On destroying the Lebanese public library of architecture

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Can something be said too many times? Tripoli is dying. Here you go. Contrary to popular belief, it is not already dead, but dying. Its people are still somehow circulating its decaying streets. Its downtown and old quarters are still trying to pump life into the rest of the city. The Abu Ali river refuses to completely dry up, which uses sewage as disguise before it picks up speed again in winter. The city is not dead, but it definitely is dying. Technically it is not too late, but it’s sad that its end seems inevitable. Its souks, khans, piazzas, mosques, churches and fortress constitute one of the few remaining historical downtowns in the Arab world after wars have been erasing its rivals in sister Arab states. Will we just simply let go of it?

In architecture, there are people that rally for the conservation of heritage buildings in order to save traces of the past, and others who are more interested in building a detached style for the future. In Lebanon, it’s not quite often that these people work hand in hand to create relevant spaces. It’s sad but true. The grey area is made of practitioners who are apathetic about any general discourse in architecture, and live by a “build what sells” motto.

Here, in a place like Lebanon, where almost under every square meter of land one is prone to find a relic, clue, or trace of cultures that inhabited this landscape throughout its vast history, the question of how to deal with remaining architectural heritage should inevitably always be in the forefront. Experiments such as Solidere’s reconstruction of downtown Beirut to an image the company thinks fit, made me one of those architects who just want to aggressively move forward with things. The company turned the war-torn downtown of Beirut city into an outdoor mall that looks like a colonial postcard. If conservation policies would produce anything like the contemporary fate of downtown Beirut, then I would be in favor of demolishing everything. I would aspire to be the nuclear bomb of architecture. I would make it all fall, save it from being a man-made massacre disguised as a nostalgic love song.

The case of Tripoli makes me angrily bounce back. It seems to always be forgotten that architecture is the act of production of space for people. They are made for people to use as habitat and as information. To design a space today is to make the best of the contemporary context to cater to today’s needs. To observe the space of yesterday is to understand its entire sociopolitical and environmental ecosystem through architecture.

Architecture is a priceless tool where ideas and materials intersect. Based on this logic, the Arab world, being one of the oldest inhabited areas on earth, is one heck of an information capsule, an archive of the evolution of the relationship of people with their contexts and a potential laboratory for architectural experimentation. The sad truth states otherwise. This public archive of architecture is being destroyed both by external aggressors and its own people.

On my latest trip to Tripoli last week, I decided to wander around in the old quarters with my camera after a long hiatus due to the city’s ongoing violence. It was more aggressive than I had ever seen it, silently so. It felt like a place with neglected people who finally came to terms with their neglect and gave up. They gave up on themselves and other people. Everyone was on their path to finally rest in a peace they are not going to be allowed in this lifetime. The streets were dirtier than before. Some buildings were not there anymore. No one wanted to get his or her picture taken.

Walking from the central al-Tal square, deeper into the old city, everything became more and more destitute. As I continued towards the river through the crumbling souks and khans, the structures were too sad to photograph. If the relationship between people and their architecture was of any indication, it was normal that the people did not want their pictures taken. Like their buildings, they were crumbling, and it was not a sight that permits its capture by a stranger with a camera.

The Abu Ali River is partially roofed now, and wild forests of gigantic grass inhabit its concrete sewage swamp. As I romantically tried to document whatever beauty was left in what used to be the lifeline of the city, a young boy of around 10-years-old started following me. He followed the screen of my camera to try to see what I was seeing. He sat on the railing behind me to raise himself up, then walked in front of me and posed nonchalantly as if accidentally appearing in my frame. He was the only beauty that came into my lens.

I called the curious little creature over and asked him to tell me a story. He was quick to indulge in one about his friends, and how he liked to play all day. Unlike me, and most adults in sight (and beyond), his story was not one of misery. He either saw beyond the catastrophic state of this place or just chose to deal with it otherwise. He framed the situation within fields of vision he found fruitful. After he was done narrating, he jumped off the rail and left as if he had more exciting endeavors to attend to.

I’m sure he does. I hope that he grows up to be a curious man, that this eagerness to plunge into everything does not fade away with the perils of real life. I wish I could do more than hope his city grows with him in a similar manner. The old quarters of Tripoli are too fertile to be ignored as they are left to fall to the ground. Walking in this city is like taking a stroll in a Lebanese Public Library of Architecture when nothing in this godforsaken country is public or accessible. A great opportunity is right there, at our fingertips, while we are preoccupied with the usual nonsense. I’m afraid we will only realize that the city has disappeared when we start protesting a couple million-dollars-per-flat towers built by a couple familiar million-dollar faces.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

Comments

At this point in time I cannot afford this residence - but it is kind of me - the view from the stairs down to the pool is very nice.
19 St Ives Avenue Frankston South - $1.800.000
The address is just perfect don't you think

I have it in my mind to relocate to Frankston when I turn 65 - 477 days from now.
I can even afford Frankston South if I choose wisely - the rates would be higher - can I afford this ?
google real estate & see if you like.

1:- there is massive unemployment here & it will get worse. the gov.com & the banks raped & gutted business & corporate in Australia.
"build what sells"
they build
does it sell though ?
Moreland Planning Scheme
In my area the local council has changed the rules - we did our thing as citizens - but their insatiable greed & stupidity is like a spell of stupidity cast upon them so tight that reason has not even a crack to endeavor.
Knee jerk development is what is being forced upon us. Parking is already a problem, why have a car if you have to park it miles away from the house & Where will we put our rubbish bins on rubbish collection day ?
I emailed The Honorable Kelvin Thomson M.P. Labor - his office is a mile away. Mr. Thomson is my local member of parliament. His office sends a news letter around regularly & I comment & keep him up to date with more serious issues...you would be surprised how they don't know.
Have a look at their web sites - The Honorable Christine Campbell M.P. is the state member Labor, she tries, this is good.
The Lib's are not worth the time of day.
Ghetto Fabulous:- is the direction this area is headed.
Ghetto fabulous is a fashion stereotype alluding to people living in an affluent materialistic style while not always having the luxurious possessions or wealth. The protagonists pretend to belong to an upper economic class, but in reality they live a life of superficial glamor.
I call this
' you can't keep a good man down ' & ' be true to who you really are '
my son says ' hack hard life is too short '
Mankind is resilient in the face of all manner of improbabilities placed upon them.

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