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Uncovering the History of Lebanon
Nature in the Design
The Finer Things in Life
A Journey from Geology to Iconography
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Spring 2006 Vol. IV, No. 3

Nature in the Design

Since its founding, the AUB campus has been a botanical treasure nurturing specimens that were collected across the entire region. For more than 100 years, it has provided singular opportunities for AUB students and researchers. Today, new programs and new approaches in landscape design and eco-management are influencing the changing face of campus.

The campus. For AUBites, it’s often the first thing that comes to mind when we think about AUB. Its richness and diversity are at the core of any AUB experience. But what comes to mind when we think of the campus? There is the sheer beauty of the physical location, of course, but there are also the views, a favorite spot, the benches, the front steps leading to the main gate on Bliss Street, the cats, the lush vegetation, College Hall silhouetted at night, the baobab trees, and much more.

If you were to dig back into the history of AUB, you would come across some old pictures of the campus and be struck by how different the campus looked at the end of the nineteenth century. It seems so empty, so stark. There are so few trees. Thanks to the efforts of Dr. Franklin Moore, we can all enjoy these old pictures. Moore first came to Lebanon in 1891 to teach at the Syrian Protestant College, as AUB was then called. He was later appointed as professor of obstetrics and gynecology and spent many years at the University. Some of the photos that he took have been gathered together as “The Moore Collection: AUB Photographs 1892-1902” and are available through the AUB Art Center.

Many people have had a hand in making the AUB campus such a special place, such a bright spot in our memories. It didn’t just happen! While it is true that there was no particular plan for how it would—or should—look, many people over the years influenced the development of the campus we see today.

A Breezy Promontory Overlooking the Sea

You may not know that there was a college before there was a campus. Stephen Penrose, in his book That They May Have Life: The Story of the American University of Beirut 1866-1941, explains that “the Founders had from the first planned to put the new institution into quarters distinctly its own, but buying land in the Near East was not then, and is not now, done in a day.” The Board of Managers and the Faculty decided in 1867 that President Bliss and Reverend D. Stuart Dodge should work together—and alone—to find an appropriate site and conclude the deal. Bliss recalls, “For the space of a year or more, at the solicitations of property owners, or on the recommendation of friends, many places were visited in different parts of Beirut. We rode everywhere through the city, looking as we rode. Finally, we saw the site where the College now stands and fell in love with it at sight, and immediately decided that we had found the finest site in all Beirut if not in all Syria.” In Daniel Bliss’ Annual Report to the Board of Managers of the Syrian Protestant College on July 19, 1877, he describes the site as a “breezy promontory overlooking the sea and surrounded with twenty five acres of College property.” The process of acquiring the property did not end with the discovery of the finest site in all Beirut. It actually continued over a period of years as “small segments of land adjacent to the original property or connecting it with other parcels were bought up as occasion

offered.” The size and shape of the campus is continuing to change: the University purchased the Durraffourd Buildings on the Corniche, in 1999 and 2000, and the Salloum Building, next to the AUB Medical Center, in 2002.

Jala Makhzoumi, associate professor of Landscape Design and Eco-Management, has described the land that Bliss and Dodge purchased as a “typically rural Mediterranean landscape.” It was scrubland, hilly, rocky, and bare. There were some trees. Ironically, however, the tree that many people now associate most strongly with the campus—the banyan—was not part of the original vegetation. Those of you who know the campus may have a favorite banyan tree. There is one next to the Observatory, for example; another close to Assembly Hall, where there is now a memorial for Malcolm Kerr, AUB’s ninth president who was assassinated on campus on January 18, 1984. Some of you may even remember a day when you could climb up into those banyan trees, perch yourself on one of the branches, and look out to the sea…

A Botanical Garden with Global Roots

Over the years, a number of people played crucial roles in changing the look of the campus. Dimitrios Serlis, chairman of the Grounds Committee for five years (1926-31), is credited with planting over 500 different kinds of trees and importing seeds and young trees from around the world, especially Italy. Many years later, in the 1960s, President Kirkwood appointed his wife Grace (also known as “Sunny”) as landscape consultant to the Campus Planning Committee. Sunny Kirkwood, a trained landscape architect, worked with George Batikha, who was teaching landscape horticulture at AUB at the time, to introduce many new trees and shrubs to campus—some of which were imported from as far away as South Africa and Asia. (There is actually a bench on campus that bears Sunny Kirkwood’s name. Rajaa Arab Salam, whose sister-in-law, Kulthum Salaam Al-Husseini, is an AUB alumna, adopted the bench to honor Sunny Kirkwood who “changed my entire outlook on life and taught me everything there is to know about the landscapes and gardens of the Middle East that she loved so much.”)

Professor Edgecomb, associate professor of taxonomy (1952-72), realizing that the campus was becoming—in fact, had already become—a botanical garden, launched a project to place name plaques on some of the campus trees. Charles Abu Chaar, who spent forty years at the School of Pharmacology, describes how he was able to use what was already growing on campus to teach his students how to recognize medicinal plants. “At the time, there were more wild plants on the campus of AUB, and I was able to find all the representative plants that I needed to teach with right on the grounds. So I would just go out and collect samples for my students to work with. I also used to take them on tours through the campus, where we would hunt for medicinal plants.” (See MainGate, summer 2005, AUB Reflections, pages 48-49.) Abu Chaar was probably not the first—and he is certainly not the last—AUB professor to use the AUB campus as a teaching tool.

A Living Laboratory

The Landscape Design and Eco-Management (LDEM) Program, which was established in 2000, is one of AUB’s newer programs and also takes advantage of the 73-acre classroom at its doorstep. Makhzoumi explains that landscape architecture has been introduced to the region “mainly through commercial urban projects rather than through nature conservation or rural development” and that this has led to a focus on the visual dimension. She and her colleagues—and her students—are working to change that. Makhzoumi laughs when she remembers some of the problems her first students had trying to explain what they were actually studying at AUB. “They had to argue against common misconceptions that landscape design is about beautifying open spaces with exotic plants.”

So, what is landscape design? “Landscapes are dynamic ecosystems that change over time through natural processes and cultural ones,” says Makhzoumi. She describes the AUB campus as a “living example of the richness and diversity of a landscape that has come to encapsulate the regional ecology of diverse rocky terrain, cypress, olive, citrus, and carob trees with Mediterranean annuals everywhere.”

LDEM students have been involved in several on-campus projects, such as the designs for the Penrose Hall Garden, the FAFS Courtyard Garden, and the Observatory landscape. Zeina Salam, who has since gone on to establish her own practice with Leila Abi Khuzam, designed the FAFS Courtyard Garden. The team of Leila Abi Khuzam, Nadine Rahal, and Zeina Salam created the winning design for the Penrose Hall Garden that includes a main path and two “pockets” or seating areas.

The AUB campus is a living laboratory not just for LDEM students, but for students enrolled in other AUB programs, such as plant sciences. Salma Talhouk, professor of Plant Sciences, explains that her students use the campus “for horticulture activities, plant identification, and to learn about exotic and invasive species and landscape characters.” Working with the University of Reading and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew Gardens, Talhouk and her colleagues have compiled a list of coastal species and are in the process of collecting and propagating some of them for the purpose of using these native plants on campus. Some of these native plants—such as the wild pistachio, the carob, the oak, and the viburnum—are already reclaiming territory on campus. Talhouk points out that if you look carefully, and at the right time of year, you will discover what she calls “hidden treasures.” “Some of the less conspicuous plants are the beautiful Mediterranean coastal bulbs that bloom for short precious moments, the cyclaments, and the Vagaria parvilora—a small beautiful white flowering bulb which is endemic to Lebanon. The tiny bulbs with beautiful purple blooms appear everywhere after the first rains in the fall.”

Managing the Campus

Protecting the campus while balancing usage demands is a big job. The Facilities Planning and Design Unit (FPDU) is managing the implementation of the Campus Master Plan, which includes guidelines for the construction and rehabilitation projects that are taking place on campus and directives for the protection of the campus, in particular the middle campus—that ribbon of green that stretches through campus. What the Campus Master Plan does not do, however, is propose a future vision for the middle campus landscape. In part because of her involvement with the Campus Master Plan and FPDU, Makhzoumi was prompted to prepare a report on the AUB Middle Campus Landscape (AMICAL), a document she describes as a “vision and a call for action in planning and managing the campus landscape.”

There is a tendency—especially among those of us without expertise in this area—to assume that any intervention in a landscape is wrong, is a bad thing. We look at what is there now and assume that it evolved naturally and so should be left alone. After all, nature knows best, right? There are many problems with this approach, starting with the assumption that the landscape evolved naturally. In many cases, what we see now is the result of human intervention. To preserve our campus, we must engage with it and do so in a thoughtful and informed way.

In fall 2005, President Waterbury appointed the Campus Planning Committee which includes representatives from FPDU, Physical Plant, and two Lebanon-based horticulture experts: George Batikha and Ranya Nasrallah. Makhzoumi and Talhouk are also involved as technical advisors. The committee has been asked to develop guidelines and procedures for the management of the campus. Plans are under way to develop a detailed landscape master plan that will include guidelines for small landscape projects, such as the one being proposed for the Penrose Hall Garden, on campus. The goal is to preserve the beauty of the AUB campus while at the same time make it a model of sustainable development for the region.

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