from dominant intellectual frameworks dictated by the mechanics of the market.

In a lecture about the novel in the Third World, delivered at the University of Colombia, Elias Khoury called for the discovery of new forms of language, forms connected with speech. He demanded that those “considered unfit for writing” be “left outside traditional rhetoric.” Discovering these forms will, among other things, allow the language of literature and the structure of novels to open up and accept diversity, and will also help to establish a real relationship with history, ungoverned by historical mythology.

This literary analogy aids our understanding of the process needed to establish a resistant architectural practice. Abstract architectural forms have no meaning if they do not answer to social demands and meet the actual needs of inhabitants, connecting with the declared, unconscious or even repressed desires of those inhabitants. Initially, these needs and demands, subject to a variety of changes and transformations, may not clearly manifest themselves, and instead may hide behind various masks, possibly causing obliteration and distortion. The ideologies of the dominant classes may tend to interfere with societies that undergo quick transformations. This interference may produce illusionary needs reflecting the orders of the political authority and the mechanics of the market forces.

Today, the essential foundation for a contemporary Arabic architecture free from dead forms depends upon the rediscovery of actual and hidden social necessities. Just as the margin of speech insures uninterrupted living by allowing popular literature to free itself from the culture of authority and the rhetoric of repression, an equivalence exists in the field of architecture. This references spaces through which society can express its living needs without disguising them in rhetorical mechanisms or cultural power backgrounds.

These spaces, created outside of professional architectural practices, appear in the forms built spontaneously in suburbs and in some rural areas, where they remain on the margin of institutional architecture and dominant market forces. While they express the reality of life and the persistent needs usually excluded from the interests of official culture, they often share the characteristics of obscurity, improvisation, and ugliness, and, as such, do not constitute “architecture” in the real sense of the word.

By paying attention to these marginal spaces, studying how they form, and discovering how they give expression to living needs, we may find the defect in the current structure. We can then start building a new architectural practice that searches for a historical connection antithetical to the repressive continuum imposed by the dominant official culture.

Does this lead to the trap of nostalgia, creating a desire for spontaneous forms of building and an obsession with recapturing the illusion of “purity” that preceded the introduction of modernity into our world? The only solution entails returning to simple things, to the details, to the land, the location and the atmosphere, and to the everyday needs of the people and the way they interact with their environment. When we achieve an architecture that creates appropriate solutions for every condition and every location, then we can avoid falling into new illusions, as well as the mythology of lost purity and authenticity. We can then escape the schizophrenic conditions we live in today, flee the nightmare of imitating frozen traditional forms, and rid ourselves of our inferiority complex towards world culture. Then the Arab architect will have the capacity to move from one condition to the other in relation to global thought, producing local and contemporary elements which insure a living connection, surpassing the illusion of myth to discover a world open to diversity and to a continuously renewable authenticity.

Translated from the Arabic by Zeina M. Zaatari.

These articles appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 4, No. 25, Fall 1998 and Vol. 5, No. 26, Winter 1999.

Copyright © 1998 AL JADID MAGAZINE