Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Beirut's Elyssar Project: Spatiality and Hegemony

Architecture is at the center of politics. We can see the truth of this statement amdist the controversy about post-war reconstruction of Beirut and the establishment of Solidere—the company created to redevelop the city. Reconstruction in Beirut does not mean simply the physical re-making and structuring of certain “sites of memory” scattered throughout the city. Rather, reconstruction is a political process parallel to the constant making and re-making of internal contestations of power and identity inside Lebanon since at least 1860.
The most important and widely studied case of reconstruction in Beirut is the famous Centre Ville or Beirut Central District undertaken by Solidere (discussed at length in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?”. Höckel points as well to the case of the southern suburbs and the Elyssar project and the role played by Hezbollah in different states of reconstruction, namely, 1983, 1996 and 2006. In this post, I look at the Elyssar project to develop Beirut's eastern coast and southern suburbs. The project has been mired in delays for decades and exemplifies the blurry line between political projects, architecture, and private interests in postwar Lebanon.
The designation “southern suburb” has a negative connotation in Beirut, and is often used interchangeably with Shi’a Muslims, anarchy, squatters, illegality and poverty.  The “suburbs”—formed by a permanent flow of rural migrants and later by both urban and rural refugees from the war—are homogenous and impoverished quarters of Beirut, consisting mostly of members of the Shi’a community and comprises one third of the population of the greater Beirut area. At first the project was to be undertaken by Solidere but after political contestation on the part of the residents and the Amal/Hezbollah party, it was implemented by a public agency created after much negotiation as per Decree No 9043 of August 1996.
The project was criticized on the basis of being based solely on economic considerations and too ambitious (the area is five times bigger than the central district) even though similar plans had already been tested and failed in the Arab world.  Yet, it remained largely unmodified. Other issues arose, such as difficulties in land expropriation due to the illegality of building and dwelling in the area, and speculation over land value, in which all parties – Solidere, the Prime Minister’s Office and the local Amal/Hezbollah – withheld and manipulated information, which led to a political stalemate that permanently halted the project.
The project area extends over 586 hectares from the Summerland Resort and Sports City to the boundary of Beirut International Airport in the South. From East to West it extends from the Airport road to the Mediterranean Sea and includes a large portion of coastline – another contentious point for development and speculation.
Elyssar’s plan included the execution of all primary and secondary roads, necessary infrastructure and public services; the construction of over 10,000 units of affordable housing over a 14-year period, manufacturing parks, warehouses and workshop centers. At the heart of plan was also the same scenario of urban violence and displacement in which residents from illegal settlements were to be transferred elsewhere.
The question of illegality and ownership in the area (and everywhere else in Lebanon to a certain degree) is complex and nowhere near resolution. In a 2007 case study by Nadine Khayat, she writes:
The Lebanese state has mostly continued to adopt a non-interventionist strategy toward these areas in Beirut; in fact, many describe the southern suburbs of Beirut as a state within the state, having its own conservative jurisdictions that may arguably be excluding factions and other communal groups present in Lebanon.
The state faced the question of illegal settlements in an area almost entirely controlled politically by Amal/Hezbollah, with the exception of a Maronite minority at the fringes.  The hostilities between the state and the militias go back to tensions between 1983 and 1984, when President Gemayel ordered the demolition of illegal neighborhoods in the suburb.
Facing resistance from the residents, with the support of Amal, and what is considered a reminder of the state’s bad will toward the area, it turn led to yet another extension of the war.
The suburbs fall under the definition of ‘slums’ and ‘illegal settlements’.  They have been a recurrent nightmare in Beirut’s reconstruction plans because of the absence of planning bodies, uncontrolled migration and growth, and lastly, the lack of appropriate mapping of the slums in purview of the political control of para-state bodies in the area.
Mona Fawaz and Isabelle Peillen’s 2003, “The Case of Beirut, Lebanon”, part of “Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements”, lays out the problem: “Given its complex history, the limited legalities in property rights, and the widespread violation in building and construction codes, it is difficult to adopt legality as a criterion for slum identification in Beirut.”
They further add: “To date, Lebanese public policies have never concretely addressed slums and their dwellers, despite a reasonable number of studies dedicated to the issue. Laissez-faire has been the rule, although punctuated by violent incidents of eviction.” The sole exception to this had been, of course, the Elyssar project (Public Agency for the Planning and Development of the South Western suburbs of Beirut). However,  that failed time and again not only because of inappropriate funding but also because of the status quo of postwar reconstruction in which confessional fractions battle each other for power.
All the information relevant to the negotiations and contestations in the early phase of the Elyssar project are found in detail in Mona Harb’s “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut: Resources, Negotiations and Contestations in the Elyssar Project.”
Here it is important to highlight the role that Hezbollah/Amal have played in the contestations and negotiations between the Lebanese state and the suburbs.  While they have significantly added to the political stalemate of the project, they have transformed the public space of the suburbs through an intricate network of surveillance, social services, political participation and cultural activities in a way that the Lebanese state has been incapable of offering, particularly in this disadvantaged area.
The characterization of Hezbollah in the Lebanese context is very difficult and while it is not the topic of this essay, the work of Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders, (Know thy enemy: Hezbollah, terrorism and the politics of perception) provides a framework to understand the role of the group inside the urban configuration of the suburbs as a distinct territory of identity. It is important to note that understanding the group  as merely a terrorist group or as a part of the Lebanese institutions are both flawed perspectives, which blur the heterogeneous nature of para-state actors in Lebanon.
The animosity between investors and government institutions on the one hand, and Hezbollah on the other hand, confirms Harb’s observation:
While urban politics present themselves as a means for development they are actually strategies for territorial domination” (see Harb’s “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: Parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”.)
The conquest of the public space and eventual colonization and closure of its history, and of what it is supposed to be found and remembered in it, is in Lebanon, the equivalent of political hegemony.

"Dystopia" by Eman Magdi
Architectural interventions and urban planning play a pivotal role in the configuration of the public space as the stage where politics appears, and here comes to mind Daniel Libeskin’s observation that “the public and political realm… is synonymous with architecture.”
The general lines for a discussion of the role of politics in architecture and architecture in politics have not been drawn with the exception of economic considerations and the problem of technology – as a counterpart of history – in weakening effective participation in democracy through excessive technification and functionalism of labor. Nevertheless, the necessity for an architectural configuration of the public space in which the world emerges between people, calls for a review of what Hannah Arendt conceived as the “space of appearances”, in terms radically architectural. 
The fundamental categories of Arendt’s political philosophy, such as worldliness and public space or “space of appearances”, are architectural ones (one can see this in how certain architectural theorists and even practitioners respond to her work). Hence, precisely where one encounters limits in trying to apply her political philosophy to politics, one can perhaps redeem her political philosophy by applying it to architecture.
For Hannah Arendt, the world – the space of politics – is the only place where we can appear to others in order to act, and it is this action that constitutes the basic units of power – which is always political – and that redeems the world from both the biological – and mortal – cycle of life.
Beiner makes an interesting argument in this regard: the now popular notion of public reason from Rawls and Habermas operates on considerations of constitutional structure and political order which are relevant only to political elites. Whereas, public space is relevant to all citizens; accordingly, public reason is less important than public space.
Arendt was increasingly concerned with the durability of the world as a stable artifice, where human action gains some sort of immortality.  As Beiner noted, “That this sort of immortalizing function is implicit in architecture as the creation of a lasting habitat and a more durable context for human activities is not a surprise.”
World-oriented experiences were at the core of Arendt’s thinking about the nature and possibilities of the political. Here we encounter an obvious tension between hegemony and worldliness, in that spatiality or space is not the determining factor in the existence of a public world, but the guarantee that it can appear. Beiner shifts the emphasis from the public space as a setting for episodic freedom, to a public good,  in which civic experience can take place. This, based upon one notion of citizenship being that "public things matter."
The notion of cynicism that is so widely discussed in politics can also be found in architecture. Beirut is a first-hand example of what Andrew Benjamin calls, “architecture as annihilation” in the context of museumfication rather than reconstruction for the sake of reconciliation.

Photo by Jorge Silva for REUTERS
For as long as the public space in Lebanon will continue being the battleground of hegemony in jeopardy of power, urban architecture and planning will reflect that.  Beiner explains, “If the effect of an ensemble of architectural creation is not the constitution of some kind of polis, at least ideally, then the idea of architecture as a source of citizenship is a hollow one.”
Cynicism is here embodied in the notion that in reconstruction it is only economic growth and prosperity what will bring peace to a country devastated by war.  However, Hannah Arendt warns, “Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions it can either lead into freedom or constitute a proof of its existence.”

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