Summer 2004 Vol. II, Nos 3 and 4
 From the Editors
 To the Editors
 AUB News
 Campaign Update
 Behold Beirut Architecture’s
New Frontier
 The Post-AUB Architectural Life
 An Exact Type
 Architecture and Graphic Design
 Students “JAM”
 Shaping the Landscape of Lebanon
 Blueprint in Action
 Commencement 2004
 Honorary Degrees 2004
 Young Lebanese Musicians Learn
 Lessons from the Master
 More than a Stamp of Approval: AUB
 Receives Accreditation
 Alumni Profile
 Alumni Activities
 AUB Reflections
 Class Notes
 In Memoriam
 Previous Issues

Behold Beirut Architecture’s New Frontier

There is a design renaissance going on in Beirut. Mixing tradition and modernity with east and west, Beirut’s new city landscape is all at once eclectic, cosmopolitan, and unique. May Farah writes about the postwar architecture that has the world abuzz and how AUB’s alumni and architecture program are contributing.

Istanbul may have its Sinan and Barcelona its Gaudi, but what Beirut has may still be too soon to identify. Judging by the evidence, however, the likelihood is certainly strong that it will not be one exclusive name, but many instead, that in the end will distinguish Beirut’s architectural landscape…some Lebanese, some foreign, but all decidedly  remarkable.

Much of that evidence now exists in downtown Beirut, where the city’s colossal postwar reconstruction project is currently the largest in the world. Big-ticket construction projects, both planned and under way, with equally big names attached to them, include Philippe Starck’s

boutique hotel, Stephen Holl’s marina scheme, Jean Nouvel’s high-rise complex, and Kathryn Gustafson’s Garden of Forgiveness.

From the high-end ultra-modern residential seaside complexes now being completed to the renovated traditional buildings dotting the Foch and Allenby area, plus the Banque Audi Plaza, the stunning new headquarters of one of the country’s leading banks, the eye-catching combination of traditional and modern is exemplary of what the central district of Beirut is becoming—an architectural language that is eclectic, exciting, and constantly changing.

In technical speak, the design approaches that have emerged in the city center consist of three alternative movements: vernacular, contextual, and modernist. Some have been built, some are being completed, and others are still on the drawing board.

For example, in Saifi village, the 16 low-rise residential buildings forming four clusters have been designed in line with Lebanese tradition: colorful and warm pastel exteriors, Mediterranean red-pitched roofs, and arcaded windows. With their Levantine look and modern domestic scale, they embrace the vernacular tradition.

Leading the modernist movement are two buildings, both designed by Lebanese architect Pierre Khoury: the United Nations House, with its thin-skin curtain walling, and the just completed An-Nahar building, with its dramatic shape and strategic location.

The modernism approach has permeated the traditional souks as well, through its main entertainment magnet, the Imax cinema complex, which will soon be under construction. The contextual approach is best exemplified in the Atrium building, with its competition-winning design by Terry Farrell and Lebanon’s own Nabil Azar, an AUB alumnus.

Also embracing this tradition are the parliamentary offices by Nabil Azar, the embassy complex by Mounir Saroufim, and the Banque Audi Plaza, by Kevin Dash of the United Kingdom.

“Being a good architect is about building a building. You have a philosophy and apply that philosophy. Considering some of the financial restrictions and laws in Lebanon, what is being produced is fantastic,” says Azar, who graduated from AUB’s Department of Architecture in 1970 and was the winner of the Penrose Award.

Azar’s Beirut-based firm, which employs about 20 architects, many also AUB graduates, has already completed about 15 projects in the downtown area, including the clock tower at Nejmeh Square, the St. George Orthodox Church, the Beirut Municipality building, and the Bank of Beirut building, among others. He also has ongoing projects in other parts of Beirut and Lebanon, and in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cyprus, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.

While he acknowledges the beauty of the downtown area, he questions whether it is worth the price being paid. “The space is beautiful, but at what cost?” asks Azar. “Hardly anyone can afford an office downtown, with the exception of multinationals and the rich from the Gulf. So the new working space is for them.”

Simone Kosremelli, class of ’74, agrees, although she acknowledges that much of the architecture in Beirut’s city center now spotlights the old, with 120 restored buildings versus about 20 new constructions. “But that ratio will soon change,” she laments, referring to the plethora of modern constructions in the pipeline. “They should have kept more old buildings.”

Kosremelli’s own two projects in the downtown area—the restoration of the old Banque Audi building, which forms part of the new Banque Audi Plaza, and the Al-Ahli Bank, complete with magnificent vaulted ceilings and washed stone exterior—are in keeping with the style Kosremelli favors: unabashedly traditionalist. “I like a very traditional, very Lebanese style,” she says. “I prefer working in the Lebanese vocabulary, with very modern interiors. People often think the homes I’ve built in this style aren’t actually new, that they’re remodeled; but they are new.”

“I can’t find anything modern that is as interesting as the old Lebanese style,” she adds. “I’ve been doing it for more than 35 years; I’m not bored, and so far I haven’t repeated myself.”

Kosremelli’s architectural firm, which has projects in Lebanon and the Gulf, is located in Ain Mreisseh, with a spectacular view of the sea and not too far from AUB. Her office employs four architects—mostly from AUB—because she likes to encourage AUB graduates who, she says, are closer to her style and her way of thinking.

Like Kosremelli, Azar remains as connected as possible with his alma mater. Since 1996, he has been donating a generous $10,000 award each year to an outstanding architecture student.

Azar is also one of the designers working with award-winning architects Machado and Silvetti Associates Inc. on the new Suliman S. Olayan School of Business, on which construction will begin next April. “It’s a modern building that sits well in its environment on lower campus,” says Azar. “It will be entirely open to the Corniche, and it sends a message: I am a top-notch business school that is both modern and traditional.”

As Azar points out, while the lower campus highlights more modern buildings, upper campus is where the older—and architecturally stunning—buildings are located. Many of them have undergone complete reconstruction (as with the new College Hall) or extensive rehabilitation and renovation (like West Hall), which Azar’s firm carried out with outstanding success.

While Beirut is able to boast so many accomplishments by its own home-grown talent, Kosremelli finds it disheartening that many projects in Lebanon continue to seek foreign input or leadership. “There are many talented and highly capable architects right here,” she says, adding that perhaps more accolades need to be bestowed upon them, since “their level is quite high.”

Case in point: the new colossal Contemporary World Architecture book, which is more the size of a coffee table itself than any coffee table book, features 1,052 outstanding buildings from around the world. “Six of those buildings are in Lebanon and were completed by Lebanese architects,” says Kosremelli, flipping through the book and pointing out the buildings: three are by Lebanese architect extraordinaire Bernard Khoury, whose gothic designs—including the restaurants Centrale, B018, and Yabani—have attracted international attention. “Compare Lebanon’s six to three in Israel, two in Jordan, two in Saudi Arabia, and one in Iran,” she remarks. “I think we have very good architects and very good workmanship in Lebanon. There is a lot we can do… and AUB architecture graduates have been doing quite well in Lebanon and the Arab world.”

Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that students of architecture at AUB receive an interdisciplinary education that combines core courses aimed at developing their skills and design abilities and providing sound engineering and technical knowledge with elective courses that introduce them to diverse architecture philosophies, art movements, and cultural trends to broaden their areas of interest.

There is also the fact that the department is changing and renewing itself, as it looks to provide students with a more holistic approach to architecture. “There have been big changes in the last few years in our vision and with the direction of the department,” says Ibrahim Hajj, dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. “We are hiring new people, and focusing more on theory and practice together.”

Increasingly, he says, architecture is about considering the human element in building. It means making buildings friendlier, more efficient, more in tune with the surroundings and the community.  “So, it’s no longer just about a building by itself. We have to also consider the quality of life, where to shop, how far from school, and so on,” says Hajj. “Hopefully, our students will look at the whole picture: society, the community, and the social effects of buildings.”

With a varied course load, plus a host of activities and exposure to world-class architecture and architects, students are being proffered every opportunity to experience “the whole picture.” Over the past several years, the activities of AUB’s Department of Architecture have expanded to include field trips and research undertakings, visiting international professors, a lecture series, and the annual City Debates seminar. The lecture series has attracted a number of high-profile figures, among them Philippe Starck, Stephen Holl, Amale Andraos, Dan Wood, and Jean-Marc Abcarius.

There have been changes on the department level as well, says Howayda Al-Harithy, chair of the Architecture and Design Department, which include the introduction of the graduate program and allowing students to become more active in molding their own education. “They make their choices and create their concentration areas,” says Al-Harithy, who has been with the department for ten years and became its chair last year. “Therefore, there is a more flexible structure and it’s more interdisciplinary in field electives.”

Al-Harithy believes students should look upon architecture as soundly intertwined with social, political, economic, and cultural spheres, whereby they approach design as issue-oriented, as a system of enquiry.  “Our approach and the curriculum structure is what makes this department unique,” she says, noting that in line with AUB President John Waterbury’s directives to ensure that students receive comprehensive training and interdisciplinary support, general education courses—economics, history, social services—have been introduced into the architecture curriculum. “We produce students that go capably and confidently into the market and on to graduate studies.”


One of those students, Bassam Komati, who graduated last June and has been working at AUB’s Facilities Planning and Design Unit, is off to Harvard University this fall to pursue a master’s in architecture.

For Komati, what made the program at AUB rewarding was its multidisciplinary approach. “It introduces different discourses into design,” he says. “So design becomes a discourse and not just as a technical word.” The program, he continues, “allows you to build your own knowledge of design and the electives you choose help you focus where you want.”

“Other disciplines are introduced because the whole notion of space and design are approached from different perspectives,” he says. Komati’s only criticism is that the program doesn’t fully prepare students for the workplace, something he discovered this past year. “Practice is so different than what you learn,” he says, but adds that perhaps this is “a good thing, because design at universities should expose you to everything and the practical you learn on the job.”

However, Al-Harithy says students are receiving hands-on experience through small interventions on campus. This year, for example, they were included in designing something for the space between Jafet Library and College Hall, for the roof of the Power Plant, which is seen all over campus, and for the external space just outside the architecture building. “Some of the changes have been implemented; others are works in progress,” says Al-Harithy. She also notes that, beyond campus and with the help and support of faculty, students have been engaging in design competitions held by various organizations in different parts of Lebanon. 

“Beirut as a city is a main object of study and a center of investigation at different levels,” she says. “For example, the postwar reconstruction effort includes buildings on the periphery of the center, informal settlements, and so on.”

Although the Faculty of Engineering at AUB dates back to 1951, it wasn’t until 1963 that a program leading to the degree of Bachelor of Architecture was introduced. That same year, the school was renamed the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture. The various curricula offered have since been under constant review to incorporate changes reflecting what is happening in the profession and in the region.

One of those changes occurred in 1998, when a graduate program offering degrees of Master of Urban Planning and Master of Urban Design was introduced. Urban design works within the format of architectural education, dealing with the city as a field and with issues concerned with cities as a context. Planning is oriented to the cultural and demographic aspects of urban development, concerning itself with policy, economics, and social issues that impact urban form.

Overseeing both degrees is Mona Harb, the coordinator of the master’s program that now has an enrollment of about twenty students. While they are indeed two different degrees, the lines of both are blurred, because planners are required to take design courses and vice versa. “The design courses are about the tools one needs, whereas planners focus on policy and intervention,” explains Harb. “But the analysis of reading the city is the same; it’s multidisciplinary—this is part of the course content.”

Harb says graduate students are encouraged to take courses in other areas; in fact, many of the school’s electives coalesce with the offerings of other departments. “In other schools, the approach to planning is more or entirely physical,” she says. “We encourage a different approach of reading and writing the city. It’s a process whereby space is seen as incorporating a number and variety of elements—social, economic, political, and cultural interventions.”

As a result, the outlet for AUB’s architecture grads is equally varied. For one, there is the field of urban design and intervention, where large-scale projects, such as Beirut’s Master Plan, are executed. “They can also work for international organizations and agencies that assess urban spaces,” says Harb. “The whole world of development is open to them.”

For urban planners, they go on to become involved in policy and development and see the city as a product of various forces. “They look more at the scale of neighborhoods and consider policy as it relates to city projects; that is, how to better urban life and enhance the quality of life,” explains Harb. “They look at how people live in their daily space and think of how to apply solutions for specific contexts.”

Students are shown generic models that have been produced by organizations as solutions. “They are studied to understand why they don’t work,” she says. An example of an urban design study that students have investigated was to look at one area of the city, like Badaro, and determine how it came to be. “It’s an urban morphology, so why does it look the way it does,” says Harb, noting that the students’ work is added to the department’s growing archives. “Our edge is research,” she adds. “AUB has tremendous resources, and there is a real need and desire to establish a research center to study Beirut, Lebanon, and beyond.”

In the meantime, Harb, Al-Harithy, and other faculty members have been active in trying to push for more AUB involvement on a community and municipal level so that the University can play a role in planning and development. As the faculty and the department continue to grow, there is hope—and a plan—for more involvement.

The City Debates seminar series was a first step toward that goal—especially last year’s look at the Master Plan for Lebanon. “Students were introduced to various discourses and became aware of the fact that what they were reading and learning was very different than what was happening,” says Harb. “So, it was good, in that they learned a lot, particularly when considering such far-reaching questions as: Do we plan for what should be or what is?”

This year, City Debates went in a different direction to show that AUB is interested in breadth of coverage. Revolving around the theme titled “Whose Beirut?” (La Meen Beirut?), the four-part series of lectures, which took place over four consecutive Tuesdays, addressed issues of postwar reconstruction, inclusion and exclusion, and what constitutes a “good” city. It was, says Harb, aimed at critically examining the physical and social implications of the postwar reconstruction process and assessing its impact on the city.

With the participation of local and international experts, the aim of the seminar was “to provide an alternative reading of Beirut,” to “critically examine the policies and projects that happened in the city during the past decade, and to understand their underlying assumptions and their visible and less visible implications on the city.”

“Beirut is an amazing laboratory for our students,” says Harb. And, as the city continues to metamorphose, the new buildings, the eclectic designs, and the growing contrasts will no doubt continue to provide more areas for intervention.