Is renovation a good step towards a better old city center in Tripoli?

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Last Sunday was my first trip to the souks of Tripoli after the city’s most recent war. I had heard they were damaged, and part of me couldn’t stand the sight of more harm done to this place. I had postponed my visit long enough, and throughout it, I often found myself humoring the situation with little games to cope with the decision to actually embark upon this journey of catching up. I spent my time comparing bullet holes on the buildings with those in my memory, mapping the changes between then and now, pretending it’s minimal. I walked through the alleys, hoping everything was intact, and was happy that at least at the level of its inhabitants, life is somehow continuing.

Everyone seemed very, truly busy. Vendors and buyers wove a human fabric holding the city’s stones in place. Demand was supplied, and supply was replenished over and over throughout my walk. People were more concerned about how fresh the chicken was than how run-down the walls were. As troublesome as the scene of hustle and bustle in a huge ruin may be, it’s actually very exciting. Personally, as an architect from Tripoli, the life in the city’s old quarters, is intriguing on both an identity level and in a professional dimension.

I rarely identify as a Tripolitanian, or use the word ‘hometown’ to identify the city, mainly because I don’t see the resemblance between us. The city and I don’t have much in common. Beyond the walls of its old core, it has been growing in a quite undignified manner with spatial treasures such as the Tripoli International Fair by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer being left to die, while numb, commercial construction gets built and sold like hotcakes. The preference of practicality over quality dominates and the majority seem to be satiated with their mundane comforts as the footings of the city are dying. That is not something I can identify with.

On another hand, I do relate to the old parts of Tripoli mainly for their authenticity. The people and their city seem to have a fluid relationship, and it’s very attractive. Its inhabitants’ mode of life throughout a labyrinth of ruins makes me question the idea of renovation altogether. It’s puzzling. In an ancient place like Lebanon, and specifically Tripoli, whose civilization dates back to the 14th century BCE, it’s obvious that we have to ask questions of spatial evolution. What happens to our old cities, villages, houses and our built context in general? How do we go about preserving, maintaining and evolving them?

Renovation, whose dictionary denotation roughly means ‘to make new again,’ is the most sought solution. While walking in the lively alleys of old Tripoli last Sunday, I felt that classical renovation would bring modern Tripoli’s plague onto the remains of its ancient self. Renovating the old city would be applying the preference of practicality over quality. It would be the easy way out. Who are we renovating for?

Its people have a healthier relationship with their context than those who would eventually plan and implement a potential renovation. The old souks, khans and alleys of Tripoli have evolved organically to fit the developing lives of their people. Old and small shops now prosthetically extend outwards with simple, functional mechanics specific to each trade. Shops selling freshly slaughtered chicken lay their produce on large inclined galvanized steel platforms. The inclination allows the liquid to slide down through a hole attached to a hose at the bottom. Fruit and vegetable vendors have set intricate scaffolding systems to display their produce. Other sellers have created wall-mounted systems to display their small bags of goods. Cotton candy merchants strategically dispatch cute children with locally-made copper trays with delicacies in plastic bags to lure hungry shoppers walking under shadings that have been created from recycled threaded vegetable sacks.

The list goes on, with one thing in common. You don’t learn these spatial gestures at architecture school, or by observing neighboring areas. These are things birthed from the necessity of coping with one’s context. It’s a beautiful thing. I’m not rallying for a sketchy aesthetic to be applied everywhere, but rather a deeper thought into what we think should be done in such scenarios. I kept thinking, “this place is marvelous,” looking both at elaborately designed portals of historic mosques, topped by canopies made of garbage coexisting with kiosks, shops and a lot of exciting people.

What’s marvelous is that as much as it looks like it’s falling apart, this is a scenario that questions our motives as architects and ‘interested’ others. Really, whom are we renovating this for? Is a renovation project really what needs to be done? To intervene in such a place is to design for the historic value of the site, but it is mainly done for the people that kept it alive. Here, it becomes even trickier. If the current inhabitants are living by vernacular assemblies of their habitat, how ethical is it to intervene to change this place for the ‘better’? How much better can we make it for them anyway?

So what’s the solution? There is no single gesture of epiphany. Even renovation is not a solution. It is closer to an amputation of the natural flow of things. If we, architectural practitioners and scholars are interested in participating in the lifecycle of places such as Tripoli’s old quarters, we need to understand that it is not a mess we’re hired to clean up. Aesthetically, this is clutter. Practically, it’s genius. Without the help of any outsiders, these people have managed to sustain and inhabit centuries-old structures, appropriating them into contemporary homes. They don’t need plaster, paint or newer tiles. It’s ridiculous to think of patching up cities as solutions to their problems.

I don’t claim to have the solution, but I believe it’s an open-ended and very stimulating exercise to figure out what [else] we could do to actually help. I believe that educating ‘aware’ practitioners is a very obvious first step. Instead of looking for international partnerships and accreditations with the sole purpose of raising university tuitions, maybe Lebanese architecture schools could benefit from creating curricula that tackle complex spatial paradigms that are right around the corner.

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


I am looking at images of the old ruins of Tripoli that people are forced to live in. Do they have plumbing & adequate electrical outlets, built in aircon. These buildings are like what we call commission flats & the Brits call public housing estates, only cenuries older.
Human beings deserve better than a romantic pile of "almost rubble" to live in Raffat. Life is too short & happiness a fleeting moment in time only, a nice place to live helps.
Where are your imaginings for the future buildings, the promise of things to come, there is so much that is possible & you are young & not some old fuddy duddy. Mind you, all the stuff that goes up is "good" or built in the right place, come to Melbourne C.B.D. & see what passes for "good & in the right place" buildings.

Great job Raafat! You're a really talented writer and artist. You should go international with your work (all except the architecture part ;)
Go for it!

well said. I too like Tripoli and often wonder why it can't be preserved but as you said it's a 'living city' and has always been and will always be, so we just have to adapt .

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