Architecture in the Aftermath
Case Study - Beirut
From 1975 to 1990, the Lebanese capital, Beirut, would become the epicentre of one of the most violent and brutal armed conflicts to erupt in the second half of the 20th Century. Fueled by sectarian tensions and the volatile geopolitics in the Middle East, the Lebanese Civil War left an estimate of 150,000 fatalities, more than 100,000 people injured, and around 900,000 displaced.
Sixteen years later, in a period of relative calm, in July 2006, Beirut would again become the target of deadly airstrikes and heavy artillery fire. This time around, though, the attacks were not launched by any local militias but by a vindictive Israeli Government determined to destroy the country’s vital infrastructure and neutralise Hezbollah’s paramilitary operations.
Fourteen years since reaching a ceasefire with Israel, right in the middle of a profound sociopolitical and economic crisis, in the early evening of 4 August 2020, the sound of a large explosion and sight of a towering plume of smoke would grab most of Beirut’s residents attention. Yet, the massive blast would be dwarfed only a few minutes later by a much larger explosion, which some experts maintain is the sixth-largest non-nuclear man-made detonation in history.
Only second to the enormous scale of human tragedy and loss suffered by the Lebanese people for so many years, the legacy of these violent events is the total or partial destruction of most of the country’s infrastructure, as well as of many towns, neighbourhoods, and buildings. Nevertheless, even if scarred, some of these structures still stand today, damaged but waiting to be reactivated.
Unfortunately, Beirut’s situation is not too different from many others occurring today around the world. This bears the question:
What can architects do in the wake of these kinds of violent and tragic events?
In 1993, the late American architect Lebbeus Woods pondered three principles that are still relevant to answer this question:
- “Restore what has been lost to its pre-war condition”,
- “Demolish the damaged and destroyed buildings and build something entirely new”, and
- “The post-war city must create the new from the damaged old.”
Woods was partial to the third principle, which he applied in many of his well-known projects, including his striking visions of Havana, San Francisco, and Sarajevo.
Based on these historical and disciplinary precedents, in which violence and architecture intersect with daily life, Architecture in the Aftermath invites students to engage in a process of historical analysis, design experimentation, and solidary approximation to both the physical and political matter of architecture.
As a case study, students will work in the Port of Beirut, the area most affected by the 4 August 2020 explosion. Caused by a corrupt political system that ignored the risks of storing almost 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate close to a densely populated area, the blast left at least 220 people dead, 7,500 injured, and 300,000 displaced. It obliterated the vital port; and damaged or completely destroyed more than 70,000 buildings, including schools, hospitals, markets, shops, offices, and dwellings. In addressing these challenging circumstances, the studio asks students to reflect upon this crisis not as a ‘development opportunity,’ but as a chance to provide Beirut with the affordable housing, social services, public space, and infrastructure that its citizens so desperately need.
With its focus on one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East, Architecture in the Aftermath provides a rare opportunity for Monash Master of Architecture students to apply their design and thinking skills outside the local and the Eurocentric contexts. Avoiding the western sites and narratives that typically underpin architectural design education, the program seeks to decolonise the architectural design studio, its delivery and assessment methods, and its outcomes. Ultimately, the intention is to amplify our students’ cultural, political, and historical awareness, and equip them with the necessary tools to become engaged architects and global citizens.