This text was sent to AlMouhandes Magazine (The official magazine of the Order of Architects and Engineers in Lebanon) and did not get through. Nevertheless, هيهات منا الذل , donc.. here we go:
For a given race, cultural production – in retrospect – could be identified as heritage, whereby heritage becomes the byproduct of this people’s evolution in their everyday practice. In the mere functional sense of the term, heritage is a label to the natural trajectory of production and its respective consumption in a given time and place.
The perception and utilization of heritage in Lebanon comes with a capital H. Heritage. In its postcolonial state as an inevitable third world market with an unbalanced consumption/production relationship, Lebanon, as a dissociatedly communal identity crisis reflected heritage back to different milestones of its once-golden past and manifested it physically into a strictly aesthetic discourse with a preservationalist moral etiquette.
Historical survey studies like works of Ragette, intended to be analytical of traditional construction, somehow became at the forefront of architectural education and implementation leading to the formulation of a hypothetical yes and no acceptance system that would devise whether certain architecture was Lebanese while others weren’t.
With the lack of a worthy contemporary alternative movement, the identity of the builtscape in Lebanon became more theatrical, less architectural. In parallel to the aesthetic approach driven by the professional mechanism of building, namely architects, clients were more and more convinced of this ‘style’. What was assumed to be nice was supposed to be Lebanese, and what was assumed to be Lebanese was arches, pitched roofs and stone.
Most of the work that I have been doing in my architectural practice has been situated in the epicenter of the Lebanese identity crisis, the village. The village, in the prominent nostalgia of the Lebanese people, i.e. the client, is the remaining physical interpretation of Lebanon. Its preservation has become a must. Its future development must now mimic its existing form.
Because talking about architecture without having a tangible case study is redundant, I will take the village of Barsa, North Lebanon as a case study that would act as a rough model for, more or less, the Lebanese countryside and its logistical establishment of contemporary construction. Due to its proximity to Tripoli, Barsa is becoming a desirable quiet area to move out of the city into, rendering its construction activity intense compared to a supposed haven in the countryside. On the other hand, what seems to be the only safeguard to its ambiance is a set of zoning rules that produce a design template for the architect to tweak into construction documents.
One possible definition of architecture would be that it’s a contextual art of habitation. In architectural practice though, context ceases to exist. Context is taken out of the domain of the architect into the realm of the urban planner that devises cut-out models of heritage-incubators, buildings that are going to be built now – yet look like their great grandparents.
As an architect you are confronted with an outline. Taking setbacks and footprints as postulates, sixty percent of each façade is required to be clad in stone. Your building will have a red pyramidal chapeau with a twenty five degree inclination. If you’re lucky, your client, most likely an amateur developer, would have the minimum budget prerequisite. You are then set free to produce a specimen that blends in with hypothetical heritage, something that will proudly be erected to retain the homogeneity of the village. Something that, when you walk around in Barsa, will reverberate the echo of an implemented aboriginal concept.
But you would walk around amidst some of the newly constructed patches of Barsa today, and see a pastiche of built objects that hardly hint the peasantly glamour of the Lebanese village. The contemporary village has become a construct of concrete semicircles yearning to be arches, steel truss pyramids clad in red tiles and life-size stone catalogs of stone highlighting the glorious power of eight-dollars-a-meter synthetically manufactured stone.
All these buildings are legal and approved by the Order of Engineers and the Urban Planning Bureau. What seems to be illegal though is to design a building beyond Feiruzian Ululations; the percentages should be met, the materials should be set and the saddest part is that this theatrical architecture is what people want to live in. One of the buildings I set the preliminary design for has a dissymmetrical stone clad pattern, leaving some apartments with stone-free facades. These apartments were not sold. The other side on the other hand, an internally identical plan yet endowed with a stone-clad exterior was sold instantly. The constructed concept of Lebanese architecture is imprinted in the demand force, so the issue does not lie solely with the planning sector, but with the consumption system as a whole. The mainstream construction boom adapting the school of Feiruzian architecture alongwith the need for cheaper, more stereotypical production stunned the spatial instinct of the masses, as dramatic as it sounds. Clients desire their homes in square meters, not in living standards. The specificity of individual life has dissolved in a Heritage-masked building machine.
Amidst this mayhem of production, and skipping the fact that this attempt to reclaim an irreclaimable identity is rendering our living quality pathetic, we are at a point where our cultural production is leaving almost nothing for future retrospect. It is the temporary thrill of imagery and show business that is completely blinding us from our catastrophic status quo. I can blame it on the Feiruzian narcotic, but that will just create another critical dogma; architecture should go back to context. Context here is not just the tangible collectible evidence in a site analysis, but the clients and stakeholders must understand that they are, too, context. When you walk into an old Lebanese house and feel star-struck by its spatial superiority, it doesn’t mean that replicating this old house now would do the trick. An old Lebanese house is not a triple-arched central-hall with a red pitched roof, it’s a product of its contextual reflection. It is made of stone because stone was a building material, not because yellow stone is pretty. It’s composed of arches and vaults because this is the structural system in stone building, not because of a fetish of curvature. Its window scale and ceiling height allow proper lighting and ventilation, and it pitched roof is inclined the way it is to mitigate sedimentation on the roof. The composition works, its imitation and simplification into an aesthetic guideline, on the other hand, doesn’t.
We have passed the tipping point when it comes to the logic of our built fabric, but it’s never too late to reconsider how to go about it. Zoning laws should back off urban vignetting and instead of taking every submitted project to a yes/no checklist it would make more sense to have general guidelines then judge each building entry as a project based on its success in producing viable living standards while relating to its evolving context. People, on the other hand, should accept the fact that there is an individually distinct direct relationship between the places they inhabit and their comfort. It’s not on the a.m. radio, and it’s not an eternal Halloween.