Assem Salam: Building a Beirut With a Cause

For the dome of the mosque, he did not resort to making it out of metal as was typical at that time. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Rouba Abou Ammo

Published Monday, November 5, 2012

Lebanon lost one of its great architects with the recent passing of Assem Salam. In post-war Beirut, the architect struggled with Solidere’s plans to erase the city’s history, but Salam sought to preserve it with his own designs.

It is hard to know what to write about the late architect and activist Assem Salam. Was his struggle with illness and subsequent death the most important aspect of his life? Or was it his architectural and union activity?

His friends and family insist that it’s his personality that should be documented. They want relay his positive and revolutionary attitude to the general public. They want people to remember how he fused his buildings into the social fabric, intending them to exist in harmony. In their view, he succeeded.

Prioritizing the social was reflected in all details of Salam’s life. It’s as if he revived the bustling pre-war Burj Square in Beirut – which has been completely erased by Solidere – in his home. He opened it to all.

When you enter his house, you don’t want to miss the slightest detail. He knew its appeal and had thought of turning it into a museum, according to his son Ali.

When his family is asked about who could tell us more about Salam’s life, they direct us to Elie Najm and Jad Tabet. With Tabet in France at the moment, we went to talk to Najm, who was facing his first day without his close companion.

“I cannot yell at you anymore,” Salam told Najm shortly before he passed away. They had become accustomed to arguing about their divergent views. Only in the last two days of his life did pancreatic cancer overcome him. Before that, the balance was in his favor. His old age made it difficult to resist.

Najm talks about how the late Salam considered himself the number one opponent of Solidere’s plans for the reconstruction of downtown Beirut after the war. According to Najm, Salam refused to leave his house in al-Musaitbeh during the Israeli invasion of Beirut. “His struggle against Israel was as deep rooted as his commitment to the Palestinian cause. And despite his vast open-mindedness, he was connected to the land,” says Najm.

His friend says that “he looked English but had an Arab soul” – that’s why those close to him described him as “an English gentleman.”

His family chose the Khashogji Mosque, which he designed, for the funeral services. The challenge for the late architect, his friend explains, was designing it in “a modern way that suited the period when it was built.” The final product, Najm says, “is something else.”

For the dome of the mosque, he did not resort to making it out of metal as was typical at that time. He borrowed traditional methods to create a modern structure.

“He was a rebel who refused to sell out, putting the interests of Beirut as a city above those of Solidere. He constantly renewed himself but he had firm principles,” says Najm.

Many of his students still recall Salam the teacher and friend who always invited them to his house. Khalil Khoury, a former student, points out that Salam’s wife, Vasiliki Layous, was the first woman to study architecture in Lebanon.

Khoury remembers how Salam used to push his students forward, like Jad Tabet, who is now working in France, telling him, “You have to find a bit of joy in everything you present.”

Architect Abdul-Halim Jabr was not one of his students, but he got to know Salam when he was president of the Order of Engineers and Architects. Jabr remembers that Salam was one of those who saw the necessity of identity in Arab architecture, particularly after the colonial period.

For his part, architect Nadim Nammour notes that Salam was the only one who proposed that the post-civil war reconstruction of Lebanon be carried out according to modern planning methods, much like the Europeans did after World War II.

He recounts Salam’s many achievements, including the renovation of historic sites in Deir al-Qamar and the nearby Beiteddine Palace.

Nammour adds that Salam was in the process of developing plans for areas all over Lebanon with the aim of preserving the environment and heritage. He explains that the late teacher “succeeded in turning a building into an added value for the area in which it is located.”

Salam’s sullen exterior, his close friend Malek Mroue insists, did not in anyway reflect the man’s true nature. Mroue, who got to know Salam through his daughters, decided to call him “smiley,” because he never smiled, and the name stuck.

Salam died Sunday early in the morning, leaving behind piles of drawings of Beirut as the late architect had wished to see it.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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