Hashim Sarkis looks back at the work of Assem Salam and his influence on urban development in Beirut

Annahar, a daily newspaper in Beirut, recently published an essay by Professor Hashim Sarkis where he recalls the mission of late Beirut architect Assem Salam. Salam struggled to improve the city through politics and architecture. Read the full article at Annahar newspaper (in Arabic), or view the translation below.

Image courtesy Annahar Newspaper.


The Architect as a Tragic Hero in the Epic of the City

It was never clear to me, in the few but memorable conversations I had the luck of having with Assem Salam, whether he believed that his campaign against the excesses of urban development in Beirut was going to make any difference. What was clear however was that he had the mettle to persist in saying “no” throughout a long and varied career. In that, he set a moral standard for all of us who bear the mantle of architecture. With his passing, more than a year ago, Beirut lost its tragic hero in the epic fight against a succession of real estate waves that have radically transformed its countenance. Like the heroes of Greek tragedies, he fought the gods of real estate to the end, even when his fate was already predetermined by them. His struggle acquired epic proportion because of the size, the persistence, and the destructive power of these waves.

Assem Salam was an architect interested in improving the city. At first blush, practicing architecture and improving the city sound like two of the most congruent tasks. But when examined in terms of what an architect does on a day-to-day basis, practicing architecture and improving the city end up being almost contradictory tasks.

Architects shape buildings, not cities. In a country where the private sector is rich and the public sector poor, architects gravitate towards private clients especially real estate developers to build ad-nauseam apartment building after apartment building after apartment building. This is the bread and butter of architects in Beirut and this is the flesh and bones of the city.

At our worst, we follow the greed of the short-sighted developer. We abuse every loophole in the building code (and there are so many). We turn our eyes away from bad quality construction, and we do it quickly in order to minimize our time and effort, maximize our profit, and move on. Because of this, architects are often seen, and to a certain extent justifiably so, as complicit and complacent with the processes of real estate development that have destroyed the streets, the skyline, and the everyday lives of Beirutis.

At our best, we align ourselves with enlightened developers and produce something meaningful. We try to respect whatever little is left of the character of the natural terrain even if the building code encourages us to disrespect it, we try to make a façade even if the building code has no conception of façade. We try to give more thoughtful consideration to the changing lifestyles of the Beirut family in the layout of the apartments. We try to make the staff bedrooms more humane even if some clients want to shrink them in order to gain more square meters for a fifth or sixth bathroom that they never use. We try to produce beautiful buildings that seduce in their beauty, hoping that this would reproduce more beauty. We try.

If our small acts of resistance or improvement add up to anything, they usually present a different, hopefully better image of what the city could be, but this image stops at the edges of the project. In the diversity of buildings, of images of what the city could be, lies one of the most important attributes of urban life. Orchestrating this diversity so that it does not degenerate into chaos is a whole other task. As architects of individual projects, we really have no control over this aspect: no control over how much traffic our buildings generate and how to control it, no say in designing the streets, street alignments, or parcel sizes and shapes, not even in the character of the sidewalk along our buildings. No matter how good our design is, it will not solve this issue. We can build the most beautiful façade that respects the street, but if this street has no continuity between my project and the next, my project is not going to be good. It is zoning and the building code that regulate the relationship between buildings, between the buildings and the streets, and between streets and public spaces.

 This seeming ineffectiveness pushes us to join the chorus of helpless citizens and to complain, “Look how they have destroyed our city.” We tend to forget that we are part of the “they,” and that we can act more effectively to address the city’s problems. If these problems are primarily outside the comfortable confines of our private practices, it does not mean that we cannot address them.

As architects, our responsibility towards the city is no doubt stronger as citizens than as architects, or rather as architect citizens, when we take our skills and knowledge of the built environment and use them to demonstrate to citizens and politicians the consequences of bad action and to demonstrate alternatives.

Assem Salam was not content with the incremental and localized changes that he generated through single buildings. He gave up on the possibility of changing the mindset of real estate developers and the private sector. Even though he produced excellent residential projects, he minimized this kind of projects in his practice and sought to work for civil society and the public sector where institutional buildings and the public good could be more effectively served. Impressive projects like the Ministry of Tourism and the Khashoggi Mosque still stand as proof that the public sector and civil society are more effective at changing the character of the city.  As architects, we yearn for the possibility of such commissions, but with the increasing transfer of the public domain to the private sector, as has happened with the transfer of downtown Beirut to Solidere, the number of such projects, and the public welfare that they generate, has radically diminished.

This is also probably why Salam decided to address the problems of the city with a different set of tools. He chose primarily the political and legislative tools. As founding member of the association for the preservation of historic buildings and sites he pushed for stronger preservation criteria and increased role for the state in control of cultural heritage. He would be sad to see that architects working for the public sector today are standing on the wrong side of the debates about heritage and preservation.

As member of the Council for Development and Reconstruction during its visionary years, he brought his knowledge of post-war European reconstruction to bear on the processes of large projects. In the last public office he held as President of the Order of Engineers, he revised the Order’s by-laws putting emphasis on professional ethics. Throughout, and his writings, public lectures, and debates, Salam played the role of a public intellectual bringing to light the impact of urban development on the rights of citizens to the city. As a vociferous critic of Solidere, he insisted on making the company accountable to the public and to the public good it was meant to uphold especially when it came to the public spaces of downtown Beirut and to the rights of the disenfranchised citizens.

Assem Salam’s hard and noble choices suggest that there may be very little hope in reconciling architecture with urbanism, and that for the architect to fight the fight, he or she has to step outside the professional turf and use professional expertise to reflect on the practice from outside.  

Salam was not alone in making hard choices or in realizing that the architect has to wear different hats in order to be effective. Among the luminaries of our field, the likes of Pierre El Khoury, Wassek Adib, Raymond Ghosn, Gregoire Serof, and Pierre Neema have played and continue to play such roles. In their honor, we should establish a better legacy for architects and architecture in Lebanon. In this respect, the efforts of the newly established Arab Center for Architecture should be highly commended and supported.

 If as professionals, we owe anything to Salam’s legacy, it is in working hard to make good architecture and good cities reconcilable, in getting to the point when the hard choice Salam had to make does not have to be made by each one of us.

In the confines of the Order of Engineers and Architects, a body that has recently honored Salam’s legacy by publishing a monograph on his career, we could create a process that assesses and reflects on the building code and on zoning, based on the individual experiences of architects. It is in such a professional forum that we can expose how the set back regulations could hurt the city if not coupled with street alignment regulations, that a building rule made for a flat side cannot produce good results in a sloping site. The exchanges between the everyday experiences and the frameworks that guide them are necessary if we want to make our individual acts as architects contribute more effectively to shaping the city. In this way we can also contribute to making the diversity of the city more harmonious and less chaotic.

Salam would be happy today to see his efforts to save architectural heritage being taken up by young architects who are playing an important role in mobilizing local NGOs and providing them with the skills and expertise to develop alternatives to such projects as Fouad Boutros and Jesuit Garden. Their advocacy of these causes has proven to be an effective and noble effort.

My last encounter with Assem Salam took place in a forum on architectural education. Salam’s strongest and yet least discussed contribution to architecture was his emphasis on education, not just a better professional (and ethical) education of architects but also an education of the public about the cultural and environmental values that architecture embodies. During this forum, a very talented Lebanese architecture student came up to me to inquire about urban planning schools in the United States. When I asked him why someone with his design talents would switch to urban planning, he said that in Lebanon, architecture was for the rich, and that he wanted to serve the poor. He went on to study urban planning, but when he came back to Beirut and tried to find work to support his family, he ended up working for a private real estate developer. This student’s choice was even harder than Salam’s because he was also disenchanted with the public sector’s ability to do any good. I hope that we can create for such well-meaning architects better choices in their careers that can also create better choices for Beirut.


Hashim Sarkis