Arab Architectural Heritage between Mirrors and Idols - Looking Within And Beyond The Tradition-Modernity Debate

Author: Jad Thabet

When the issue of reconstruction was raised at the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the discussion focused on the architectural heritage and its connection to memory, as well as on the relationship of this heritage with modernization and modernity.

This article was featured on the Al Jadid’s website ( written by Jad Thabet.
Hardly a month passes by without seeing a book of beautiful photographs about “Beirut as it was,” reading an article reviving the memories of ayam zaman [the good old days], or noticing an art exhibition showing the magic and beauty of old Lebanese buildings and traditional rural and urban homes.
It is odd that until recently architectural heritage in Lebanon had neither occasioned a position or significance. With the exception of those tasteful few who congregated around the Association of Old-Historic Buildings and Sites, the Lebanese public has never shown an interest in this heritage.
Even the number of studies on this issue are quite scant. Jacques Liger-Belair book, published in 1962, is considered the first attempt to study the characteristics of traditional residential architecture of Lebanon. A 1973 book written by Friedrich Ragette, an engineer and former director of the Department of Architecture at the American University of Beirut , focuses on the history of architecture in Mount Lebanon during the 18th and 19th centuries. Lastly, a book published by Sursuk Museum in 1985 includes a general overview of Lebanese architecture between the 15th and 19th centuries. Except for these few contributions, the study of traditional architecture in Lebanon was never a focus until the past few years.
In fact, legislative authorities in modern Lebanon have ignored this issue since the country gained its independence. The last laws that dealt with heritage were issued during the Mandate. One law (number 166/L.R. issued on November 7, 1933) deals with archaeological ruins. A second is the Environment and Natural Scenery Protection Law issued on July 8, 1936. With the exception of these two texts, Lebanese legislature remains silent regarding Lebanese heritage.
What does this silence indicate? If it tells us anything, it probably provides a clear indication of the lack of importance that heritage plays in Lebanese society and culture. Except for a few critics, nobody complained when the souks [bazzars] of old downtown Beirut were swept away. When the current downtown Beirut reconstruction project was formulated in the summer of 1991, the critics focused on its negative elements. Yet, later on it seemed that no one resisted the real destruction which touches the various quarters of Beirut, from Ain al-Mraysseh to al Ashrafieh, where a whole heritage is being massacred by real estate competition.
The increased talk about architectural heritage is now considered a healthy phenomenon, a cultural reaction toward the ongoing destruction and obliteration of memory. But this need not become a mere lamenting of heritage and crying over the ruins. The current discussion should not become simplistic, categorizing the positions on architectural heritage into two opposing groups–the defenders of heritage versus the innovators. The first group wants to transform the city into a museum of the war’s ruins, and are nostalgic about bygone past, confining themselves into grieving for the past and protesting anything that restores life to the body of the city. On the other hand, the second group consists of those who would like to formulate a modernizing project based on a futuristic vision which is free from nightmares of the past. As if modernity and heritage are antithetical concepts.
Arab architectural modernity is present today before our eyes and we do not need to invent it or create it anew. It is present with all of its richness and problems, its beauty and ugliness, and its liveliness and contradictions.
The way out of this dilemma is to define some concepts that clarify the problem of heritage in its various dimensions. We cannot study the subject of heritage as if it is a simple, objective topic, something rigid and unchangeable. On the contrary, heritage is a complex concept, synthetic, and subject to interpretation and judgements. We can easily say that every society at one point or another forms its own unique heritage, that it produces a heritage peculiar to its own.
Examples abound in this regard. The designs drawn by Baron George-Eugene Haussmann for Paris in the late 19th century, largely inspired by modernizing reasons, resulted in destroying vast quarters of the structure of the old city. Still, the Haussmannian product today constitutes an essential part of the architectural heritage of the French capital. When major buildings were built during the Industrial Revolution in Europe (factories and storage areas), they were considered for a long time as simply functional structures with no connection to art or architecture. Today, they have become major aspects of Europe ’s heritage, where many of these buildings subsequently have been classified and turned into museums.
Until the late 1960s, the concept of architectural heritage in the world remained confined to a small circle that focused on ancient ruins and historic buildings. Yet, the last few years have witnessed an increase in the field of theoretical studies of the subject in three areas: expanding the field of architectural heritage, connecting that heritage with the surrounding culture, and removing time boundaries.
The first area broadened the field of architectural heritage to include the city as a major center of collective memory, and the natural environment as a domain in which the special relationship between the people and the product of architecture is cultivated. It became clear that focusing exclusively on the historic buildings removed from the surrounding environment leads to a disruption of the context in which they grow. It also leads to severing the roots that connect these buildings with their space which alone can give them an artistic and symbolic value.
The second area focused on connecting architectural heritage with human activities and as such moving it out of the museum into people’s lives. Instead of heritage remaining a mummified body or a commodity for tourist consumption, it can be viewed as an active element in social life. It can grow and develop with the renewed connection to the present while giving the present a historic depth that continuously revives it.
The third area was marked by the breakdown of time boundaries which used to confine heritage within the products of old historical phases. The Haussmannian heritage and the product of the Industrial Revolution were both included gradually in the field of architectural heritage in the West. Along the same lines, there is today an increased interest in the architectural projects built during the 20th century. For example, there are the renovated buildings built by Le Corbusier in France, and the reconstructed exhibition building in Barcelona designed by Mies Van der Rohe.
It is quite obvious that the issue of architectural heritage is dealt with differently in Lebanon than in the West. This variance is due to a difference in the understanding of heritage in and of itself, a difference in the historic and social circumstances, and a difference in our understanding of the relationship between heritage and modernity.
Heritage in Arab Architecture
The method employed by contemporary Arab engineers in studying architectural heritage is distinguished by the development of two schools or trends. Each lays down a theoretical basis that specifies the relation today’s Arab architecture has with both tradition and modernity. These schools raised issues which relate not only to architecture but include the relationship between contemporary Arab culture and modernity, as well as raising questions about reading our contemporary history.
Representing the first school is the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathi. His discipline is based on a radical vision that claims that modernity had brought fundamental change in Arab societies, causing them to lose their authenticity and rich legacy inherited from past generations. This intellectual concept focused on rejecting modernity as cosmopolitan and causing our societies to lose their distinguished peculiarity and to become consuming societies which have no values other than those purely materialistic. Emphasized also by this school is the notion that modernity is a movement confined to the upper classes, groups connected intellectually and culturally with the West, which use modernity as a tool to oppress popular classes and set them apart from their culture and history.
Accordingly, this school stressed the necessity of using traditional materials, such as clay and stone, as well as reviving the old handicraft construction tools, rejecting reinforced concrete and advanced technologies which subject our societies, economically and culturally, to the domination of Western modernity. This school urged confronting the disintegration of traditional culture in the Arab world and the transformation of most Arab cities into congregations lacking order and logic–large cities made of decimated poor quarters with islands of wealth in the midst of poverty.
Yet, despite the fundamental positions embraced by this school, the net result of the experiments conducted half a century ago appear to have led to a dead end. The original experiment initiated by Fathi in the town of Al-Karnah in Al Saiid province of rural Egypt failed because the inhabitants refused to move from their primary residential concentration–where they made their living out of the search for archaeological artifacts and their sale to tourists– and return to the village designed for them. Al-Karnah stands today as a ghost town, a witness to the failure of the utopian call for the return to the rural life and the rejection of the civilization of the city.
Eventually, Hassan Fathi’s experiment led to the opposite of what it called for at its inception. Today, Fathi’s followers build huge palaces and mansions for the Gulf rich in the Texas desert and large tourist centers for international clubs. Subsequently, the experiment of building for the poor became a pure manipulation of geometric shapes and the production of a geometric folkloric style to be consumed by the rich. Despite its aesthetic characteristics, this school failed to solve the actual problems facing human communities in Arab cities today.
The obstacles encountered by the first school paved the way for the rise in the mid-1950s of another school, best represented by the Iraqi architect Rifaat al-Jadirji. This school exercised a great influence on Arab contemporary architecture in its totality. It formed a dominant intellectual approach based on theoretical notions making up a comprehensive analysis of the relationship of Arab architecture with modernism. These notions can be summed up as follows:
First: Modernity had been concentrated in the West since the 15th century and started gradually to dominate the outside the world, spreading its ideas and values.
Second: When Arab societies encountered the obstacles of Western technological developments in the 19th century, they were forced to adopt modern Western principles to resolve these dilemmas. Thus, the elements of modernity, in their Western peculiarities, began to expand in the world, thereby producing a clash caused by the incompatibility between these components and Arab societies with their cultural specificities.
The hegemony of Western modernity led the Arab world to lose some of its peculiarities and many of the elements that made up its identity. Nothing illustrates this better than Arab architecture, as architectural heritage started decaying because of its inability to face the dynamics of imported Western modernity with its resources, technologies, and superb organization.
Is Cairo today a traditional or a modern city or is it a combination of both? Are Beirut ’s buildings of the 1930s and 1940s traditional or do they belong to a modern Western genre? Can we consider modernity simply as wallpaper that we can remove in order to return to our lost authenticity?
Third: Based on this clash, the second school refuses to return to the traditional principles of Arab architecture which lead to isolation, seclusion, and denial of modernity. Moreover, this school claims that adopting the principles advanced by Fathi could lead to the reproduction of some traditional forms in a mechanical manner, and the failure to create new characteristics consistent with the needs of time.
Fourth: Faced with these undesirable prospects, the Jadirjian school calls for subjecting the features of heritage to rational criticism, choosing what is compatible with the needs of time, and reintegrating those selected aspects with the elements of recent resources and modern technologies. Through a process of separation and connection, this school calls for transcending the contradiction between tradition and modernity and subsequently fusing them to create features which produce a contemporary Arab architecture.
Translated from the Arabic by Zeina M. Zaatari
These articles appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, Nos. 25 and 26 (Summer and Fall 1998)
Translation Copyright ©1998 by Al Jadid

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