Urban Planning in Bourj Hammoud: Preserving Community
By: Leah Caldwell
Published Sunday, May 6, 2012
On the corner of Der Melkonian Street in Bourj Hammoud, a two-story building painted in coral sits across the street from a belt shop. At dusk, a neutral-colored neon sign above the door lights up. It reads: “Badguèr,” which means “image” in Armenian.
The building is simple, but its details hint at construction in an earlier era. Thick, white corbels hold up the balustrade and paisley-like flowers have been chiseled out of the stone facade. The Badguèr house was built in the 1930s, when the Armenians refugee camps that once filled the area, housing those fleeing Turkish persecution, began to exchange temporary building materials for permanent ones. At first, a single family lived in the building, but eventually, the family grew out of their lodgings until, in the 1970s, they left the house all together. Decades later, Arpi Mangassarian, head of the Bourj Hammoud municipality’s Technical and Urban Planning Office, bought the house and gave it the name Badguèr.
Sitting inside the house, Mangassarian says exasperatedly, “I have to repeat the same thing over and over. So, I had to make something to show what I mean, something tangible.”
The Badguèr house is that something. It’s a meeting place for artists, artisans, and in general, curious people. A young man enters and unpacks a box of his hand-made shoes, including a stiletto studded with gold rhinestones. Just last week, the space hosted its inaugural event featuring Armenian folk performances and presentations on Bourj Hammoud’s architecture and morphology. Planning documents line the walls, depicting the area’s transformation from an amalgam of refugee camps in the 1920s to an independent municipality with over 150,000 residents in 2012.
Though the discussion mostly centers around urban planning in Bourj Hammoud, the conversation inevitably turns to Solidere, which, for better or worse, has set the tone on planning in the city. “We mustn’t have a Solidere here. We don’t want to repeat the Solidere example on Bourj Hammoud,” she said. “The result of Solidere is that the sense of belonging to the land, the place, or even the sidewalk, is gone.”
Ara Azad, a painter and one of the near dozen people that stops by over the next few hours, sits nearby and chips in. “Buildings may change and cities always change,” but, he says, with Solidere, there has been an “erasure of collective memory.” Azad details his recent trip to the Sanjak camp, which is the last remaining Armenian camp not just in the neighborhood, but the world, dating back to 1939. Since 2008, the camp has been systematically dismantled to make way for the similar-sounding “St. Jacques” development, a shiny commercial and real estate project on the edges of the municipality. Only 30 percent of the original camp remains.
Mangassarian distances herself from the development and says that the mayor would know more about it. Vazken Chekijian, the chief architect of the project, did not respond to interview requests.
Despite the corporate sheen of “St. Jacques” and other dramatic changes over the past several decades, Bourj Hammoud is not in immediate danger of any Solidere-like overhauls, in part because of planners like Mangassarian who have tied the area’s social and economic livelihood to its built environment of narrow alleys, relatable storefronts, and small workshops. Even the abandoned buildings are a source of optimism for Mangassarian. “It gives me hope that [the owners] are not ready to sell it,” she said. “They’re waiting for the municipality to give them a vision.”
This vision, or identity, is clearly articulated in any municipality brochure: Bourj Hammoud is a predominantly Armenian, lower to middle-class neighborhood that is packed to the brim with artisans and small businesses. All these descriptors are backed up by fact. Over 80 percent of the area is Armenian and 77 percent of businesses are artisanal or involve skilled labor, according to a 2009 municipality report conducted by architect and urban planner Diran Harmandayan.
Yet for all the municipality’s close guarding of a distinctly Armenian identity and a reputation as being a haven for artisans, Bourj Hammoud isn’t as homogeneous as the brochures suggest. In 1946, Shia began to migrate from the south and would settle close by in Nabaa. Shortly thereafter, many Palestinians settled in the area following the Nakba. The latest demographic changes can be seen just by walking along the growing corridors of Ethiopian or Asian businesses in the area.
In November 2011, many pockets of foreigners living in the area – specifically, Kurds – were forcefully evicted. In an interview with Al-Akhbar reporter Ahmed Muhsen, the Bourj Hammoud mayor Antranik Meserlian attributed the evictions to overcrowded and “unhygienic” housing conditions.
This would not be the first time that authorities have used “unhygienic” conditions as a pretext for intervening in the area. In the 1940s, French architect Michel Ecochard was commissioned to re-design Beirut in the image of a European city. Ecochard scanned the landscape of what was then the Quarantine – an area eponymous with the Ottoman-era sequestration facilities that once greeted travelers from abroad – and proclaimed it as “defective” and rife with “unhealthy” housing, which would breed “immorality,” according to LAU architecture student Cynthia Joulfayan’s report on the Armenian diaspora in Lebanon.
Ecochard was a proponent of modernist urban planning, which rose to popularity at the beginning of the 20th century. One of modernism’s biggest acolytes, Le Corbusier, once proclaimed “Architecture or Revolution,” meaning that, to quell social unrest amongst those living in squalid conditions, one must rebuild their surroundings from the ground up. Architecture and planning were viewed as cures to social “ills” like poverty and unsanitary conditions.
Though many urban planners roundly critique the tenets of modernism today, its legacy is still apparent in present-day urban development in Beirut.
“The idea is geared toward destroying the old and building the new. There’s no in-between,” said Harmandayan, who often serves as a consultant with the Bourj Hammoud municipality. “We haven’t developed the idea of regenerating cities, or urban regeneration, so now this is being mimicked in the municipality. When you talk to the municipality, their idea of planning is to widen streets and tear down buildings.”
Since the residential core of Bourj Hammoud is so dense, any developments in the coming years will be located on its outskirts, where some of the more isolated, yet desirable, spaces in the city are located.
Along the edge of the municipality’s perimeter, Bourj Hammoud is surrounded by massive infrastructure. To its north is a raised freeway and active industrial zone that dates back to the 1930s. Beyond the steel manufacturer and slaughterhouse is a giant trash mound that sits on a coastline composed predominantly of fill. At the municipality’s western edge is the concretized Beirut River, which also serves as the repository for solid waste from both industrial sites and residential areas from all over Lebanon.
“I think right now, every space in Beirut is wanted, desired, contested, and speculated,” said Sandra Frem, an architect and urbanist who presented her project on Nahr Beirut at the American University of Beirut’s City Debates on May 3.
With so much attention given to Bourj Hammoud’s core, its peripheries are often interpreted by planners as either non-places that pose an environmental threat or areas that lack any potential as identity-making space. Frem’s cityscape project recognizes the value of these overlooked spaces. She looks at Nahr Beirut as not only the last open space in the city, but also a valuable resource. Frem believes that the river could be more than an “open air sewer,” and instead, could be the source of water that is in chronic shortage in the surrounding areas.
“What if we start thinking about infrastructure differently? Instead of being just a container that provides services, what if we start to project civic and environmental values on it?” Frem asked.
Frem acknowledges that the municipality lacks funds to implement the most ambitious plans, stating that it’s a “very centralized system with no budget. They can only plant flowers on the road.”
Down the street from the Badguèr building, you can see a portion of the concrete wall that contains Nahr Beirut. Alongside the concrete wall decorated with colorful mosaics, pots of flowers dot the sidewalk.
Mangassarian admits that the municipality doesn’t have ample funding for its projects, but, when she can she takes small steps to maintain what she feels is the valuable contributions of the neighborhood. “My wish is that after 20 years, you’ll see the same urban tissue in Bourj Hammoud,” she said.