Circa 1958: Lebanon in the Pictures and Plans of Constantinos Doxiadis
Author: Hashim Sarkis Foreword by Roger Owen Beirut, Dar An-Nahar, 2003
Between June 1957 and January 1958, and in preparation for a housing program for Lebanon commissioned to his office by the United States Operations Mission in Lebanon, Constantinos Doxiadis surveyed the country’s physical conditions. The Lebanese government was eager to show its concern for the growing social problems, particularly for underdeveloped areas in the mountains and for squatter settlements. The housing program was meant to improve the quality of housing in these areas, equipping them with adequate facilities. The program was also meant to provide scientific methods through which to anticipate and solve the growing housing shortage in the country. The report was to be produced expeditiously, and showpiece samples of affordable housing were to be built in the window of one year. Given the scarcity of reliable statistics, Doxiadis had to depend on photography to capture the state of the country and to transfer this information to the urban planners, architects, and housing experts gathered in his Athens office.
Soon after the survey, the Lebanese would engage in a civil war, the first in their post-independence period. Immediately after the war, the new president Fouad Chehab (1958-1964) would advance a major development agenda, instituting social security and extending infrastructural services to all the regions of the country. In parallel with a regionally generated economic and construction boom, the short-lived public development period would significantly alter the character of both the city and the mountain. In that sense, the photographic survey of Doxiadis Associates provides the last view of a nation about to undergo extensive modernization and development.
The photographs are unusual in their scope and in their ability to capture the character of the country, its landscapes and its peoples. About 1,680 towns and villages were visited. The documentation went systematically from general views of the town or village to its center and its commercial streets (some of which were shut down because of strikes). The surveyors then photographed the residential quarters and went inside houses. They accessed palaces and illegal squatter settlements, factories and small farms, schools, hospitals, and other public facilities. They scrutinized the ruins caused by the 1956 earthquake not only to record the extent of damage but also to transfer to Athens the exposed methods and materials of construction particular to the different regions, from stone in the mountainous regions to mud brick in the Bekaa. They even took pictures of electric transformers, water reservoirs and fountains, telephone exchange boxes, flooded streets, and all other physical signs of development or lack thereof.
The contrast between the modern city of Beirut and the rest of the country pervades the survey: the modern skyline of Beirut compared to the absence of skylines elsewhere, a mule from the country on the elegant sidewalks of Beirut, the clear disconnection between the squatter settlements and the modern high rises behind them, and the novelty of infrastructure in the villages. Most strikingly, the survey exposes the high level of underdevelopment, poverty and inadequate living conditions for the majority of the population. For example, in terms of housing, a very low percentage of dwellings outside of Beirut had more than two rooms. Only slightly more than half of the houses had access to running water and to electricity. In all, the photographs exhibit very clearly the limits of laissez-faire modernization both in the city and in the mountain.
It is important to remember that these photographs were taken by planners and architects and not by professional photographers. The aim of the documentation was not to preserve what the photographs captured but, in most cases, to change it. The photographs themselves were not the final product but the means to a comprehensive housing program for all of Lebanon. The housing program was submitted to the Lebanese government in May 1958, but because of the civil war, it was not reviewed. Doxiadis Associates then resubmitted their results to the new government who did not seem eager to implement it. After several years of trying in vain to get some part of the program realized, Doxiadis shut down the Beirut office. The seven-volume housing program, the twenty five volumes of photographs, and the 15,000 negatives were carefully catalogued, stored in the Doxiadis office archive in Athens, and eventually forgotten.
There is something quite disconcerting about pulling these photographs out of their volumes forty years later and presenting them on their own, for their own value. They do have value as images, but when they were collected they were meant to serve as data, as objective depictions of an unpleasant reality, not as coffee table material. In Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, the French philosopher Roland Barthes argues that society typically tames the harsh realities a photograph might expose by either aestheticizing it or banalizing it. The photograph is either transformed into art and appreciated as an object, for its own compositional and aesthetic values, or it is turned into a glossy image among other glossy images in a popular magazine that can be skimmed through in distraction, with only fleeting attention given to its specific content. Admittedly, the photographs in this collection teeter between these two pitfalls but they (hopefully) do not slip into either.
In selecting these photographs out of the twenty five volumes in Athens, I have tried to resist the temptation of beauty. Most of these photographs, even the individual segments of panoramas, are artfully composed. They were taken by very good eyes. In order not to have them glossed over and diffused, the main criterion was to choose those photographs that most markedly highlight the particularities of the different regions of the country. Another important criterion was to capture the sharp dichotomy that Hourani described and that had driven much of Doxiadis’ program. A third was to represent the means by which the country was being developed up to 1958. A fourth was to focus more on quotidian settings than on monuments and historical sites.
If it escapes being consumed as art or as gloss, this book may not be able to avoid evoking nostalgia. The temporal proximity of 1958 does not help in this area. One reader may very well identify his grandfather’s house in the panorama of his village, and another may recognize herself standing in her school uniform with her arms crossed. The nostalgia factor is inevitable (and it contributes no doubt to the sales of such picture books), but as we will all witness in less time than we want to acknowledge, the country will change beyond this level of intimate recognition, the nostalgia level will drop, and this book will be shelved next to other picture books on Lebanons that no longer exist: the turn of the twentieth century, the 1920s and 1930s, the independence period, etc.
We do not need to reflect on these pictures to realize how quickly the country has changed. The architectural historian Reyner Banham reminds us that most countries in the world did not encounter modernization and development until well after the Second World War. We also do not need these pictures to remind us that despite improving the standards of living, the development programs after 1958 have not always left a positive impression on the physical environment of Lebanon. The welfare state of Fouad Chehab may have guided modernization to the mountain while trying to maintain regional distinctness. Despite its explicitly redistributive ambitions, this development agenda did not always come out in favor of the mountain. The city continued to grow at the expense of the village and to attract people away from the economically deteriorating countryside while physically encroaching on its mountainscape. The reduction of public investment after the Chehab era cut short the process of development at the moment when the more difficult projects of social security, health care and education were beginning to get implemented. This further widened the development gap and, as Hourani had indicated, contributed to the second civil war. The rest is yet to become history.
Today a similar photographic survey would probably not capture such sharp differences between the mountain and the city, neither in the skylines nor in the interiors of houses. It is also not clear if underdevelopment could still be confined to geographic zones. The signs of modern life like adequate shelter, running water, sewage networks, electricity, telecommunications, etc. can be found in North Lebanon, in the Bekaa, as well as in Beirut. Despite their endemic inefficiency, these basic means of physical development may now have become more available in all regions (defacing both the mountain and the city along the way) but access to other basic economic and cultural goods, such as higher education, health care, and an unpolluted environment still remains highly restricted. We do not need to look hard for the reasons. Development, according to the economist Amartya Sen, is both the precondition and consequence of the exercise of freedom. People need to freely make reasoned choices in order to improve their living conditions. Reciprocally, they need to have good education and health care in order to freely choose which better life to lead. However, certain basic needs such as advanced learning, clean air, and freedom are difficult to capture with a camera.