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The Arab Center for Architecture (ACA): Interview with George Arbid

The Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) was established in 2008 to raise awareness about contemporary architecture and urbanism within civil society. In an interview I held on 25 June 2015 at the offices of the ACA in Beirut, George Arbid, the co-founder and current director of the ACA, discussed the work of the ACA and modern architecture in the region. Arbid explained the activities and aims of the ACA, including the establishment of an archive, a library, educational programs and the formation of the DoCoMoMo Lebanon chapter. He outlined the important contributions of Arab architects to modernist architecture and the complexities of talking about “Arab architecture,” or an “Arab modern movement.” He also discussed the exhibition Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms, and its accompanying publication Architecture from the Arab world (1914-2014) a Selection, which formed the Kingdom of Bahrain’s pavilion at the fourteenth International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale de Venezia, in 2014.       

Deen Sharp (DS): Before we discuss the work and activities of the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA), could you provide us with a broad introduction to the idea of modernist architectural heritage and its importance?

George Arbid (GA): Architecture in general terms is a cultural product, and is in constant motion. When [the public] speak of local architecture, they often mean traditional architecture. For instance, if you ask people what Lebanese architecture is about, they would talk about the nineteenth century or early twentieth century triple-arched houses with red-tiled roofs, stones and central layout. However, Lebanese architecture or, I prefer to say architecture produced in Lebanon, has gone through [several] transformations. I could claim that an architecture produced nowadays can also reflect local identity, and can be coined as Lebanese. The determining factors of that identity are climate, geography, topography, economy, need, building techniques, personal and societal beliefs, cultural aspirations, local ethos, and so on.

At ACA, we are interested in promoting the idea of architecture as culture, and therefore modern architecture of the twentieth century as part of [our] heritage. Like any architecture produced in the twentieth century, it was subjected to faster influences than in the earlier periods but anyone who knows the history of architecture well, knows that in earlier times architecture was something that was also contaminated. And, I would argue [contaminated] often positively by travels, wars, cultural influences and so on. Therefore, the identity of architecture has always been subjected to various influences. It is our task to try to define the specificities of architecture in the Arab world in the twentieth century, and promote the idea that it is a cultural product.

DS: Picking up on that thread, the history of modern architecture usually focuses on Western architects and their products, such as Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as one of the most significant modernist architects outside of the Western canon, Oscar Niemeyer. But obviously not many Arab architects pop up in this central canon of what we understand as the modern movement. Could you identity some particular Arab architects that could be inserted into this canon, and identify their specific contributions?  

GA: Certainly, the first name that comes to mind for me, is Sayed Karim, an Egyptian architect (also known as Sayed Korayem). [Karim] is not well known because the world was more interested in the work and writings of Hassan Fathy. [Fathy] is certainly a major architect of the twentieth century who represents a change, an idiosyncratic change, in the production of architecture in Egypt. His is a polemical work that some [have] criticized for not being realistic. Of course, when we speak of Fathy we think of building in clay, people building for themselves, the houses [for] the poor, and so on. But, more or less at the same time (1940s-1970s), there was another production in Egypt by architects such as Sayed Karim, who also published the magazine called al-Imara. [Karim] promoted a totally different [kind of] architecture, which was more progressive in a certain way, and more experimental in another, and certainly more adapted to rapid urbanization. [Karim] deserves serious research, and indeed Mohamed el-Shahed has recently completed a doctoral thesis that partly analyzes how Karim negotiated architectural modernism in the context of Egypt.

I could also name other Arab architects. In Lebanon, pioneers like Farid Trad, the engineer-architect Antoine Tabet, and Said Hejal who designed many of the Maqassed schools. Some of [these schools] are testimonies to very rational uses of space in an urban context. You have Joseph Philippe Karam with his daring projects, like the famous City Centre (also known as the Egg) in Beirut. [For an overview of Lebanese modern architects see here] In Sudan, you have Abdel Moneim Mustafa who, in the 1970s and 1980s, produced an architecture that would nowadays certainly win an award in sustainable design. The reason it could win an award is simply that they had little means, and little means in architecture usually leads to resourcefulness. These architects working along such lines in Egypt, Sudan, Iraq, and other countries in the Arab world, were producing an architecture that was climate responsive, economic, and belonged to the local ways of doing things. And yet, they were progressive, and forward-looking. This is the most interesting aspect of this type of architecture. It is not an architecture that dwells on identity for the sake of the looks of it, but rather for the lessons learned from previous traditions and ways of doing things.

DS: Taking together the various individuals that you have mentioned, would you argue that they produced a distinctive regional modern movement in architecture? Is there really something that we can call the Arab modern movement?

GA: Perhaps speaking of a movement would require more setups and tools, like for example magazines. In the case of Sayed Karim, we could say so as there was some sort of promotion of modernism as a movement around him. In many other cases, it was individual undertakings, although most of those architects were part of a larger mode of thinking, connected to artists, for example in Beirut or Baghdad. Baghdad would be the best example. People like Rifat Chadirji, Jawad Salim, Qahtan Awni, and Qahtan Madfai were part of some sort of renaissance of architecture in Baghdad and in Iraq. Perhaps they did not create a movement per se, that was recognizable and announced, like the Bauhaus movement or other more organized groups. Yet, we could say that there is a modern Iraqi architect or modern Iraqi architecture, as there is a version of modernism in other countries.

Perhaps, [however,] we should refuse the appellation of modern Arab architecture. It does not make much sense to me. [This is because] the climate is very different from Baghdad to Beirut to North Africa. The cultural traditions are similar in ways, of course influenced by religious and societal beliefs, and praxis. At the same time, those variations are enormous. In the Lebanese case, the architecture of the mountain is significantly different from the architecture of the coast. Even the materials used are not the same. You would use sandstone in the city, and plaster it because it is porous, and you cannot keep it un-plastered. Sandstone is found on the coast from Batroun to Jbeil [Byblos], Tripoli, Saida and Beirut whereas the houses of the mountain, which are a variation of that model, are built with limestone. The detailing, the structural capacities of the wall and the construction are all different. Therefore, it does not make sense for me to say Lebanese architecture per se, or Arab architecture per se. One has to be more specific. Yes, we could speak then of regional, when we refer to locality in a narrower sense, rather than [referring to] the global region as the Middle East or the Arab world. It is like when people say “Islamic architecture”Islamic when, where?  

DS: In establishing the Arab Center for Architecture, which you co-founded in 2008, how have you dealt with this definitional tension, and how are you framing your approach to the Arab Center for Architecture?

GA: The appellation certainly explains that we are interested in the broader region, [beyond] Lebanon where we are located. It is called the Arab Center for Architecture; it could also be called the Center for Architecture in the Arab World, but certainly not the Center for Arab Architecture. And, that explains more or less how we place ourselves. It is a center that is located in the Arab world, it is interested in researching, disseminating, documenting, archiving, and debating architecture in the Arab world. Not only the architecture of the twentieth century, because we aim to be a platform for debating the current city and its developments. We are not particularly interested in researching more ancient architecture—earlier than the eighteenth, or even mid-nineteenth century. There are other venues, people, and academicians interested in that aspect. We are interested in regionalism per se. We would like to tackle something that falls more or less in the gap between academia on the one hand, and professional bodies and orders on the other: dealing with civil society, disseminating architecture as culture to a larger number of people, and trying to make a difference on the terms, for example, of advocacy for preservation. [We do not mean] preservation of a particular period, but the principle of preserving what deserves to be preserved—[an] architecture understood as text on the evolution of the city. 

We are aware of the difficulties of convincing authorities and individuals who deal with the issue that a building made of glass, steel, aluminum, and concrete is heritage. You can hardly convince people that a building of the nineteenth century is worth being preserved. So when you come and say, you should preserve a building built for example in the 1950s, such as the Hotel Carlton [in Raouche, Beirut] that was demolished a few years ago, you usually have a hard time convincing people. We tend to consider buildings as economic artifacts and products—which they certainly are in a certain way. But, they are also cultural products. [Therefore, it is important to involve] the public in decision making over what should be kept, and this is a battle we are in the midst of.

DS: You have given us a sense of the type of people you are trying to engage in the work of the ACA. Could you give us a sense in more concrete, if you could excuse the pun, examples of the sort of activities that the center has been engaged with over the past seven years that it has been active?

GA: The first activity is the physical collection of archives that is open to the public. We have a room at the center dedicated to collecting physical archives. This archive contains the drawings of architects, either technical or perspective drawings, photographs of buildings or documents related to the architects. In some cases we have correspondence between architects and clients. We even have bills from the construction that speak of the materials of the time and the source of material. As our staff is limited for the time being and we are a growing institution, access is given by appointment.

The second activity is our library. It is still embryonic, but, this year, we aim to develop this collection. The collection is open to the public, and we do have students and post-docs, architects, and even just interested people, coming and reading here, though they cannot borrow books. We have a very small collection, specialized in nineteenth and twentieth century architecture in Lebanon and the Arab world, in addition to books on the history and theory of architecture.

["Revealing Architecture" Leaflet, p.2: One of ACA's Dissemination Projects. Photo ACA]

[Exhibition at ACA. Photo ACA]

We also have a program of dissemination of architecture with the broader public, which we call Revealing Architecture (or
Kashf al-Imara in Arabic), and it has four components, financed by the European Union. One component is organizing six lectures annually where we invite Lebanese architects who practiced in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to come and present their work, in conversation with an architect (usually under the age of fifty) who looks at the work, and reacts to it from today’s perspective. We have had three of those lectures, and we still have three more running for the year. We have an audience of sixty to seventy people who come, and engage in very interesting debates. We film these talks, and they will be posted on our website. We also have a very active Facebook page and a website. Another component of the project is organizing twelve visits to either iconic buildings, or important neighborhoods in Lebanon, explaining the history of the development of the neighborhood. We have had already six of those, and we have six more to go, and the audience is varied. For example, we invite tourist guides to come, and get acquainted with how you can speak about the modern city. Of course, they are trained to speak about important archeological sites, traditional places, villages, and the city center for its economic growth and interest. But, they are not usually equipped to speak about neighborhoods, or for that matter, modern iconic buildings. There is architectural tourism happening here. So we want to be part of that by distributing scientific knowledge to people who can in turn disseminate it.

The third component which I think is very important, and part of a long-term agenda, is to work with school children. We have prepared a tool kit that we will [launch] in October 2015 [for] kids aged around thirteen. We are doing this with the Lebanese Ministry of Education. The tool kit will present architecture, the city, and public space to school kids. It is of course made in a playful way, and it is very interactive. We expect this to be disseminated in public schools in Lebanon, and hopefully in other countries [in the Arab region].  

The fourth component is an architectural map of Beirut with the important neighborhoods and landmarks. It is a sort of promenade in the city with some information about the importance of each building, its historical context and the architect. This is the plan for the current year.

[Workshop at ACA with Ashkal Alwan students, with George Arbid. Photo by ACA]

DS: You have also founded DoCoMoMo Lebanon. For people who are unfamiliar with DoCoMoMo, could you introduce the broad outlines of the organization? Also, what does it mean for you to have founded a chapter here in Lebanon, and how does the ACA seek to pursue that path as well?

GA: DoCoMoMo is particularly important in my point of view because it is a world institution. It has around forty-five to fifty chapters around the world. DoCoMoMo is the acronym for the International Committee for Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sites, and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement. The people who are behind this are academicians and professionals. It started in Holland, and has spread all over the world. The interesting side of this institution is that it is composed of professionals, practicing architects who deal with, among other things, renovation, conservation, and preservation of modern buildings, but we also have academicians, such as historians and sociologists, who are interested in their history. And they organize international and regional conferences. We are planning a conference in Beirut next year that will deal with the preservation of buildings, and the adaptive reuse of buildings. Each panel will have a speaker from Lebanon, a speaker from the region and an international one. Today, we cannot only speak of sustainability [in relation to] high-tech facades. Preserving buildings is also sustainable, as it has to do with recycling the building stock we have. I am particularly interested in this from the design side. For example, I teach at the American University of Beirut (AUB), and I often give studios there to students on the adaptive reuse of buildings or neighborhoods. The work that has been done in these studios provides a lesson on how to try to save certain buildings, not by necessarily countering the current building code or ignoring it, but by using the opportunities it can offer. We therefore try to strike a balance at the neighborhood scale, beyond the concern for the building as a unit. This is different from either the tabula rasa [approach], or absolute preservation. Because we are interested in reality as a starting point for operative change, we keep, at the core of the studio, the understanding of the regulatory setups, procedures, mechanisms at play in the production of buildings and cities, and we engage in the intellectual and formal exercise through a project.

DS: One of the ACA’s most prominent and significant projects thus far, I think it is fair to say, has been the participation in the Venice Biennale as part of the Kingdom of Bahrain’s pavilion. Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms was an exhibition that you co-produced with the Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury. Before talking about the important publication Architecture from the Arab world (1914-2014), a Selection that formed the centerpiece for the pavilion, can you tell us first about how two Lebanese architects happened to produce Bahrain’s pavilion?

GA: It is true that it is a major achievement. Bernard Khoury, who is part of our board, proposed the project to us. He was contacted by Noura al-Sayeh who is an architect counselor for the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain. [Khoury] was called in to design the pavilion, and he proposed ACA, and me in particular, as a co-curator. The theme set by Rem Koolhaas, the director of the 2014 Venice Biennale, was "one hundred years of architecture." Koolhaas had proposed to look back at the century, and to try to understand the changes in the world that produced the cities and the architecture in which we live. Given my expertise on the topic, the fact that we had already gathered some archives, and our connections, Khoury thought we would be good interlocutors. I was very happy to actually co-curate the pavilion with him, because we quickly convinced Bahrain that we should be doing a pavilion on architecture in the Arab world rather than just in Bahrain. The visionary Bahraini minister of culture, Sheikha Mai, quickly agreed on the idea. So, the pavilion is actually a gift in some way from Bahrain to the Arab world to exhibit one hundred years of architecture.

[The Bahrain Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Architecture Biennale, co-curated by George Arbid and Bernard Khoury. A rotunda of bookshelves displaying the book produced for the occasion. In the middle:  a table offers a timeline and map of the Arab world with one hundred poles representing the buildings showcased in the book. Above: a circular ceiling with simultaneous projections of a man reciting the twenty-two national anthems of Arab countries. Photo by Delfino Sisto Legnani]

Khoury brilliantly designed the pavilion, in conversation with al-Sayeh and me. We decided that we would not exhibit actual photographs of buildings, or models of buildings. [Instead,] we would speak about the current situation of the Arab world, its geography, and the unfortunate political dislocation. Architecture would be displayed in a physical book that people could take with them. We wanted to step away from the common digital projections and atmosphere [that this format creates]. So, the pavilion is a space that you enter, it is a very clear space, it is like a wall of books, a rotunda of books. We distributed forty thousand copies for free. It is a lavish book, which won two awards, the Most Beautiful Swiss Book 2014, and the Best Book Design From All Over the World 2015 at the Leipzig fair. People could not believe they could simply take copies. Students took two, three copies for their friends. That was the best thing we had done because it got disseminated physically. Of course, it is very easy nowadays to disseminate images: you go on the Internet and [easily obtain them]. But, [it is much more difficult to] go find a drawing in Mauritania, or in Egypt, or in the archives of an architect who stopped his work thirty or forty years ago. It was a huge undertaking, and we were very happy with the result.

The book is one hundred and eighty pages, and it presents a hundred buildings with in photographs and drawings. [For a building to be included in the book, the stipulation] was for it to have a good drawing that represented the architectural idea, and the agency behind it, testifying for the visionary side of architecture. By giving priority to drawings, we wanted to disseminate the importance of architecture archives. [Each] building included also had to have a public concern. We did not put individual houses, as we considered that, in such a venue, we should be speaking about the “publicness” of architecture. We also have essays [in the book]. I invited colleagues and researchers to write essays about the Arab world. I wrote about Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan (the Levant). The pavilion itself was very well received. It has a map of the Arab world with a timeline; it was a beautiful idea put into form and space.   

DS: The book had a wonderful description that I want to highlight. It said it was a “subjective, non-exhaustive and sometime fictional reading of the architectural legacy of the last hundred years across the Arab world.” I also want to setout the thesis that the pavilion sketched out for you to elaborate on. It stated that the pavilion outlines that “transition from the 1980s in which it is noted that the seeds of the modernist project were aborted, and a colonial map was replaced with the real estate developer’s model and neoliberal economics.”

GA: Yes, that is absolutely true. The map in the space of the pavilion itself had a timeline where you can see the architecture we mostly witness now in the news, and how it has shifted to Dubai, Qatar and other places in the same area. The type of firms behind architecture is not the same anymore, and this has a huge impact on the architecture produced. It has an impact on public space, and what public space means, why it is there, and for whom. It also has to do with the image making of architecture: what is a landmark? There was a time when landmarks were buildings that [were related to] administration, with a collective, though not always progressive, agenda of independent nation building, and well-being for all. Whereas in this neoliberal time, interest and agency behind projects and reasons behind their implementation has shifted, and so has the role of the architect. The expectations and aspirations have shifted. This is legible in the book, and also around us in our cities. Obviously a center like ours cannot claim it can counter anything of the sort, yet what it can do is make alternatives visible, make things that were accomplished visible. Even stylistically, I would say, which is the most uninteresting part of architecture, but even at that level, one could argue that a comparison is useful to start thinking about change. The operations, the setups, the professional bodies and the stylistic and formal manifestations, are all things we like to look at, debate, and hope to trigger an influence on.   

DS: Maybe one aspect that I see missing from the center’s work, and missing from the regional landscape is a direct engagement with architectural criticism. None of the major newspapers in Arabic, English, or even French, and correct me if I am wrong, have an architectural critic of any sort. There is some architectural criticism that is going on in the form of blogs, and Facebook groups among architects or academics, but do you think the ACA can play a part in encouraging more public forms of architectural criticism?

GA: I absolutely agree with you, and your critique. Yes, criticism is absolutely necessary. It requires objectivity that comes from a certain distance and, of course, from knowledge. We certainly would support architectural criticism, and we want to do that. We have in mind an architectural magazine that would also be online, where these questions would be asked, and also where maybe answers can be sketched, which is also related to criticism. We would also like to implement an architectural award that would not necessarily be given to students or to people at the end of their careers—which the Order of Engineers and Architects in Lebanon does for instance. This would be an architectural award for practicing architects, [who are] at mid-career, that would pinpoint critically, and positively the work that we think should be highlighted, and be part of what is considered good architecture. When it comes to writing a critique, yes, it should definitely happen, and it should also happen in the Arabic language. We did not speak about the Arabic language in this interview, but I think it is crucial that things are disseminated in Arabic as well. We would like to also be involved in translations from English to Arabic, French to Arabic, or Arabic to other languages. The writings of Rifat Chadirji, for example, should be translated because he wrote often in English, but also in Arabic. His major book Al-Ukhaidir and The Crystal Palace do not have an English translation, which is a shame, as this is a very good testimony of the arts and architecture of Iraq from the 1930s to the 1970s, and 1980s. Translating major books from English, French, and other languages to Arabic would certainly have an impact, and we hope that we, and others, can do this. Of course, this would require more funding, and a setup involving translators, and professional people, because translating technical books and architectural theory is not an easy task, especially given concepts that are new for the Arabic language.

But to go back to criticism, certainly criticism is important. We have to make it more acceptable to colleagues. It is a tradition, and a mindset that has to filter through everyone, so that any critique is not taken personally, as there is perhaps this wrong concept that you cannot criticize your colleagues’ work. When the whole enterprise is one that is distant from the object itself, and the author is speaking of better architecture, criticism is very important and should happen.

DS: And, of course, in documenting and arguing for the protection of certain elements of the built environment over others, the ACA is always engaged in an act of criticism. Moreover, in creating a center around Arab modern architecture, an important critical intervention has been launched in attempting to expand public concern over the preservation of the built environment to include twentieth and twenty-first century architecture and architects. Spaces such as the ACA are a crucial and all too rare meeting point for practicing architects, academics, urban planners, developers and the broader public to engage with each other over the meaning of quality architecture, and urban space. Indeed, the ACA has already been the site of some crucial debates over Beirut’s urban form, such as the construction of the Fouad Boutros Highway in Achrafieh. Architects and their architecture are important to how a city is formed, and a better understanding of what quality architecture is, and how it is achieved can result in an improved quality of (urban) life.

[George Arbid is an architect and associate professor of architecture at the American University of Beirut (AUB). His doctoral dissertation at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design is titled "Practicing Modernism in Beirut: Architecture in Lebanon, 1946-1970" (2002). Among his writings is “Beirut: the Phoenix and the Reconstruction Predicament,” an essay that he wrote for Urbanization and the Changing Character of the Arab City published by ESCWA in 2005. He is the editor of Architecture from the Arab world (1914-2014), a Selection,and the author of the forthcoming book Karol Schayer Architect: A Pole in Beirut. He also runs an architecture practice that, among other projects, designed the Shabb and Salem residences, the latter of which was nominated for the Aga Khan Award in 1998.]



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