Culture

On the scarcity of design for the public good

BEIRUT: In the spring of 2006 - before the summer's 34 days of Israeli bombardment, before the displacement of hundredfs of thousands of people and the partial or total destruction of 30,000 housing units in Lebanon, before the bidding war to finance the reconstruction of those homes and before the current, protected state of political paralysis in the country - a small but ambitious new book made its way to Beirut.

Entitled "Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises" and edited by the group Architecture for Humanity, the book is a collection of close to 80 projects from all over the world in which architecture and design are put in the service of the public good.

These socially conscious schemes include emergency shelters for refugees displaced by war and natural disaster. They range from designs for emergency tents to plans for transitional homes to prototypes for permanent relocations - all with an eye toward affordable materials, easily transportable construction and climactic adaptability. They also branch out into mobile health clinics, housing communities for migrant workers, schools, homes for the elderly, religious edifices, cultural centers and places of learning.

Flipping through "Design Like You Give a Damn" in the spring of 2006, a local reader would find Lebanon starkly absent from these do-good humanitarian interventions. Beirut makes an appearance in the book exactly once - in relation to a project called "Shrinking Cities," which seeks to address the urban blight that follows when neighborhoods, districts or whole cities are rapidly depopulated (it pegs Beirut's population loss between 1996 and 2000 at 300,000, or 25 percent).

But there are no projects in which architects, urban planners or urban designers, whether local or foreign, address the country's wildly uneven development, be it urban or rural. Nor are there any proposals for improving the lives and living conditions of Lebanon's 400,000 Palestinian refugees - who have been living in squalor long enough for a few creative ideas to gestate.

In fact, the entire Palestinian issue comes up only in Eyal Weizman and Rafi Segal's sharp and damning critique of how Israel has used "the everyday elements of urban planning and architecture" - roads, water systems, telephone lines, to say nothing of housing settlements and "security" walls - as "tactical tools" in the conflict, more facts on the ground to create a political fait accompli.

Flipping through "Design Like You Give a Damn" now, a local reader may wonder if anyone in Lebanon in the past six months has been seized by the book's spirit. In a country with disproportionately strong university architecture departments and a rarer-still wealth of career opportunities for recent graduates with professional degrees, where is the humanitarian activist bent or the compulsion to design for refugee relief or sustainable development?

To be fair, the architecture department at the American University of Beirut (AUB) dispatched a reconstruction unit, part of the university's "Reconstruction Task Force," within weeks of the war's end in an August 14 cessation of hostilities.

The reconstruction unit set its sights on temporary housing, recycling building material, the restoration of historic buildings, the reconstruction of historic cores and public spaces and environmental interventions. In addition to AUB students and faculty, the unit included a "cell" from Samidoun, the local group of grassroots activists. Last fall, AUB also offered a number of responsive design studios - one on Beirut's southern suburbs, one on the village of Bint Jbeil and one on guerrilla architecture.

But by and large Beirut's greater architectural community - its corps of professionals - has not plunged its hands into the most recent postwar situation and come up with the kind of irrefutable and ingenious projects profiled in "Design Like You Give a Damn." Certainly untold numbers of architects, urban planners and engineers have volunteered their time and expertise to damage assessment. But if vision is sorely lacking in both camps of Lebanon's current political class, that lack is infecting everything, including architecture.

Architects don't typically react to disasters or urgent social needs in Lebanon, suggests AUB professor George Arbid, because to work "you need to have a commission, unless you are a visionary and this is not so common in Lebanon. The role of the architect, urban planner or urban designer relies on a commission. In the culture of the practice," he adds, socially conscious design "is not very common. The model is not there. There's no tradition."

Along with Robert Saliba, Arbid taught the design studio last fall on Beirut's southern suburbs, which began with asking the 16 enrolled students to put down on paper their mental map of the area, knowing that some students would draw a detailed grid of streets and corners and orienting locations while others would draw a complete blank.

"There's no tradition of activism for architects here," Arbid says, "but the role of architecture is partly within academia, in thinking and analyzing and posing ideas and visions in an engaged and participatory way."

Hashim Sarkis, who is both a practicing architect and a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, suggests that juried competitions, design review boards and productive collaborations between public agencies and private developers would increase the social responsibility and civic-mindedness of architects working in Lebanon.

"Several architects are already working pro bono for Hizbullah," Sarkis notes, and "several architects have put together watch-dog organizations to help protect the building heritage and environment against the chaos that could result from expediency" in the latest round of postwar reconstruction.

"Architects are already very much under-paid and their time and their efforts under-appreciated," he adds. "They have very low yield rates in terms of the number of projects that get built out of the projects that they design. The mechanism of invited and paid competitions could help tremendously in improving the quality of public projects but also in allowing architects and urban designers to invest more time in public projects."

That said, architects in Lebanon may abstain from such public projects not because the opportunities are not there, but because they have grown profoundly cynical.

"Will I take part in the reconstruction of the southern suburbs and the villages in the South?" asks Bernard Khoury, one of Lebanon's most high-profile architects and arguably one of its most talented and controversial. "Certainly not. That story is over for me and has been for 10 years, since I decided to work for the private sector.

"I would have given you a different answer 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago I came back [to Lebanon after studying in the US] with a naive attitude. I thought I could take part in a social project. I thought there were institutions, or that we would [create] institutions to participate in rebuilding the city. But I didn't have a recipe. Nobody had a recipe. And it didn't happen.

"I've given up on institutions, on collaborating with political parties, simply because I don't believe in their definition of politics. We are trapped in a political environment where the parameters of conflict are no longer political. They are not even socially driven. They are not about different visions or projections of a nation. They are about allegiances to such-and-such a party in a conflict that surpasses them all.

In Khoury's view, the polarization that has become increasingly strong in Lebanon since the war has made it virtually impossible to act, much less design like one gives a damn.

"How can I participate when [it is a matter of] either/or?" he asks. "There are no grounds where I can meet either/or. I am completely out of it. It doesn't touch me. I have totally given up on the noble projects and the noble institutions. I have no hope in social projects happening."

 

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