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Arab Architectural Heritage Between Mirrors And Idols
By Jad Thabet
Looking Within And Beyond
The Tradition-Modernity Debate
When the issue of reconstruction was raised at the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the discussion focused on the 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 of beautiful photographs about “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 or 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 are quite scant. Jacques Liger-Belair book, published in 1962, is considered 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. Lastly, a book published by Sursuk 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 was never a focus until the past few years.
In fact, legislative authorities in modern Lebanon have ignored this issue since the country gained its independence. The last laws that dealt with heritage were issued during the Mandate. One law (number 166/L.R. issued on November 7, 1933) deals with archaeological ruins. A second is the Environment and Natural Scenery Protection Law issued on July 8, 1936. With the exception of these two texts, 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 that heritage plays in Lebanese society and culture. Except for a few critics, nobody complained when the souks [bazzars] of old downtown Beirut were swept away. When the current downtown Beirut reconstruction project was formulated in the summer of 1991, the critics focused on its negative elements. Yet, later on it seemed that no one resisted the real destruction which touches the various quarters of Beirut, from Ain al-Mraysseh to al Ashrafieh, where a whole heritage is being massacred by real estate competition.
The increased talk about architectural heritage is now considered a healthy phenomenon, a cultural reaction toward the ongoing destruction and obliteration of memory. But this need not become a mere lamenting of heritage and crying over the ruins. The current discussion should not become simplistic, categorizing the positions on architectural heritage into two opposing groups–the defenders of heritage versus the innovators. The first group wants to transform the city into a museum of the war’s ruins, and are nostalgic about bygone past, confining themselves into grieving for the past and protesting anything that restores life to the body of the city. On the other hand, the second group consists of those who would like to formulate a modernizing project based on a futuristic vision which is free from nightmares of the past. As if modernity and heritage are antithetical concepts.
Arab architectural modernity is present today before our eyes and we do not need to invent it or create it anew. It is present with all of its richness and problems, its beauty and ugliness, and its liveliness and contradictions.
The way out of this dilemma is to define some concepts that clarify the problem of heritage in its various dimensions. We cannot study the subject of heritage as if it is a simple, objective topic, something rigid and unchangeable. On the contrary, heritage is a complex concept, synthetic, and subject to interpretation and judgements. 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.
Examples abound in this regard. The designs drawn by Baron George-Eugene Haussmann for Paris in the late 19th century, largely inspired by modernizing reasons, resulted in destroying vast quarters of the structure of the old city. Still, the Haussmannian product today constitutes an essential part of the architectural heritage of the French capital. When major buildings were built during the Industrial Revolution in Europe (factories and storage areas), they were considered for a long time as simply functional structures with no connection to art or architecture. Today, they have become major aspects of Europe ’s heritage, where many of these buildings subsequently have been classified 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. Yet, the last few years have witnessed an increase in the field of theoretical studies of the subject in three areas: expanding the field of architectural heritage, connecting that heritage with the surrounding culture, and removing time boundaries.
The first area broadened the field of architectural heritage to include the city as a major center of collective memory, and the natural environment as a domain in which the special relationship between the people and the product of architecture is cultivated. It became clear that focusing exclusively on the historic buildings removed from the surrounding environment leads to a disruption of the context in which they grow. It also leads to severing the roots that connect these buildings with their space which alone can give them an artistic and symbolic value.
The second area focused on connecting architectural heritage with human activities and as such moving it out of the museum into people’s lives. Instead of heritage remaining a mummified body or a commodity for tourist consumption, it can be viewed as an active element in social life. It can grow and develop with the renewed connection to the present while giving the present a historic depth that continuously revives it.
The third area was marked by the breakdown of time boundaries which used to confine heritage within the products of old historical phases. The Haussmannian heritage and the product of the Industrial Revolution were both included gradually in the field of architectural heritage in the West. Along the same lines, there is today an increased interest in the architectural projects built during the 20th century. For example, there are the renovated buildings built by Le Corbusier in France, and the reconstructed exhibition building in Barcelona designed by Mies Van der Rohe.
It is quite obvious that the issue of architectural heritage is dealt with differently in Lebanon than in the West. This variance is due to a difference in the understanding of heritage in and of itself, a difference in the historic and social circumstances, and a difference in our understanding of the relationship between heritage and modernity.
Heritage in Arab Architecture
The method employed by contemporary Arab engineers in studying architectural heritage is distinguished by the development of two schools or trends. Each lays down a theoretical basis that specifies the relation today’s Arab architecture has with both tradition and modernity. These schools raised issues which relate not only to architecture but include the relationship between contemporary Arab culture and modernity, as well as raising questions about reading our contemporary history.
Representing the first school is the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi. His discipline is based on a radical vision that claims that modernity had brought fundamental change in Arab societies, causing them to lose their authenticity and rich legacy inherited from past generations. This intellectual concept focused on rejecting modernity as cosmopolitan and causing our societies to lose their distinguished peculiarity and to become consuming societies which have no values other than those purely materialistic. Emphasized also by this school is the notion that modernity is a movement confined to the upper classes, groups connected intellectually and culturally with the West, which use modernity as a tool to oppress popular classes and set them apart from their culture and history.
Accordingly, this school stressed the necessity of using traditional materials, such as clay and stone, as well as reviving the old handicraft construction tools, rejecting reinforced concrete and advanced technologies which subject our societies, economically and culturally, to the domination of Western modernity. This school urged confronting the disintegration of traditional culture in the Arab world and the transformation of most 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, the net result of the 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 move from their primary residential concentration–where they made their living out of the search for archaeological artifacts and their sale to tourists– and return to the village designed for them. Al-Karnah stands today as a ghost town, a witness to the failure of the utopian call for the return to the rural life and the rejection of the civilization of the city.
Eventually, Hassan Fathi’s experiment led to the opposite of what it called for at its inception. Today, Fathi’s followers build huge palaces and mansions for the Gulf rich in the Texas desert and large tourist centers for international clubs. Subsequently, the experiment of building for the poor became a pure manipulation of geometric shapes and the production of a geometric folkloric style to be consumed by the rich. Despite its aesthetic characteristics, this school failed to solve the actual problems facing human communities in Arab cities today.
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 exercised a great influence on Arab contemporary architecture in its totality. It formed a dominant intellectual approach based on theoretical notions making up a comprehensive analysis of the relationship of Arab architecture with modernism. These notions can be summed up as follows:
First: Modernity had been concentrated in the West since the 15th century and started gradually to dominate the outside the world, spreading its ideas and values.
Second: When Arab societies encountered the obstacles of Western technological developments in the 19th century, they were forced to adopt modern Western principles to resolve these dilemmas. Thus, the elements of modernity, in their Western peculiarities, began to expand in the world, thereby producing a clash caused by the incompatibility between these components and Arab societies with their cultural specificities.
The hegemony of Western modernity led the Arab world to lose some of its peculiarities and many of the elements that made up its identity. Nothing illustrates this better than Arab architecture, as architectural heritage started decaying because of its inability to face the dynamics of imported Western modernity 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?
Third: Based on this clash, the second school refuses to return to the traditional principles of Arab architecture which lead to isolation, seclusion, and denial of modernity. Moreover, this school claims that adopting the principles advanced by Fathi could lead to the reproduction of some traditional forms in a mechanical manner, and the failure to create new characteristics consistent with the needs of time.
Fourth: Faced with these undesirable prospects, the Jadirjian school calls for subjecting the features of heritage to rational criticism, choosing what is compatible with the needs of time, and reintegrating those selected aspects with the elements of recent resources and modern technologies. Through a process of separation and connection, this school calls for transcending the contradiction between tradition and modernity and subsequently fusing them to create features which produce a contemporary Arab architecture.
This analysis raises a number of questions that should be seriously debated. First, Arab heritage and Western modernity, the analysis suggests, are two distinct concepts, totally independent from each other. But such analysis is somewhat simplistic, primarily because modernity remains an incomplete project that cannot be confined today to one domain or overall unified pattern. Equally inaccurate is the talk of the peculiarities of Western modernity in opposition to Arab heritage, especially if we consider the changes influencing modernity since its inception.
More than one stage marks modernity. The stage of the “primary modernity” is distinguished by the discoveries of the Renaissance in Europe. Another stage is the modernity of the Enlightenment, which introduced a theoretical reform in knowledge and in the view of the world, religion, and political and authoritative frameworks. A third stage is the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, 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 way, influenced by parts of it while rejecting others. Arab heritage in turn is neither monolithic nor unchangeable. Arab societies have undergone changes during the past century and a half, and especially after World War II– basic 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 the ways of living, residence and day-to-day activities, all producing fundamental changes in space and time according to which Arab societies are organized. At the level of the material environment, the general appearance of Arab cities has undergone change, becoming huge residential concentrations of migrants from the countryside, and also marked by architectural forms and new building types that transformed the features of these cities significantly.
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 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?
Modernity has become one of the inseparable components of Arab cities to the extent that we can no longer talk about an imported modernity and an authentic heritage. Arab architectural modernity is present today before our eyes and we do not need to invent it or create it anew. It is present with all of its richness and problems, its beauty and ugliness, and its liveliness and contradictions. As in most of the world, modernity in Arab cities has the good and the less good, the beautiful and the ugly. What is important is that 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 tradition is already present in our cities, and the experiment of Arab architectural modernity with its formative characteristics is a self-existent experiment. Our task today is to start from this reality, this fusion, as well as from a critique of this experiment, to find new means to voice the demands of this stage instead of adopting an eclectic method which is bound to produce half solutions. Hashem Sarkis, in an article published in An-Nahar in March 1995, called upon the “Great Masters,” the generation of Lebanese architects that built the monuments of modernity in Beirut of the 1960s, not to abandon what they produced, and to be aware that their modernity is soon to 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 which became part of an integral position that distinguishes our relationship with heritage and modernity since the Arab world opened up to the West?
It is important to note that when the initial attempts of modernizing Arab cities at the hands of the Ottomans began in all parts of the empire, and similarly by Mohammad Ali in Egypt, the issue of heritage was not raised as an obstacle to the attempts of architectural modernity. Instead, the only texts which discussed a threat to Arab architectural heritage by modernization were written by Orientalists influenced by European romanticists yearning for an exotic culture that had not been subjected to the shocks of the Industrial Revolution. Available documentation and records, in the form of photos, paintings, and texts offering descriptions of Arab traditional cities are solely Orientalist works. Thus, our view of our architectural historical heritage is, to a large extent, the product of the West.
Consider Beirut, for example. When Al-Walli Azmi Bey destroyed the old city of Beirut during World War I, there had not been any opposition, despite the incurred social disaster. In fact, Beirut notables warmly welcomed the destruction of their old city, considering it an introduction into the age of modernity. Only Dumesnil Dubuisson, a French scholar who visited Beirut during the entry of the Allied forces during WW I, expressed regret for what he witnessed, recording his observations and describing the tragedies caused by the destruction, including his sorrow over the historical buildings that were swept to the sea.
Confirming this paradox is the observation that during the stage of direct British and French colonial control, most Arab countries witnessed the emergence of an architectural style that can be described as “Arab colonial style” (Style colonial arabisant). It was an attempt to establish a distinct architectural language, a combination of selective European architecture at the end of the 19th century and a romantic Orientalism through the adaptation of terms and concepts drawn from local heritage.
This means that our architectural practice today should be critical, that is a “resistant practice,” to use the expression of the American critic Kenneth Frampton. Resistance practice means a practice that is distinguished from the current trend generalizing a universal culture increasingly marked by sluggishness and superficiality, 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 demand for housing, factors necessitating the use of new materials and construction methods. These developments influenced the architectural types and geometric forms and thus pushed Arab architects to adopt a pure modernizing language and to abandon former experiments. 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 the appropriate solutions, mainly due to improvisation and blind trust in imitating Western types, it was not questioned until the late 1960s. Instead of subjecting the first period of Arab architectural modernity to criticism, questions evolved during the 1970s and 1980s into a complete rejection of the language of modernity and into an open invitation to cling to traditional forms and a 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 is that 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.
Like what happened in Europe in the end of the 19th century, or in Russia in the 1930s, whenever a new social group gains controls of the government, it will have a natural inclination to adopt old forms of expression upon which it bases its cultural visions and artistic tastes. It seems that the compulsory process of modernization in these societies at the economic and social levels is accompanied by a tendency towards traditional forms of expression at the ideological level.
If we connect this with the crisis experienced by modernity in the West since the late 1970s, and comprehensively rethink the essential premises which formed the intellectual base of this modernity since the age of Enlightenment, then we may be able to understand why heritage has become today a refuge where we search for our identity. Heritage is a mirror in which we attempt to discover the features of an identity we feel we have lost.
But if heritage is a mirror, what images does this mirror reflect? Do we see our real image or the image we would like to see? Is heritage a mirror reflecting our real identity, or does it reflect our dormant desires?
Reflecting on the reconstruction experience in Lebanon after the war, we find that while we destroy our genuine architectural heritage, at the same time we create an imaginary heritage, clothing our new buildings with it as if we are trying to hide their modernity behind an old mask, a mask of tradition. Examples of this phenomenon abound. How many buildings were recently built at the ruins of a traditional Lebanese house or a beautiful building from the 1930s, attempting to hide the new building’s poor design and lack of harmony with its surroundings under a forged “traditional” guise which has now become a common fashion? Some of Beirut ’s elegant buildings of the 1960s are being defaced by adding arches to their facades and dressing them with a “Tarabish” [traditional caps or fezes] of red bricks. These arches usually appear on the additional stories that were added illegally during the war or added due to the implementation of the famous “Mur Floor” law [a law that allows building additional stories in return for an additional tax].
One of the most significant examples of the relationship that has developed between our heritage and modernity is the St. George Hotel. Designed by the Lebanese architect Antoun Thabet in 1929, this hotel signaled the declaration of the first principles of modern architecture in Lebanon. A number of characteristics distinguish the St. George Hotel, making it an exceptional model and giving it a central role in the history of Lebanese architecture. It is the first building in Lebanon which used reinforced concrete for long-range buildings. It is also the first to clearly show the reinforced concrete, revealing the potential capability of this new material in accomplishing an aesthetic architecture. Based on the principles of the Rational school in modern architecture, which Thabet adapted from his teacher, the famous French architect Auguste Perret, the structure draws upon the size of the building and sets its rhythm in a way that establishes a compatibility between its vertical terraces and longitudinal lines. The facades are balanced and enhanced by the protrusion of their windows, the decoration of their balconies, and the details of their corners, thus lessening the harshness of the structure and bringing to it a feeling of life.
What is more important is the fact that this modern building stands in its location as if it has always been there. Is it because it rises up above the seashore like traditional Lebanese houses that overlook the ocean? Or is it because of that Eastern touch that imprints its facades and connects it to an authentic heritage, despite its use of a pure language of modernity? Or is it because it has become a major formative part of Beirut ’s narrative, and as such one of its symbols?
War hit this symbol just like the rest of the city. Yet, the current era of reconstruction might become more devastating than the destruction of war. The owners of the St. George Hotel proposed leveling the hotel and rebuilding it anew in the same location with two additional stories, all under the pretext of befitting recent investment conditions. 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 and demanded that the government classify the hotel as a building of cultural and artistic value, the owners of the St. George were granted a permit to tear it down on the condition of rebuilding it in accordance with its original style.
This decision is an architectural heresy, a clear proof of the level at which architectural heritage is dealt with in our official culture. Rebuilding a new hotel that exactly conforms with the current one is almost impossible. How is it possible to add two more stories to the already existing four without defacing the gracefulness of the building and upsetting the balance and the harmony of its facades? How is it possible with the new construction methods to reproduce a masterpiece made in an almost craftsman form? How can we restore to the concrete its character etched by the sun and the sea winds? Where then is the loyalty to the architectural message carried by this structure, the message of openness and honest expression of the spirit of the period in which it was built? Are we not losing that spirit when we build a crude copy of an original in the wake of its demolition, just like the Roman temples built out of reinforced concrete in the recreational facilities of Disneyland?
The same method is used in “renovating” the structure of Beirut ’s al-Sarayeh [City Hall]. This historic building was completely demolished except for its exterior. These facades are used to mask what is happening behind the new construction, and has no relationship whatsoever to the historic configuration of the building. Additionally, one notes another story added to the historical structure under the pretext of providing new space.
Besides violating the most simple and basic principles of loyalty to heritage, we have been witnessing the emergence of an official tendency to produce what can be called an architectural “national style,” 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.
It is noticeable that this trend is almost confined to generalizing the arch form to decorate facades and uses red brick, at times to the edges of the reinforced concrete ceilings. Equally visible is that there is a hidden model that lies behind this “national style,” and that can be defined as a mixture of palaces in Mount Lebanon which were built during the eighteenth century and the buildings of the rich classes in Beirut in the late nineteenth century. The selection of this model is far from being innocent; it has intellectual, political and aesthetic assumptions.
This choice make us look as if we are relinquishing our rich architectural heritage, characterized by bifurcation and 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 were merged with environmental and climatic conditions, the characteristics of the social structure, and the ways of living, to produce a complex body continuously developing.
Instead, our architectural heritage today is confined to a rigid formation, something like a ready made medical prescription, popularized as a simplistic model all over Lebanon. In doing this, we seem as if eclectically choosing isolated elements of our rich heritage to form something similar to heritage but not actual heritage, while destroying our real heritage.
This might seem natural in a society recovering from civil war and looking for signs to construct a unifying discourse. Other societies have passed through a similar experience, whether in France after the Second World War, when the Vichy regime attempted to found principles of “local architecture” to ward off a modern trend labeled “cosmopolitan,” or in the post-revolution Soviet Union, when Stalin chose a neo-classic style of architecture (imitating the model used by the nobility in Czarian Russia) to lay down the basis of Socialist realism in architecture. This development is merely a reaction, and if allowed to continue it will soon lead to the deformation of heritage and its transformation into a dead body of no use, except for producing static images that shackle society’s dynamism and prohibit the creation of expressive structures that conform with its development.
This attitude seems to wear an appeasing stamp. On one hand, it responds to the popular rejection of the commercialism that marks most of the modern architectural production by meeting the inclined interest in “traditional” forms, while at the same it shows no hesitancy in sacrificing the actual heritage for real estate speculation. Nevertheless, the “unifying” function of this attitude remains a temporary development that cannot replace a critical review of the relationship between heritage and our current situation, defining the nature of heritage, in both its traditional and modern forms, and the role it can play in producing the space in which we live.
...we should not perceive our heritage as mirrors reflecting the masks we would like to hide our faces with, nor as an idol we worship without ever daring to untangle its mysteries.
The first thing we could learn from this review is how to invent new rules to build upon our modern and present architectural practices. Because of technological advances, the multiplicity of resources available for the architect to build any imagined form, and changes in the traditional ways of life which used to form a specific framework for creativity, we are free today from factors that used to limit our ability to create. At the same time, we have lost all the rules and laws that once protected us from the madness of greatness, as well as from being taken over by the intoxication when we imagine that we can haphazardly reproduce the world by the stroke of a pen. The tendency towards imitating traditional forms represents a retreat to stable positions in a world abounding with doubt and lost confidence in almost everything. But it is possible to understand the basis according to which traditional forms were built, without necessarily having them demolished or mechanically recreated, in order to work for a new modernism.
This means that our architectural practice today should be critical, that is a “resistant practice,” to use the expression of the American critic Kenneth Frampton. Resistance practice means a practice that is distinguished from the current trend generalizing a universal culture increasingly marked by sluggishness and superficiality, as well as from the pathological attachment to 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 to be formed out of restructuring elements indirectly inspired by our indigenous characteristics.
This is what our ancestors did when they created in the nineteenth century the model of the “Traditional” Lebanese house with the middle open living area. The architects of the Mandate period had 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. The same thing was done by pioneers of modernity in the early days of independence, when they expressed through a distinguished language the development of our society and the influence of modern technologies.
Today, we have to reconnect this broken thread because of the promotion of these vulgar architectural forms and the transformation of architecture into a commodity removed from any value. We also have to give back to architectural practice its poetic energy, which is produced from interaction with the environment and the social circumstances in which it grows.
Last year, a dear friend paid me a visit and asked me to design a building for him in one of the quarters of Beirut . His only condition was that he wanted the building to be “different” from anything that is being built today. I asked him about the nature of 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 answered: “If you want to build apartments ‘like all the ones being built everywhere,’ how come you want the architecture of your building to be different?”
Of course, I understood what my friend meant. He wants me to create a different exterior, to play with the facade and decorate it so that it looks different from other buildings. But the issue lies not simply in manipulating the decorative elements and the exterior. The exterior becomes a secondary element when considered part of a 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 be secondary if compared with the goal of creating unity within diversity instead of simply having an accumulation of isolated buildings, and if it is connected to the production of space for social relationships, a space that connects and not separates.
We can conclude from the study of our architectural heritage (and the heritage of other cultures, since all architects around the world face similar problems today) that we should not perceive our heritage as mirrors reflecting the masks we would like to hide our faces with, nor as an idol we worship without ever daring to untangle its mysteries. We should instead transform it into a living body that guides us constantly whenever we lose direction, allowing us to produce an always evolving modernity.
This crisis of Arab architecture constitutes today a clear expression of the crisis of contemporary Arab societies. It manifests itself in the deadly search for iconic images and the transposition of adapted forms from any style or age, glued together with each other, accompanied by a clear inclination toward imitating derivative/lineage forms in a superficial way. The crisis also expresses itself in the dominance of intellectual confusion and the loss of any methodology approaching the study of architecture.
The early 1960s in the Arab countries were marked by architectural tendencies whose proponents attempted reproducing the modern architecture in the world in a mechanical form, without taking into consideration that such architecture is not simply a model that can be copied but rather the outcome of economic and technological development of profound social dimensions. Arab architectural production is dominated today by an approach that is only concerned with the external appearance of buildings and focuses only on the formalism of the form. Thus, there is a spread of extravagant and conspicuous buildings, with poor taste being the common feature of most local production.
Baghdad of the 1980s was jam-packed with arches as if the arched buildings were in a contest, a phenomenon unleashed by a governmental decision to use the “Abassid” arches in governmental buildings. This resulted in an intellectual boredom and an architectural tarnish that stretched across streets, quarters, and public plazas. A similar trend is sweeping most of the Arab world today, where we witness the “fashion” of adding forms called “Arabic” or “Islamic” on all buildings without any regard for the resulting paradox in the formalism of these forms, nor in their incompatibility with the nature of these buildings and their function, the used technology of production, and even the surrounding environment.
The generalization of this vulgar pattern in dealing with traditional forms (which is dealt with as if it is a magical recipe that adds this “Eastern” flavor to buildings) cannot be separated from the general tendency towards the hegemony of intellectual trends from the Gulf countries, where Western technology is being consumed in its most modern forms while most societies are still preserving their traditional, pseudo-tribal structures.
The phenomenon common to all Arab societies, including attachment to traditional forms and the sanctification of the past, are merely masks that hide the ghastly paradox in which these societies live. These masks have a clear social and political function. They allow the dominant groups to open up to the world market without allowing this opening to upset the base of their traditional authority. It also allows for the renewal of the dependency of Arab architecture on dominant Western thought, in that it remains chained to the complex of traditional forms without the capability of recreating these forms within an all encompassing understanding of their relationship to modernity. This is 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 the problem of clinging to traditional forms and from the inferiority complex towards world modernity. This requires that we structure a new practice for the profession of architecture. This practice should be capable of combating the culture of authority and its official conduct as well as its drift behind the dominant market powers. Thus, on the one hand, we need to abandon the “rhetorical discourse” which is often used in dealing with traditional architecture, an approach which in turn freezes heritage and simply transforms it into an empty formal framework. The new practice also demands the creation of 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, and that “what is considered unfit for writing to be thus left outside traditional rehetoric.” Discovering these forms will allow for opening up the language of literature and the structure of novels to accept diversity, and to help to establish a real relationship with history ungoverned by historical mythology.
This literary analogy helps us to understand the process of establishing a resistant architectural practice. Abstract architectural forms have no meaning if they do not answer to the social demands and the actual needs of the inhabitants, and are not connected with their declared, unconscious or even their repressed desires. These needs and demands do not appear clearly, initially, since they are subject to various kinds of change and transformation. These needs could be hidden behind various masks which could cause obliteration and distortion. Societies that undergo quick transformations are prone to interference by the ideologies of the dominant classes for the purpose of producing illusionary needs reflecting the orders of the political authority and the mechanics of the market forces.
Th e essential beginning for laying down the basis of a contemporary Arabic architecture free from dead forms lies today in a rediscovery of the usually actual and hidden social necessities. As speech constitutes a margin allowing popular literature to free itself from the culture of authority and the rhetoric of repression to insure uninterrupted living, an equivalence exists in the field of architecture, where there is a space through which society expresses its living needs without disguising them in rhetorical mechanisms or cultural power backgrounds.
This space is being created outside of professional architectural practices and appears in the forms that are built spontaneously in the suburbs or in some of the rural areas, thus remaining on the margin of institutional architecture and dominant market forces. However, these formations do not constitute “architecture” in the real sense of the word, since they are usually characterized by obscurity, improvisation, and ugliness. Yet, they express the reality of life and the persistent needs which usually are excluded from the interests of official culture.
By paying attention to these marginal formations, studying how they are formed, and discovering their expression of the living needs that are in demand, we may find the defect in the current structure. We can then start building a new architectural practice that searches for a historical connection that is the antithesis of the repressive continuum imposed by the dominant official culture.
Doesn’t this lead us to fall in the trap of nostalgia for spontaneous forms of building and the illusion of “purity” that preceded the introduction of modernity into our world? The only solution is to go back 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 have an architecture that creates appropriate solutions for every condition and every location, then we can avoid falling into new illusions and the mythology of lost purity and authenticity. We can then be freed from 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 be able to move from one condition to the other in his or her relationship with global thought, and produce local and contemporary elements which insure a living connection, surpassing the illusion of myth to discover a world open to diversity and to continuously renewable authenticity.
Translated from the Arabic by Zeina M. Zaatari
These articles appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, Nos. 25 and 26 (Summer and Fall 1998)