Emerging Trends in Urbanism: The Beirut Post-War Experience

An Essay on a presentation made by Robert Saliba to Diwan al-Mimar on April 20, 2000

Prepared by Mohammad al-Asad and Majd Musa in association with Robert Saliba, 2001




 Colonial Planning

The first planning model to be discussed is the colonial one, which Saliba attributes to two periods. The first is the 1830s - 1910s, which is the period of late-Ottoman rule in Lebanon. The second is that of the 1920s - 1930s, which is the period of the French Mandate. Saliba states that the Ottomans were responsible for much of Beirut's early modernization, which he describes as an effort of "secondhand modernization." In that period of Ottoman control over the Levant, planning models were mostly Western ones that were first applied to Istanbul, and then to the different provincial capitals of the Ottoman state. Beirut had acquired the status of a provincial Ottoman capital during the second half of the nineteenth century. In addition to Istanbul, Cairo, which began to compete with Istanbul during the nineteenth century as a Muslim political and cultural center, was the other reference model for the secondhand colonial planning process to affect Beirut during that period. In this context, Saliba mentions that the Ottoman reform program known as the "Tanzeemat" was applied to Beirut partly through modernizing the city's building regulations and upgrading its infrastructure. (2)

During the French Mandate period, the French superimposed a Beaux-Arts / Haussmanian model consisting of wide boulevards intersecting at monumental squares over the city's medieval fabric, which already had been partially razed during the late-Ottoman period. Unlike other examples of colonial planning in the region, where a dual city model was used and the old city was left intact and the new sections were constructed adjacent to the old ones, in the case of Beirut, colonial planning proceeded by superimposition instead of juxtaposition. Beirut's medieval fabric consequently had disappeared to be replaced with the colonial early modern Beirut. Saliba believes that this issue is of considerable importance when discussing the identity of the city of Beirut. (3)

 Contemporary Trends and Manifestations Resulting from Colonial Planning 
Since the 1980s, a new group of historians has emerged in Lebanon, and these historians have begun to seriously investigate the issue of colonial planning. They are studying developments that took place in the early twentieth century in order to understand the evolution of the city of Beirut today. Those historians have adopted what can be referred to as a "new historical consciousness," which departs from old methodologies that were limited to studying the effects of the physical aspects of colonial planning on the city's contemporary planning. Consequently, they concentrate on examining the ideologies underlying colonial planning as well as the processes that define it. Saliba believes that such a change in the historians' perspective of planning is due to the fact that the modernist approach to planning, which revolved around the actions of the public sector, began to be questioned, and even disqualified, in the 1990s. On the other hand, a new consciousness has emerged that addresses "decentralization and participation" in planning. This has led to an interest in investigating the past to explore whether governments imposed colonial planning processes, or whether those processes involved negotiations with groups outside the official governmental structure.

Saliba mentions that one manifestation of the appearance of new trends in historical thinking in Lebanon is a 1998 symposium entitled "Imported - Exported Urbanism," which was held at the American University of Beirut (AUB). The symposium helped crystallize a new approach towards urban history. Although the symposium was not limited to the discussion of planning in Beirut, some participants raised important issues relating to the context of Beirut. For example, the historian May Davie argued in the symposium that the French, who created the Place de l'Etoile - an example of Beaux-Arts / Haussmanian planning in Beirut - negotiated their plan with the rich local landowners and waqf institutions of the city. Davie supported her point of view by the fact that the French did not implement their radial plan for the Place de l'Etoile in totality and as originally intended. (4) This is evident if one examines the first master plan developed for Beirut, which dates to 1931 and is known as the "Danger plan." (figure 1) The plan shows how the original area of the "Etoile" (French for star) was conceived in the shape of a star. The original plan for the Etoile area was not fully implemented, and was truncated in certain locations, especially where religious buildings existed. In addition, the plan shows the importance that had been given to upgrading Beirut's port due then to the rising competition brought about by the Palestinian port of Haifa, which was being developed by the British. In the end, only parts of the original Danger plan were implemented. Those include the port area and parts of the Place de l'Etoile, which were superimposed on the fabric of the medieval city.

This is an example of how colonial planning often was only partially implemented. It indicates that even during a period of foreign domination, a process of negotiation took place between the French and the local population. Therefore, Saliba concludes that the title of the AUB symposium "Imported - Exported Urbanism" was meant to indicate that even during the colonial period, the Lebanese were not merely passive receivers of Western planning models. Instead, they negotiated the manner in which these particular models were implemented to suit their interests. However, Saliba adds that the situation differed from one city to the other in the region, and that colonial planning models were applied more successfully in cities such as Alexandria, Cairo, and Damascus.


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