Beirut:From City of Capital to Capital City
Reconstructing a State Identity Within NeoLiberal Capital
MPhil dissertation & project, AA London - July 2013
This project looks at the role of architecture in the construction of the capital city, and questions its ability to both form and signify the state. This is particularly problematic in the case of Lebanon, a weak quasi-state still coming to terms with sectarian divisions and political corruption, exacerbated by the privatization of the centre of its capital by real estate company Solidere.
fig.1: The political foundations of Lebanon - A weak sectarian state
Given the state’s continuing failure to form a Lebanese statehood, the project proposes to reverse the architectural notion of nation building, and rethinks the construction of a functioning state as a process of developing a regional economic role for the city and a productive political identity for its citizenry.
The premise for such a reversal is the identification and understanding of two related processes, the ‘Symptom’ and the ‘Symbol’, as representational dimensions of power in the architecture of capital cities. Political power can be examined after the fact, as a symptom of a specific policy or rule, or before the fact, as an intentional projection of the identity and ideology of a state.
fig.3: Transformation of the city and the dominant type - From the Arabic courtyard city to the French boulevards
The analysis of the city centre of Beirut through its dominant type—the Lebanese central hall—and its reinterpretation by Solidere’s reconstruction project as an expired symbol of past French mandate-era glory, leads to the search, beyond architecture’s representative agency, for a reconstructed type that is capable of shaping both an operative strategy for the reconstruction of the city and a renewed symbolic identity for the state.
fig.4: Central hall type - porous and directional organizations
This instrumentality of type is tested in a project for a new capital centre around the historic Martyrs Square, the oldest civic centre of the city, and its associated archaeological sites.
Deliberately compromised in its urban and political significance by Solidere, the real estate company commissioned to undertake and manage the reconstruction of a new centre, the counter-project reclaims the square’s role as a primordial civic space.
fig.5: Martyrs Square: A central stip between the French reconstructed centre and the highway
Observing Solidere’s commercial strategy and zoning for exclusive private housing, a complementary series of public, institutional and educational spaces are proposed, to re-allow an active participation of the state in the supposedly private-public joint venture, forming a new common ground that functions beyond sectarian identifications.
fig.6: Strategy - The square as central hall at the scale of the nation, linking the centre and the city
The project understands the articulation of the political in a new secular city centre as dependent on a synthesis of the domestic sphere of the individual and a public space of coexistence, and uses the central hall type to explore this spatial relationship between citizens and society.
fig.7: A central spine at the scale of the neighborhood
Notions of family and patrimony, which underlie the still on-going political conflicts, no longer define this relationship. Instead, the central hall is reinterpreted as a series of individual frames, which through their repetition become able to form larger, articulated spaces. These typological transformations respond to urban and architectural constraints, and create several hierarchical and scalar transitions between the unit of the individual and the public city.
fig.8: Hierarchies of Public - The Square, the Spine, the Souks
The transformations exploit the type’s structure by translating load-bearing walls into a differentiated and directed open grid of columns.
The abstraction of the central hall type as a series of twisting, thickening and shrinking walls allow articulations ranging from a column and arch to a wall with different degrees of porosities.
fig.9: Typological transformation - From central hall to directional frames
Through a seamless accumulation of frames and building units, and by enlarging the distance between structural walls, different (public) programmes can be inserted. This also permits the preservation of specific views, and creates differentiated enclosures and multi-directionality both in plan and section.
fig.10: Ground Plan - Rethinking the centre through the abstracted column-wall
Thus the type becomes a structural means through which urban and architectural hierarchies, porosities and directions that frame public and political life within the specific context of the site are articulated.
fig.11: Section through the Square, Spine and fabric.
This typological reasoning is the formal basis to rethink the capital campus as a multi-scalar relationship of institutional, urban and private spaces and their embedded social exchanges.
The central hall becomes the most public unit of space within a private environment, translated at different scales.
fig.12: The new centre - A series of multi-scalar central halls in different directions
At the city scale, when forming a larger public realm, it informs the urban plan, the neighbourhood and the block, but at an architectural scale it defines the building and finally the housing unit itself. This gives hierarchy and differentiation to the articulation of public spaces.
fig.13: Detail part - Secondary School: Multi-directional layers of public, institutional and private organised through multi-scalar interpretations of centrality
The open, public spine and square thereby generate the most important relationships, from the scale of the individual strip to that of the block, from the block to surrounding blocks and the spine, and finally from the spine to the square.
fig.14: Site model
Thus, the symptomatic is reinterpreted through the central hall type and its embodiment of the city’s past social history as a singular form capable of realizing a future idea of and for the city.
The symbolic only takes form when the whole is completed, when associations between private individuals, individuals and institutions, and institutions themselves arrive at the highest level of public formation: that of the state.
fig.15: The new symptomatic centre