It is rare to notice the very slow and gradual evolutions imposed on such projects through the passage of time. Which is why, perhaps, one of the most interesting periods to live through for an architect like myself was the Lebanese Revolution, reshaping my understanding of the urban cityscapes I’d grown used to since I was a child.
In an age of civil unrest, architects and investors see their projects transformed into animated new sanctuaries that delegate the public as architects of a new urban fabric.
Perhaps one of the most commonplace misconceptions regarding architecture – and on a grander scale, urban planning – is their static longevity in terms of their intended purposes. We see cities and structures as long-term decisions that are carefully planned to ensure their finalized status. Decisive, irreversible, and rigid.
It is quite a huge cultural shock – and in an architect’s case, a professional shock – to see all these landmarks we’d grown up with suddenly transformed in near-instant evolutions from everything they’d been for the past 30 years or so. To think that a carefully planned project or a methodically structured city could completely disregard all of an architect’s predictions and hard work – in what was quite literally a 48-hour span – is fascinating. It pushed forward this feeling that we are mere technicians. That the architects and determinants of space, experience, and qualities are the people. I’ve seen a “revolution”, which is nothing more than an arbitrary concept, carefully redesign an entire city. It became its own architectural movement, driving me to ask myself the question, What is the architecture of a revolution?
The architecture of a revolution is the reclamation of public spaces
Perhaps a highlight of my childhood was listening to all the stories about the traditional markets filling the spaces of the Beirut Downtown back in the ‘60s, a feat that my generation never got to experience, following a civil war that immediately led to the excessive privatization and commercialization of the heart of Beirut. The story is no stranger to many areas of the world, where the very essence of a city’s urban fabric was slowly, but surely, privatized, until the cultural aura was lost in a sea of flashy skyscrapers, security guards, and overpriced coffee. The legendary Martyrs’ Square – hardly a “square” anymore – was surrounded by highways, parking, and business offices.
This is why one of the most beautiful sites for an architect to see is 2 million people recreating the urban vision our predecessors in the industry strived for many decades ago. The illegally-privatized coast, once a space for the public, saw hundreds enter it carrying their traditional breakfasts and sitting on “Zaitunay Bay’s” pavements in an act of cultural defiance. The traditional market, once only heard through our elders’ stories, was re-established along the closed streets of Downtown. People of all classes and sects erected tents, stood hand-in-hand, initiated discussions and social activities, and recreated the urban dream of a once-privatized national landmark. Couches and beds were brought down to “The Ring” Bridge, which was listed on Airbnb as a free outdoor accommodation space, for protestors to sleep at. The revolution became a link reconnecting us with the past, and our urban fabric, better than any architect has managed to thus far.
There was no planning to the seemingly organic yet shockingly instant transformation, where people simply knew where functions were divided. They were aware that Martyrs’ Square was for recreation, and Riad el Solh Square was for serious protesting. They knew where to set up the markets and how to separate the discussion areas. Architect and urban planner Antoine Atallah reflected this best, with his updated site plan of Downtown in the Revolutionary Era, showing the recreated, and citizen-enforced urban fabric of the city.
The architecture of a revolution is the reclamation of national landmarks
The outdoors were not the only spaces reclaimed by the people, who made sure to revive war-torn national architectural landmarks that were once threatened for demolition by their respective owners. And not many can claim to have seen architecture transform in a way so fascinating as to revive an abandoned and ruined structure of dirty raw concrete into completely new and foreign functions.
Perhaps architect Joseph Philippe Karam could not have foreseen the fate of the then-revolutionary building, “The Dome City Center” – commonly The Egg – as a tragic story of the first Lebanese cinema turned into complete ruin during an unprecedented civil war. Yet it would have shocked him even further to see this ruin reanimated into a meeting-point for protestors, a discussion and lectures center that utilizes the cinema’s old chairs, and a neon-covered techno-music nightclub on its top floor, all while still respecting its status as a cinema, hosting free movie screenings amidst its ruins. Best of all, with the added extension of exterior stairs, the building’s egg-shaped roof became the best view one may have of the revolution’s new cityscape. Previously, The Egg also hosted a drag show as part of the Saint Hoax art exhibition.
This pushes forward the evolutionary nature of our buildings, which can never actually predict people’s uses of them. We create the shell – in this case, an ironically egg-shaped shell – yet the architect is the last person to determine the activities spawned within it.
Other reclaimed landmarks included the Ottoman-inspired “Le Grand Theatre” and the iconic Martyrs’ Statue.
The architecture of a revolution has an imagination that knows no limits
We have been taught as architects for countless years how form follows function, yet rarely do they tell us that imagination knows no limit, or that architecture is what we make it out to be, in all the arbitrary sense of that phrase. It is compelling to see our work (or even nature’s work) through non-architects’ eyes, for it knows no limits of conventions.
A revolution lets you see space as a non-architect sees it, and while we compose such spaces, society helps galvanize them. One example is the great city of Tripoli – once Oscar Niemeyer’s obsession and proposed city of the future. Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square saw no rest in its reimagination. One day, its transformation into the country’s biggest rave party went viral online. The other, its erection of markets gave it new life. Disabled people were welcomed with spaces they could reside in, while the central sculpture became a compass that created the new axes of movement.
On the other hand, Jal-El Dib’s overhead bridge allowed for a 2-story protest gathering, with the use of the upper level as a visual and documentation vantage point. Finally, Tyre’s protests extended onto waters, with boat-centered gatherings creating a natural extension of the public beaches.
The architecture of a revolution is inclusive
One of the most heartwarming feats of a revolution, and one that every architect and the urban planner should be proud of, is that the established borders between communities were broken to an irreversible degree, one which drove the rich into slums and the poor into contemporary towers, women towards our podiums and stages, and men towards our delicate art galleries. Schools and retirement homes stood hand-in-hand, and churches and mosques filled alike to unprecedented degrees.
We often consider the communities our projects are intended for as exclusive, yet only a short-sighted architect would irk at the notion of unintended communities occupying those spaces in new ways.
The architecture of a revolution is highly judgmental of architects’ mistakes
And here it is, architectural accountability. A question often posed to the architect. Who holds you accountable for your failures? For your mis-considerations? Is it the investor, or the occupier of the space, or – god-forbid they cared enough to regulate – the government?
This revolution showed me that the public, like an abstract of an entity as that may be, has very strong opinions regarding architecture. Why else would the anarchists choose to publicly vandalize 500+ million dollar projects all while happily occupying a near-destroyed national landmark? Why dismiss the access to refurbished, quality spaces and buildings only to embrace less-convenient, yet more sentimental, alternatives?
Perhaps the revolution demonstrated one of the first instances of architectural accountability that I have ever seen. People protested the crimes made towards our urban fabric. They shunned and destroyed the buildings that demolished cultural and historical landmarks – or even stood over now-lost ruins of great value, to make room for investments masked under post-modernist facades that are trying to fight each other for attention. They protested the architecture that agreed to prohibit us from our public spaces. The architecture which disrespected our landmarks and overlooked our essence. The architecture which destroyed our biodiversity. The architecture which covered our coastal views and took over our public beaches. The revolution sent a message that an architect’s ethical compass is watched closely by the people.
While it could be considered a great project in vacuum, Herzog & de Meuron’s Beirut Terraces was viewed with extreme discontent for accepting to further urbanize and restrict an area that was once public property, in a commission by investors who had stolen public land.
Ergo, the architecture of the revolution is the architecture that survives the test of accountability.
The architecture of a revolution connects distances and disconnects adjacents
Once-rival communities that were almost completely separate from a macro-urban scale have managed to transcend space and break barriers, connecting their people across the entire country, from the country’s highest North to its lowest South. A human chain of over 100,000 people held hands covering the entire coast. Transportation initiatives have seen communities and areas of concentration move towards new uncharted territories in acts of solidarity. Buses transported protestors along the coastal line (with messages of solidarity from Tripoli to Nabatiyeh), while, simultaneously, other roads were blocked to designate certain areas purely for public, un-discriminative pedestrian access.
And the protestors aren’t the only catalysts of such a change, where internal security forces created security blockages and restricted access to specific areas, further altering the connections we have once been used to. So, not only did the urban fabric of the cities themselves change but so did the macro-scale urban distribution of an entire country. And arguably the most interesting aspect of such an organic alteration, from an urban planning perspective, would be its animated nature, transforming and changing one day after the other depending on evolving needs. This created impermanent cities that live and breathe as they host the story of a revolution.
The architecture of a revolution has livelier facades
The cold dirty concrete of abandoned brutalist facades was given color in Beirut’s Egg. The early modernist buildings of Tripoli were covered with patriotic messages, as seen on Tripoli’s Al-Nour Square. Extensions were added, and others destroyed. Art and architecture merged into one interconnected entity that recreated the city’s washed-out palette.
The architecture of a revolution is sustainable – to an extent
To wrap up this perspective on a revolution’s lessons on architecture is a final brief (yet surprising) consideration that comes in the form of user-generated sustainability, whereas the people have managed to look out for impressive sustainability initiatives without the funding or expertise. Ranging from recycling initiatives to the addition of vegetation to streets and buildings alike, to full-on studies on endangered buildings’ live-load capacities that allowed the spontaneous protester-generated regulation of visitors’ quotas within these structures, these initiatives have shown a kind of care for sustainability that non-architects share with us.
This experience could be classified as valuable as much of the theoretical and practical coursework I have studied at university, if not more, as it helped me view it as a much more vibrant and animated part of our lives than what I’d previously believed. The architecture of a revolution is one of change, of unexpected twists and turns that go against the very intricate planning we tend to make. It is destructive of our ideas yet constructive of the societies we’d dreamed of creating under those ideas. It is a lesson learned, we as architects, need to listen actively to the demands of the people around us.