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French Version

A spectacle of anticipation : building the Lebanon of the future (Daily Star)

Seeking to inspire rather than impose, an architect blends design with development issues

Once, when an editor asked Hashim Sarkis to write an essay about the state of post-war architecture in Beirut, he responded with a piece on the nuances of the post-war novel instead.

And once, when a colleague asked Sarkis to write about the ugliness of Athens, he answered with a story on the city's beauty.

Though such actions would seem to suggest otherwise, Sarkis is neither rebellious nor hopelessly optimistic. As an architect and professor, he definitely goes against the grain and possesses a singular ability to turn things around. His approach is frank and well-intentioned, as he grabs hold of an architectural problem, digs into its tangle of contextual complexities, and teases out an ever more interesting design solution. It is precisely this quality that has driven Sarkis to carve out an unusual and surprisingly successful niche for himself in Lebanon.

At a time when the country's reconstruction effort is focused firmly on Beirut - fueled by real estate speculation and private development deals hinging on the signature of internationally known architects - Sarkis is working primarily outside of the capital. His settings are rural, his clients are non-governmental organizations, and his projects include schools, community centers, agricultural complexes, and subsidized housing projects.

In downtown Beirut, the ratio between plans on paper and structures on the ground still seems perilously off balance - one academic estimated in 2002 that for all the buildings knocked down during and after the war, only six new ones had gone up since. Sarkis, however, is building prodigiously. He has already finished three major development projects this year and has another three slated for completion by the end of 2004.

Born in Lebanon, Sarkis studied for two years at AUB before leaving for the US in the mid 1980s, where he finished his undergraduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. He did his masters and doctoral degrees at Harvard, taught at MIT, and now directs the design studies programs at Harvard's Graduate School of Design.

Sarkis established his architectural practice in 1998 and divides his time between Cambridge, MA, and Beirut. Though he lives in Boston's South End, he and his family travel to Lebanon some seven or eight times a year. In 2002, Sarkis was named the first Aga Khan Professor of landscape architecture and urbanism in Muslim societies. The position involves a good deal of activity and regional travel on behalf of the Aga Khan Trust, which will announce the winners of the ninth triennial Aga Khan award for architecture this fall.

"Some people know that I am an academic, some people know that I am an architect, but very few people know that I am the same person doing both," says Sarkis. "I think of my office as a research lab in relation to the teaching and research I do. The focus of my academic (work) is on the relationship between development - in the developing world - and design. So the projects I work on in my office deal with these issues as well."

Working with such organizations as the Association for Rural Development (ADR) and the Rene Moawad Foundation, Sarkis is hoping to finish a cooperative housing project for fishermen in the southern city of Tyre by December and an agricultural community center in the northern town of Mejdlaya by January. He finished a revolutionary design for an olive press in Batroun earlier this year (reconciling local traditions with international quality standards) and he is in the preliminary phases of building a food canning and refrigeration factory in the Bekaa Valley (where the shape of the building emulates the low topographical elevations characterizing the landscape).

"One of the main qualities these (rural) areas still have - even though they are underdeveloped - is the quality of their environment," he says. "In these contexts, I think the design component is even more important than somewhere like Beirut. Beirut has been environmentally ruined anyway, and physically ruined. In an idyllic setting like the agricultural fields outside of Tyre or the olive groves (in Mejdlaya) I feel like if we don't preserve that, or if we don't use design to enhance that, then these people are losing the only asset they have."

It's no accident that many of Sarkis' projects are being realized now. He has been working on these issues since the mid 1990s, when he took a leave of absence from teaching, returned to Beirut, and made contact with several local NGOs.

"NGOs have a very interesting network among themselves," Sarkis explains. "The NGOs that deal with rural development are usually connected to larger international networks of funding and organization and technical transfer. Even though most of them are initiated locally, they do have partnerships or alliances or ongoing projects with (organizations) from USAID to Oxfam to the European Union. It helps them a great deal to get the know-how and financial support, but also to get recognition and world attention."

Clearly, the work is rewarding. "Working with NGOs has been fascinating," says Sarkis. "You get to build something like an agricultural center which has a mix of programs in it - from a dairy factory to a restaurant to a technical school to an agricultural support center to a daycare center - and they tell you, 'Okay, we want it all in one building.' So just as a formal design puzzle, it's amazing. You don't get these kinds of projects usually from commercial clients. And you enter into the process very early on because (the project) has to be attractive as a means of raising funds. You do work with very limited means and that is a challenge in terms of (figuring out) how you can introduce design at that level of budgetary constraint. And I've found myself being a much better designer in dealing with limited budgets."

But perhaps the most high-profile project on Sarkis' agenda is not in the hinterland but back in the capital, for a new balloon landing park in downtown Beirut.

Squashed among the Phoenicia, Monroe, and Holiday Inn hotels, Solidere (the private real estate company in charge of downtown Beirut's reconstruction) has temporarily rented out an empty swath of land to a company called Round Concepts. Come October, some 30 people at a time will be able to take a ride in a huge, tethered helium balloon, 300 meters above Beirut.

"Round Concepts commissioned me to design the place where people would gather, wait, and go up to the balloon," says Sarkis. "(The land is) inclined, and for the balloon's operations, they first needed it flat, and they also needed an unencumbered surface. And they also wanted to have kiosks. So the solution I came up with was to lift the ground up and tuck many of the activities under that."

Sarkis describes his design as not so much a mille-feuille but a mesh. "It reveals not so much the tabula rasa condition of the city but its multiplicity of possibilities. ... The great thing about this location is that you don't only look at the city as it is finished but you see the plan of the city, and then you see it being realized. So you could imagine yourself going at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year and comparing (the two experiences) in your mind. More importantly," he adds, "it's about projecting your own image on the city. There's a certain participation, a spectacle of anticipation, which plays into the design approach, as an emptiness that is suggestive rather than filled up. Rather than encumbering the ground with too much, I leave it empty - but with certain outlines that suggest possibilities of habitation, which is a theme that runs across all (my) projects: an architecture that does not impose, but inspires."

Of course, among so many other things, Sarkis has long been one of the most salient and articulate critics of the reconstruction period and Solidere. He organized the exhibition "Demarcating Lines" in the early 1990s, edited the book "Projecting Beirut," and established an NGO in Boston called Plan B, which serves "as a watchdog not only on Solidere but on the reconstruction of the whole of Lebanon," he explains.

"We all know that the (master plan) aimed to be grandiose, it aimed to be radical. It wasn't radical enough. This is my main concern. The master plan - the street layout, the block development - was not strong enough to suggest what kind of urban spaces were going to happen. And as a result, a lot of decisions were (deferred) to the architecture. And the architecture we are seeing in downtown Beirut has not proven to be publicly responsible enough. There's not much of it there yet. The restoration was the easy part - we all know that restoration is easy. What we selected to restore, we all know was too little."

In tandem to these critiques, Sarkis has often worked closely with Solidere. "I've been sometimes vocal from inside, sometimes vocal from outside, sometimes working on projects, sometimes not," he explains. "Even with a project like the balloon, the idea of an unencumbered ground is in many ways a commentary on what is going on in Solidere and its overreach in terms of development and the emptiness that results as an effect of excess and void."

Still, Sarkis is characteristically fair. "If we think of the way Solidere has been operating since the beginning, it's been operating almost like a development authority in any city. Many cities have given their development authorities the privilege to expropriate land, rebuild things, and invite star architects to privatize, over-privatize, and kitschify just to compete, because cities are now competing with each other in order to attract development. (Solidere) is a venture that has given itself a lot of time, and by doing that it's been able to absorb a lot of its mistakes and turn things around."

Overall, Sarkis does not believe that architects in Lebanon have found a meaningful way to deal with the legacy of the civil war. Lebanon's post-war novel may represent "a golden age." Today's explosion of video art in Beirut may be a "renaissance." But as architects, says Sarkis, "We have not yet taken on the responsibility of imagining the Beirut of the future. No one has done that. And if you rely on star architects to do that, each one just throwing their little icon in Beirut, then you are missing the point. I think, if anything, with time this will be the main challenge at Solidere."

Beirut,09 06 2004
Kaelen Wilson Goldie
The Daily Star
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