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For Hashim Sarkis, Beirut was built without urban logic


“I still believe that things can be changed,” says the dean of the prestigious School of Architecture and Urban Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was just appointed curator of the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennial.

When asked about urbanism in Beirut, Hashim Sarkis is not a fatalist. “I still believe that things can be changed. These are not insurmountable problems, and much bigger cities with more acute versions of our problems have already come up with solutions – and they work,” the architect explains.

Many investors bet on the real estate sector in Beirut, according to Sarkis, because they believed that the return on their investments would be much higher than in any other sector of the economy. “The returns on real estate investment have been such that you can overbuild, make quick returns by selling a small amount of your property and wait on the rest until you get good value. If you go around the city at night and count the number of unoccupied, dark apartments, you will be shocked,” Sarkis says. “Once we re-adjust our economic beliefs and investments to support a more diverse economy (agro-industry, digital, creative, etc.), then we can begin to solve the city’s urbanism more effectively. Many cities around the world that have overbuilt have tried to encourage investors to take their monies elsewhere and taxed empty property.”

Beirut’s disorderly, even chaotic, urban landscape can’t be solely blamed on architects and promoters, who are often accused of not respecting construction rules. “Our building regulations are not attentive to topography in a city whose identity is deeply linked to its geography. Our building regulations do not value street alignments and encourage chaotic enclosure of balconies. They do not take into consideration pedestrian needs either and create a horrible skyline,” Sarkis argues.

In short, the city was built with no respect of urban planning rules, and it led to what we have today. “Beirut needs to dramatically improve its building regulations, like so many cities with difficult topographies have done, such as Quito, Valparaiso, Hong Kong and San Francisco,” he adds.

The Municipality of Beirut is responsible

“It goes without saying that Beirut’s infrastructure is not able to absorb the number of people living in it and the number of cars circulating in it,” Sarkis continues. “This, again, is not unique to Beirut. Many cities where the public sector is poor suffer from this problem and at much bigger scales. However, Beirut’s municipality is quite rich, and it must take on the role of improving its infrastructure. Any urban economist will show you that if a city spends money on infrastructure, including social infrastructure, it only gets richer.”

“For traffic solutions, Beirut does not need to spend more money on highways. It can spend it on improving the highways signage, drainage, and the smart technologies that help mitigate traffic. There are metrics out there that show that if you add a line of buses you are able to save on road maintenance – Bogota and Medellin are excellent examples. More importantly, there is the question of social infrastructure: parks, libraries, schools and hospitals. These, again, are assets that cities around the world have used not just to improve on the social life and welfare of the citizens, but also on the city’s economies. Public good and wealth are not incompatible,” he continues.

The process of urban development in Beirut has led to the destruction of architectural heritage. “It is a pity. A pity after a pity,” Sarkis laments. “Not only because we are destroying our heritage for no real benefit, including economic benefit, but because we are losing economically by doing that as well. There is proof, from around the world (New York, Muscat, Amman, Lisbon, the list is endless) that historic preservation and adaptive reuse will bring economic benefits to the developers and the city more than the destruction. History is wealth, cultural and economic wealth combined. There is evidence, especially in Beirut, Byblos, Sidon and Tripoli, that this is the case.”

The 2020 Biennale

Sarkis has been the dean of the prestigious School of Architecture and Urbanism of MIT since 2015, and was just appointed curator of the 2020 Venice Architecture Biennale. He is the first Lebanese, and Middle Easterner, chosen to lead the event, which will take place from May 23 to Nov. 29, 2020.

While achieving international recognition, Sarkis has remained connected to people’s daily concerns. He is "particularly attentive to critical themes induced by the contrasting realities of contemporary society," says Paolo Baratta, chairman of the Venice Biennale's Board of Directors.

The architect and urban planner is no stranger to the Biennale. He participated in the event in 2016 as a member of the jury. Two years earlier, he participated with a US based project, and in 2010, with Albania. In 2020, he will be in charge of the design, organization, selection of the projects and theme of the exhibition, which “will be revealed in due time,” he says slyly.

MIT: “a laboratory of ideas”

A native of Moukhtara, Sarkis founded Hashim Sarkis Studios (HSS) and was the Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism at Harvard University for 12 years. Since 2015, he has been working full-time as the dean of the School of Architecture and Urbanism at MIT. The school’s programs blend the boundaries between disciplines. "It includes different departments to stimulate innovation and make significant progress, helping to create a better world,” Sarkis says.

In addition to the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies and Planning, MIT has established a multimedia lab, Center for Real Estate, Arts, Culture and Technology and the Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urban Planning. Sarkis speaks passionately about all these projects.

The school will soon move to a 20,000-square-meter former factory. The building was remodeled by Elizabeth Diller, the only architect on Time magazine’s 2018 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. As co-founder of Manhattan-based Diller & Scofidio, Diller has taken on many major projects, such as rehabilitating New York's High Line, designing the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, the expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts and the Juilliard School.

Some people criticize academia as being too far removed from the real world problems people face in their daily lives. But Sarkis see the university as a laboratory. “[It’s] a place of exchange and debates between speakers, teachers, researchers and students from diverse backgrounds,” he argues. “It keeps giving me more expertise and skill.”

Byblos, Amchit, Barouk

Despite having achieved international success, Sarkis continues to work on projects in Lebanon. HSS Studios is designing the Byblos municipality’s new headquarters. Sarkis’ studio won the bid following a blind competition that was open to all architects. The project design already won a prize from the Order of Lebanese Engineers and Architects. Sitting on a 7,000-square-meter lot, the building will have public space and be connected to both the Byblos’ old and new cities by pedestrian bridges.

The Byblos municipality also commissioned HSS to develop a two kilometers pedestrian walkway linking resorts along the shoreline to archaeological sites, the port and the river. The project is unprecedented in Lebanon. "Environment-friendly and light, it will unify the seafront as well as create an indispensable social link,” Sarkis says.

Sarkis is also working on a housing development with five villas embedded into Amchit’s coastal landscape. "The site is inclined to the west, towards the Mediterranean, angled in such a way the facade is open to the view and the breeze while the other sides of the house are protected by land,” he explains. “Each house has a double-layered wall, and a tower provides shade while simultaneously functioning as a fireplace to release heat from the courtyard and bedrooms. This combination of the courtyard and tower produces a new typology of houses.”

Seawater will be reused for the air conditioning system, and the plants and trees that were selected for the landscaping require little water. The design won the Arab Architect Award for best residential project in 2018.

Another ongoing project, the House of Biodiversity for the Should Biosphere Reserve, uses “natural materials recovered from the forest, such as broken branches, dead leaves and stems present on the site,” Sarkis says.

An 80-unit fisherman’s housing complex in Tyre developed by HSS also won the Boston Society of Architect’s 2008 design award. The project was one of Sarkis’ major achievements. Two years later, the MoMA in New York featured it in an exhibit on the theme of "Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement". The exposed, three-dimensional, colored concrete model displayed at the MoMA allowed visitors to fully grasp the concept, the aesthetics and the objective of this social complex, which promotes low-rent housing for the local fishermen.

(This article was originally published in French on the 16th of January)

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