Beirut, Lebanon

Hosted by

Howayda al-Harithy, Director at the Beirut Urban Lab in the (American University of Beirut)
Ali Khodr, Research Coordinator (American University of Beirut)

Text Authors

Howayda Al-Harithy and Ali Khodr with Imagining Futures Team

The Beirut Lab approaches the city as an archive in and of itself. It provides an opportunity to explore how a city like Beirut with an urban history of over 6000 years is ‘unarchived’, how it ‘archives’ its various histories in tangible and intangible forms, and how alternative spatializations and visualizations of its ‘future’ can be formulated and ‘imagined’. Our findings there will be in dialogue especially with our partner Syrbanism, where there is overlap in the challenges confronted in the current Syrian context. Beirut’s contemporary experience with recurring conflicts, destruction, reconstruction, displacement and migration has resulted in truncated implementations of masterplans, the lack of socially-conscious solutions, and the prevalence of unchecked urban expansion both vertically towards the sky, and horizontally into the sea and surrounding hills. Thus, the city presents a living laboratory where diverse methods of archiving, erasing and reconstructing coexist and collide in a context where national history, state agency and nation-wide post-war recovery strategies remain largely absent. By uncovering and visualizing these layers, our aim is to analyze the various dichotomies and heterotopias they present, and to imagine futures for Beirut that are cross-disciplinary, encompassing, socially-aware, and heritage-led. The Beirut Lab is well-situated to collaborate with the ongoing project at Baddawi Camp Lab by expanding the scope of imagination to the camp’s residents, with Syrbanism concerning the urban futures of various destroyed historic Syrian cities, and with the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture with which the Beirut Urban Lab is already involved on several projects.

By reading the city through archaeological expeditions, project proposals, masterplans, preservation strategies and/or lack thereof, the lab will explore how landscapes, urban forms and morphologies, social networks and oral histories serve as archives and proposes their activation. This comes with the understanding of the city as a complex, dynamic process of archiving and unarchiving; a contested entity with an open process consisting of multiple realities, memories, narratives and futures. The lab will interrogate Boyer’s (Boyer, 1994) notion of the “city of collective memory” and argue that it is a construct of the act of archiving. It will apply distinctions put forth by Anderson (Anderson, 1995) between social and disciplinary memory in its analysis of spatial proposals with respect to archiving as well as imagining the future.

We aim to address the following problematics: How can we rethink a city like Beirut as an archive through its architectural monuments, urban forms, and social histories? How can we activate spaces in the city as archives of social and visual memories? How can the visualization of alternative imaginaries act as a tool towards this activation? How can we give new life to archaeology, social and oral memory, and urban space beyond the notion of the spectacle and the Western preservationist construct?

To achieve the above, the Lab will focus in on specific urban landmarks and key points in Beirut, documenting their role in the city and their associated memories across time. The lab will present critical readings of the agency and methodologies behind various Beiruti reconstructions that emerged in the post-civil war (1975-1990) period; from the downtown Beirut Solidere project, to Beit Beirut, to the rapid re-developments resulting in the loss of social histories and networks in Bachoura, Gemmayze, Zokak el Blat, and Ain Mreisse.

The Beirut Lab will articulate the meaning of egalitarian archiving practices and consider the ways that these practices relate to the urban context. The Beirut lab’s objective is to A) Uncover, document, archive and unarchive social, physical and intangible histories and Foucaultian heterotopias within Beirut. B) To read through maps and master-plans not only as tools of urban change, but as systems that deconstruct the dichotomy between the organization of territory, and the potential for geographic and social rupture. C) To analyze the production of space on an urban level, or the lack thereof, by studying the strategies and methods through which the state attempted to plan Beirut, and subsequently failed. D) To visualize alternative urban histories and to present new historical and social readings of Beirut’s urban form, it’s architectural ‘landmarks’ and the diverse practices of its inhabitants.