Robert Saliba, editor, Urban Design in the Arab World: Reconceptualizing Boundaries. London: Ashgate, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Robert Saliba (RS): The idea for this book was initiated in the wake of City Debates 2012, an international conference on contemporary urban issues that I organized in May at the American University of Beirut. The conference, entitled Reconceptualizing Boundaries: Urban Design in the Arab World, asked: “How are the changing paradigms of urban design in the wake of the new millennium impacting the making and shaping of cities in the Arab World?” This book was conceived to bring together the wide diversity of approaches that appeared during the conference, not as conference proceedings, but as a synthesis of, and critical reflection on, the ideas presented. As such, it seeks to share with the wider academic community the broadening discussion that is developing among theoreticians and practitioners of urban design throughout the region.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
RS: An extensive body of literature has been produced over the last three decades on urbanism in the Middle East, but without a specific focus on urban design as an emerging autonomous field. This book provides a critical overview of the state of contemporary urban design in the Arab world, a discipline that has witnessed a remarkable development due to the accelerated pace imposed by postwar reconstruction, environmental degradation, and the competition among cities for world visibility and tourism. It conceptualizes the field under four major perspectives—urban design as discourse, as discipline, as research, and as practice—addressing the following questions: How can such a diversity of practice be positioned with regard to current international trends in urban design? What constitutes the specificity of the Middle Eastern experience in light of the regional political and cultural settings?
This book is also about urban designers “on the margins,” and how they narrate their cities, how they engage with their discipline, and how they negotiate their distance from, and with respect to, global disciplinary trends. As such, the term “margins” implies three complementary connotations. On the global level, it invites speculation on how new conceptualizations of center-periphery originating from post-colonial discourse are impacting contemporary urban design. On the regional level, it is a speculation on the specificity of urban design thinking and practice within a particular geographical and cultural context (here, the Arab World). Finally, on the local level it is an attestation to a major shift in urban design focus, from city centers to their margins, with unchecked suburban growth, informal development, and disregard for leftover spaces.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
RS: Among the works published that investigate environmental design in the Middle East, beginning largely in the 1980s, there has been an overlap between the design and planning disciplines under the umbrella term of “urbanism.” The book is an attempt to reflect on three complementary questions. First, what importance has been specifically given to urban design in the discourse on development, redevelopment, and reconstruction? Second, to what extent has the published professional and academic work emphasized the unique role of urban design as a key discipline in “reinstating urbanity,” and in giving shape to the diverse types of settlements throughout the Arab world? And, third, what constitutes the specificity of the emerging field of “urban design” in the Middle East?
The literature on urbanism in general, and on urban design in particular, has revolved mainly around three axes: the geographical, the historical, and the thematic, with many works articulated around comparative city profiles (Elsheshtawy 2004 and 2008; Bianca 2000). Historical studies have focused on postcolonial practices, and the domestication of Western design models during colonial, independence, and contemporary periods (Nasr and Volait 2003). Most of the thematic studies have concentrated either on postwar reconstruction or on urban conservation (Al-Harithy 2010, Saliba 2004). Although built-environment professionals coming from backgrounds in architecture, landscape, and physical planning mostly wrote these studies, I argue that urban design itself has rarely been positioned as a key starting point for investigation. Instead, the studies tend to merge the physical, the legislative, the political, and the socio-economic under the umbrella term of “urbanism” in an effort to be comprehensive. Furthermore, most of the research in this category follows an empirical approach, favoring case studies, and a comparative perspective in order to deduce applicable lessons. This may be traced to the fact that urban design invites short- to medium- term physical intervention, and rarely allows time and space for reflective thinking. This book builds on this large body of work in order to articulate the contours of an autonomous field of practice—urban design—that has its own specificity, and which is clearly demarcated from the subsidiary fields of planning and architecture.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
RS: The book is primarily aimed at academics and practitioners in the environmental design fields, and all ancillary and related fields, including architecture, planning, landscape, and urban design, among others. Beyond academia, the comprehensive review of current practices that the book provides has a high relevance for corporate developers, public sector agencies, international planning firms, and local municipalities throughout the region.
Because of its relevance to contemporary issues, the book is also certainly important material for teaching urban design methodology to planning and design students, as a necessary part of both undergraduate and graduate curricula. This extends beyond regional universities: programs in architecture and urbanism across Europe, the United States, and other regions have made it a point during the last two decades to conduct design workshops on the Middle East for their students. This thus appears to be a timely volume: the politics of post-war Baghdad, the Arab Spring, and the Syrian Uprising have focused international attention on the region. Not only is the content of this book directly linked to the above political issues, but also it comes at a time when academics and professionals are closely watching cities of the Arab world to identify key economic and cultural trends with respect to globalization, future cities, marketing, tourism, real estate, and emerging financial markets.
Excerpt from Urban Design in the Arab World: Reconceptualizing Boundaries
The title of this book incorporates two problematic yet promising concepts: Urban Design and the Arab World. The first designates, “a [young] discipline that has been unable to develop any substantial theory on its own” (Cuthbert 2003: viii), and the second remains an elusive term, geographically, politically, and ethnically. Despite these qualifications, urban design is a lively and strong emerging discipline profoundly anchored in professional practice, real world projects, and future visions. Moreover, the Arab World despite its geographical ambiguity, is an emblematic term profoundly engrained in common parlance, academic discourse, and media diffusion, that generally brings images of a region rampant with constructed and ambiguous national identities, overwhelming wealth and poverty, religious mix, and most recently the Arab uprisings, a bottom-up revolution shaking the foundations of pre-established long standing hierarchies. Accordingly, the Arab World is a prime territory for questioning urban design as a discipline in flux, due to its abundance of sites of globalization, sites of worship, sites of conflict, and sites of contestation. Such diversity invites a multiplicity of opportunities for shaping, upgrading, and rebuilding urban form and civic space while subjecting global paradigms to regional and local realities.
For the past two decades, the image of the Middle Eastern city has wavered in the public and professional imagination between two extremes: the global hub and the postwar city, the first exemplified by Dubai and the second by Beirut. Between the two, a vast array of intermediate landscapes exists, ranging from suburban informal settlements to metropolitan new towns and expanding holy cities. Over the past two decades, diverse attempts to classify these landscapes were made in built–environment literature. In 2004, Elsheshtawy differentiates between traditional, fringe, and oil rich cities, with all three categories merging historical, geographical and economic designations. Four years later he simplifies his classifications to struggling and emerging cities, referring to the great divide that exists between the burgeoning Gulf cities and traditional centers like Cairo or Damascus, with the influx of money and development models from the former to the latter termed as gulfication or dubaization.
As explained above, the focus of this book will be on urban design as a distinctive discipline; it will be articulated around four tracks related to urban design thinking: the discursive, the hybrid, the operational, the visionary. Each track will be problematized in view of its global relevance and regional specificity and I will focus on how such constructs intersect with sites and practices and bring forward urban design issues of ideology and context. The book ends with a prospective section advancing future agendas for urban design in the region.
Section I: The Discursive
Re–Conceptualizing the Boundaries between the Diverse and the Conflictive
…This track investigates how the diversity of design positions during the last two decades has created a dynamic, and reactive regional dialogue through an increased fluidity in the transfer of ideas and concepts between the emerging and struggling cities on the margins. Here, urban design is conceived of as a catalyst for change, as a channel for importing and domesticating models, for creating regional paradigms, and for interrogating mutual perceptions between international and local practitioners. Is such a diversity of positions promoting replication, collage, hybridization or innovation? Is there an emerging geography of design exchange with its regional centers and peripheries, its own instruments of regionalization, and an autonomous discourse? Are we moving towards a “discursive urbanism,” one that is more accepting of the complexities and multiplicities shaping urban form in the Arab World? This first section of the book investigates four types of discourse that have strongly emerged since the 1990s: the cultural, the participative, the corporate, and the greening or ecological. Each brings its own logic to urban design, both as ideology and as praxis.
Section II: The Hybrid
Blurring Boundaries between Design Disciplines
The interlocking disciplines of architecture, urban design, and physical planning are being challenged in their ways of thinking and shaping city space by new patterns of physical urbanization and growing environmental concerns. Emerging disciplines such as ecological landscape design (covered in chapter six by Jala Makhzoumi as underlying the greening discourse) and landscape urbanism (covered in chapter seven by Lee Frederix as a tool to investigate socio–cultural networks in marginal spaces) are providing alternative means for conceptualization that stress ecology over morphology; network surface over urban form; and the confluence of architecture, landscape, city, and infrastructure. These dynamic and integrated visions are emphasizing the holistic and the interdisciplinary, while widening the scope of design investigation. Concurrently, attempts at grounding urban design theory in the social sciences are leading to a new understanding of urban space, locating it at the intersection of social theory, human geography, and cultural studies.
Section III: The Operational
Bridging Boundaries between Research and Practice
As a profession-oriented discipline, urban design defines itself through operational research and reflective practice. With the waning of Modernism, design research has retracted from the universal to focus on the regional and the local, and has expanded its scope from the morphological to the ecological, communal, and speculative. Practice itself has acquired an evaluative edge with the increasing accountability of the designer to the community and to the market, as well as the mounting public expectations with regard to sustainability and participation. How is urban design ‘on the margins’ responding to these global challenges? How is recent design–based research reflective of paradigmatic shifts in urban design thinking? And is there an active engagement between urban design research and professional practice?
Section IV: The Visionary
Crossing Boundaries between the Utopian and the Real
The urban design project has always been a mediator between idealized pasts and idealizing futures and a channel for importing and domesticating modernity. As mentioned above, for the past two decades, the ideals of the city in the Arab World shifted from a quest for the local, national and regional to a “preference for internationally-prevalent models.” (Al-Asad 2008: 26) These models range from a fascination with Western imagery of commercial strips, towers and avant-garde high-tech deconstructivist architecture on one hand, to packaged historical landscapes for tourist consumption on the other. However, the physical, social, and cultural geography of the Arab world is too diverse to be encapsulated in two extreme representations. The vast extent of intermediate landscapes encompasses a huge diversity of sites of globalization (figure 1.1), sites of worship (figure 1.2), sites of conflict (figure 1.3), sites of contestation (figure 1.4), and so on. What are the underlying dialectics that connect and differentiate these diversified landscapes? Are the margins still a colonial testing ground for the ideals of the center, or just a market for overused and discarded ideas and concepts? How are the dreams of globalization being subjected to a new emerging political consciousness and to the immediacy of the here and now?
[Excerpted from Robert Saliba, editor, Urban Design in the Arab World: Reconceptualizing Boundaries, by permission of the editor. © 2015 Ashgate Publishing. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here. Online orders can benefit from a discount using this number: 50CPB15N]