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Planning Beirut during the French Mandate: The Construction of a Modern City and its Legacy

Marlène Ghorayeb, Beyrouth sous mandat français, construction d’une ville moderne. Paris: Karthala, 2014.  

This is a wonderful addition to our knowledge of Beirut’s early days of modern planning, during the transition from Late Ottoman to French Mandate, and later. In the lineage of Jens Hanssen’s Fin de Siècle Beirut, Eric Verdeil’s Beyrouth et ses urbanistes, Carla Eddé’s Naissance d’une capitale, and Robert Saliba’s Beyrouth architectures: Aux sources de la modernité, the book is a must-read for those interested in the key spatial transformations of Beirut during the first part of the twentieth century. It nicely complements and enriches earlier texts by integrating the French Mandate era (1920-1942) in the backdrop of late Ottoman rule, and the anticipation of independence. The book furthermore locates Beirut’s transformations during the Mandate period within the regional framework of French colonial rule, analyzing the circulation of discourses and planning interventions across colonial cities (such as Cairo and cities in Morocco), and between center and peripheries. The book argues that the transformations introduced during the French Mandate can only be grasped in their lasting consequences if they are understood in their ruptures and continuities with the Late Ottoman era, and, more generally, the discourses and practices that shaped the field of urban planning and design around the Mediterranean basin between 1850 and 1950.

These arguments make larger theoretical contributions beyond the recounting of the city’s history. They speak to topics as diverse as the transfer of knowledge and know-how between center and colonies, the evolution of modern tools of planning, and their fundamental impacts on land and society. Hence, the book provides valuable reading for those interested in the transformation of tools and conceptions of planning around the turn of the previous century, relations between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, and how these seep into the later organization of the colonies. This relational analysis locates the book in conversation with earlier inquiries about the transfer of knowledge and planning practices in the region and beyond, as well as the more recent investigations of worlding processes[1] that assess the modalities through which principles and images of planning circulate across regional and national contexts. Finally, the book contributes to the critical assessment of modern tools of planning, the assumptions they embody about land, society, and the relations between the two, and how these transformations fundamentally reshaped some of the basic modes of social organization in the region. This further widens its relevance to discourses about property, public space, and the commons—topics that figure centrally in contemporary debates among anthropologists, geographers, and planners. 

Ghorayeb’s analysis builds on thorough research that digs into the public archives of the French Mandate as well as the personal archives of a number of French planners who articulated Beirut’s early development visions at the critical time of Lebanon’s independence. Those are complemented by further investigations into the late Ottoman period that enable the author to locate her discussion in the continuities and ruptures of the transition between the Ottoman and French Mandate eras. The outcome is a rich documentation and analysis of the conditions, circumstances, tools, and conceptual frameworks that made possible the historical transformations that the city underwent during the years of French rule.

The book is divided into two sections. The first section covers the early years of the French Mandate. The author locates French interventions within two frames of analysis. The first looks at the modalities of knowledge transfer and transposition between the main lands and colonial settings—locating Beirut within other cities in the Arab world, such as Morocco, Algiers, and Cairo. The second frame locates the way these interventions worked within the context of extensive modernist reforms undertaken by the Ottomans as of the mid-1800s. Through these frames, we read a convincing portrait of an interlocked historical moment that should be understood in its continuities and ruptures.

The section’s first chapter opens with the arrival of French troops in downtown Beirut where they are welcomed with a stalled, large-scale urban renewal intervention. Marred with stories of corruption and real-estate speculation reminiscent of later episodes of the city’s urban transformations, the project had been halted for several years when French planners endeavored to complete it. To Ghorayeb, this intervention reflected the commitment of Mandate authorities to modern planning, but also their inability to undertake a large-scope reform. By highlighting the planning tools (such as expropriation), and principles (such as private land ownership and public good) activated in the implementation of project, yet distinguishing the application of these tools and principles across the Ottoman and Mandate periods, Ghorayeb provides a vivid illustration of the processes, challenges, and negotiations that typified the planning of that era. Zooming out of the case study, the remaining chapters in this section investigate more globally changes in regulatory frameworks (planning ordinances), planning tools (expropriation), as well as actors and institutional organization (land registry, municipality, planning commissions, permanent hygiene commission, Service des Travaux Publics, Service des Antiquités et des Beaux-Arts, Sociétés Concessionnaires). These entry points reflect the multiple levels at which French interventions were conducted: administrative, legislative, and technical.

By delving through Ottoman documents, unraveling new conceptual principles (for example, public good, hygiene, heritage preservation) as well as modes of conceiving and organizing land as propertied (the making of a modern cadaster, the abolition of communal land), Ghorayeb unravels the complexity and power of deep transformations, all rooted in the last decades of Ottoman rule, yet deeply impregnated with the paradigms of modern planning, particularly in its French version. This is because, the author argues, the Ottoman reforms (or tanzimat) had been undertaken under European influence, in conversation with the changes occurring simultaneously in Europe, and had already introduced many of the necessary tools of modern planning for the transformation of the city. In one of the most interesting contributions of the volume, Ghorayeb warns us not to mistake the introduction of tools for a simple transfer. She points to profound disjunctions in notions such as the “public,” which are interpreted differently in the Ottoman framework (not in conflict with the “private”—largely associated with shared uses, the commons) than in the French framework, where a stricter association with a state guaranteeing universal rights was immediately assumed. Similarly, and while Ottoman reforms had already ushered the privatization of land, it is only under the auspices of the Office of the Land Registry, that the commons were evacuated and that the full privatization of land, reconceived as a means of production and a collateral used to secure financial credit, was fully assumed. In numerous instances, we see how these transformations were the deliberate calculations of French administrators, intending to revolutionize social relations and produce a new mode of conceiving and managing space.

The second section of the book analyzes the modern urban plans developed during the years of French Mandate: the Danger and Ecochard plans. To her credit, Ghorayeb had unearthed several original documents at least a decade before the book was published, and made them available to urban researchers before the publication of her own work. Although one could reproach to the book its late-coming to a well-developed and documented debate, even those familiar with the Danger and Ecochard plans are likely to enjoy the insightful framing used in analyzing these interventions. Rather than stand-alone documents, Ghorayeb approaches the planning proposals articulated for Beirut as elements within a larger field of ideas and principles about the “good city” that circulated in the first decades of the twentieth century among French planners, in international congresses, and in other colonial settings. She further shows that planners, such as the Danger brothers, were the vehicles through which these ideas were transferred. Through the analysis of proposed planning interventions, but also a critical reading of the lectures given by Rene Danger in Paris, Ghorayeb shows the prevalence of principles of hygiene, mobility, and aesthetics (embellishment) as well as concerns about modernizing “oriental cities.” She argues that class, rather than race or religion, dominated the spatial organization of the city. Ghorayeb also guides us through the methodologies with which Danger and Ecochard approached the city, and the ingredients on which they relied—such as topographic plans, urban investigations (enquêtes urbaines), graphic translations of design propositions, and analysis and solutions to socio-spatial challenges.

The remaining chapters address Michel Ecochard’s first interventions in Lebanon, unraveling his distress at the absence of a legislative planning framework, and his lobbying for the institutionalization of the profession. Ghorayeb also sheds light on the interconnectedness of the work of urbanism with military strategies, the close collaborations between the military and the Service d’Urbanisme, weaving them with Ecochard’s individual trajectory, and his personal desire to be part of the army. In this thorough account of the correspondence between the planner and French public officials, ambassadors, and others, one sees an ideologically motivated planner, driven by notions of the common good in the very French tradition, highly modernist, and a staunch advocate of an urban service that would protect and guide urbanism against private interests. This, in sum, is not just a planning consultancy but rather the object of a real modernist endeavor. One is reminded, in that context, of Wright’s and Rabinow’s earlier works on the colonies as the laboratories of investigation for French planners, yet invited to evaluate the more modest scope of the French intervention in Beirut, particularly when compared to similar interventions in Morocco, for example.

It is difficult to do justice to the contributions of the book in a short review such as this. There are more good anecdotes, interesting observations, and insightful connections than it is possible to summarize here. I will close with a note on the relevance of the work to our understanding of contemporary urban challenges in Beirut. Questions about the nature of property and land, its allocation, and transformations as well as inquiries about the nature of the public(s) and their relation to space are critical to the formulation of claims about the right to the city. Over the past few years, these questions have gained visibility through the claims of several activist campaigns challenging the modalities in which city spaces are allocated and used.[2] By historicizing these questions, Ghorayeb helps us imagine that processes such as the privatization of land, or the disappearance of the commons have nothing natural or inevitable. By understanding how they have occurred historically, we are better armed to not only challenge, but also reimagine alternative configurations of the relations between people and spaces. In that sense, Beyrouth sous mandat français is not just a history book, it is also a lesson for the future.

[To order the book, see here. The author wishes to thank Eric Verdeil for his comments on an earlier version of this essay.]

[1] See Joseph Nasr and Mercedes Volait (eds.), Urbanism: Imported or Exported? (Chichester: Wiley, 2003) and Taoufic Souami et Eric Verdeil (eds.), Concevoir et gérer les villes, milieux d'urbanistes au sud de la Méditerrannée (Paris: IFPO, 2006). On worlding, see Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong (eds.), Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global (London: Wiley, 2011).
[2] Among the most active campaigns challenging the privatization of the city’s seafronts, including its public beaches, are the Civil Campaign for the Protection of Dalieh (, and Public Space/Public Life ( See this piece on Jadaliyya for more details on Dalieh for instance.




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