Architecture and Politics in Lebanon

Architecture and politics are very much interconnected. Looking at Lebanon through it’s built environment illustrates the political system of the country and how much it is both shaped and shapes the people around it.

The most prominent architectural symbol in Lebanon is the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. Solidere have remarkably and rapidly reconstructed the once ruined Downtown area of Beirut a defiant gesture against the destruction of the civil war. A mark of Lebanese resilience to what has happened to them during the civil war but also an illustration of what is still happening to them. Solidere is of course mired in scandal after scandal as to misappropriation of land and of course the major issue that many Lebanese (living in Lebanon) can neither afford to buy/rent/shop in their own central district. It is intriguing to walk around Downtown Beirut to find it is almost built for Gulf and European tourists and used as such. An articulation of Lebanese politics and politicians who practice, or maybe perfect, political realism par excellence.

Currently, Lebanon is experiencing a real estate bonanza; massive towers of glass and steel are rising everywhere and uncontrolled development is rampant. What the built environment tells you about Lebanon is that the private sector here is flourishing able to build large scale high quality developments but the floundering state leaves a sense of anarchy about the environment. The individual can flourish, the family can flourish but the national collective cannot.

The lack of planning laws is evident; huge buildings being built completely out of context from its surroundings and effectively destroying the urban fabric. Here the big man rules. If you happen to live in a four story building then enjoy the view, the sunlight and the air while you can because it could be taken away from you at any moment. The only way to be safe from the terror of construction is to be high and to be big.

The intellectual prowess of the Lebanese also shines through in the built environment but also the nihilism. Only Egypt can compete in the nearby states to Lebanon’s recent architectural heritage. The Egg is one such example of this substantial contribution; designed by Lebanese architect Joseph-Philippe Karam, who also trained in Lebanon, this unique example of Lebanese modernist architecture lays in tatters with the threat  destruction for another tower that tells of another side to Lebanon. Although many Lebanese want to save the Egg and see it as a battle of what they rightly call the Dubaification of Lebanon, Solidere effectively sold away to Abu Dhabi Investment House the chance for the Lebanese tohave a say in the preservation or destruction of the Egg.

This is yet another story of Lebanese politics tied into the built environment: Foreign Interference and Foreign Investment. The Habtoor Hotel in Sin el-Fil (just outside Beirut) and the Ain Mresseih area are just two of the most obvious visual expression of how Gulf capital is transforming Lebanon where the large amounts of foreign capital are enabling massive developments of steel and glass that are wiping away previous architecture mainly of Ottoman and French heritage. One foreign master’s legacy is wiped away by the next. While the Gulf masters build their mega-structures the Iranian masters also make their contribution to Lebanon’s built environment through financing the reconstruction in the Southern Suburbs.

The Gulf and Iranian investments into the Lebanese built environment reveal one very interesting fact that both build predominately in the Western style. The idea of reinventing an Islamic or Arab architectural language or even one that makes reference to such an idea has been done away with. However, my interview with Rifat Chadirji, for Bespoke magazine, tried to articulate that a vision for this fusion or more reflective architectural language has been created by the architectural movers and shakers it just needed developers with the will to implement such a style.

In the built environment the “West is Best” is being followed in Lebanon but not always ensuring that the “Best of the West”. Originality is certainly a force that drives the “West” and this is not something that is being strived for enough in the built environment and much the same can be said for the political sphere. Maybe one here or there. In Solidere an unofficial list of international architects, of which there are no Lebanese and only a small number of Arab architects, that are allowed to design buildings in the Solidere area gives an upsetting account of the lack of confidence of the sons and daughters of Lebanon. This has been described to me by one of Beirut’s most prominent architects as policy as a throw back to the darkest days of colonialism.

This is some of what I have found from the brick and mortar, the steel and glass of Beirut and its environs….

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