Resurgent Urbanism: The Challenge to Middle Eastern Cities

Resurgent Urbanism: The Challenge to Middle Eastern Cities
2A Magazine Issue 25 & 26 / Autumn 2013 and Winter 2014


Ahmad Zohadi

"Art is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity".       
Leo Tolstoy

Art is generally defined as being the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination typically in a visual form such as painting, calligraphy or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
However art has a deeper psychological and spiritual impact which needs to be considered when one wants to understand the effects and implications of art on our lives.
Art comes at us from all angles and has so ever since man has been able to show an appreciation for that social culture. And art affects all aspects of our lives. Various forms of art are so significant because they not only underline and illustrate the uniqueness of each different culture and society, but also at a deeper level indicates the similarity and unity of all races and human beings.
As Leo Tolstoy has expressed that art " is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity".
Architecture is not only a form of art, but also many other forms of arts effect architecture  in direct and indirect ways.
Whenever we want to achieve any positive and creative task, the needed conditions should be provided. one of the most important and essential condition is architectural and environmental "space" where the creativity will happen, therefore it can be seen that architecture which itself is one of the seven categories of art, it also plays a critical role in creative  flourishing of other art forms.
2A magazine has created a forum which focuses on architecture and art separately , in order to illustrate their interdependence and also to demonstrate the ways which we can create a specific architectural space which helps in the growth and improvement of our artistic creativity and in getting the desired result.
Therefore it can be seen that architecture and various forms of art when utilized properly and if it is aligned with the progressive culture and valuable religious and traditional beliefs and customs, can play a significant role in directing the consciousness of the citizens of any society toward the ideal goal, which is a healthy, creative and progressive society in all dimensions .
2A magazine realizes this necessity and thus continually organizing its activities in such a way that it encourages and promotes the further integration of architecture and art into our daily lives and societies, and as a responsible media , to facilitate and help in the expansion and growth of architectural and artistic creativity around the globe, specially in the middle east.

Nader Ardalan & Aziza Chaouni

The built environment of Middle Eastern cities is currently undergoing rapid transformation as it faces many challenges ranging from social inequality, shortage of affordable housing, informal settlement growth, destruction of historical heritage to the scavenging of natural resources especially water. None of these challenges appear as salient today as the social unrest and disenchantment that followed the Arab Spring. The change of regimes - although problematic - raises the question of the relationship between the local populations’ claim for a right to the state and to participate in its institutions and decisions, and the urban realm. Indeed, the power sought by locals is clearly echoed by the battle over the built environment in the Middle East; a battle for a fair and just city, for the right to decent housing and neighborhoods, for public spaces, for transportation, and for the preservation of the country’s historical built heritage. To reach these goals, which remain in most cases unattained even few years after the Arab Spring, this battle should seek alternative environments, impelled by both new models of freedom and democracy, and a new urban consciousness among citizens. Democracy is not an inappropriate concept to the design disciplines, unlike some scholars like Joan Ackerman assert. For instance, Berlin columnist Harald Martenstein posits democracy as a hindrance to great achievements: “if one single person could take a decision completely freely on certain building projects, as project dictators, so to speak, the result would be spectacular buildings.”1 Instead, democracy should be taken out of its dark clout and rather, act as propeller for the emergence and development of new, radical urban environments, as Hashim Sarkis suggests.2
Jane Ockman notes that the ambiguities that surround democratic claims by architects and urban planners spring not only from the difficulty to clearly translate political ideology into tangible built forms, but also from the multiple and changing nature of the term democracy.
If those claims are accurate, they nonetheless do not discredit the tangible possibility of a political regime to promote a democratic shaping of its urban landscape, mainly through participation and engagement of its citizens, and the respect of their well-being and built heritage. Contributor Clement Henry, justly notes that democratic endeavors, regardless of the support of democratic regimes, are enough to lead to compromise and change, and urban public spaces become spaces of negotiation between regimes and citizens.
Democratic ideology and endeavors, although tenuous in the Middle East, have indeed had multifaceted physical manifestations throughout the 20th century. After the colonial area, young states enthusiastically expressed their nationalistic ideals of progress by embracing modernism’s language3. Since the 1980’s, democratic architecture became assimilated with “public space,” a discourse spearheaded by the New Urbanists, who promoted administrative municipal requirements for plazas, parks and public art.4 Today, the status quo of Middle Eastern cities, plagued by a demographic boom, rural exodus, shortage of housing stock, informal settlements and weak municipal urban authorities, beg for alternative urban models; models which should have the ambition to reverse the legacies of authoritarianism and laissez faire liberalism. In fact, new urban environment models should attempt to simultaneously address two phenomena. First, the homogenizing effects of globalization and its spaces of flows as described by contributor Hussaim Salama. Second, the exclusionary grand measures à la Robert Moses, whose legacy is embodied by Rafic Hariri’s reconstruction of Beirut and Egypt’s Desert Cities development, which was accompanied by the infamous attempted dislocation of hundreds of thousands of urban poor. In fact, some have argued that the upraising in Egypt was fueled by the State’s plan to remove thousands of Urban poor into the Desert Cities.5
Furthermore, new urban models should attempt to bring an end to the enduring onslaught on the historic built heritage by developers, international corporations and benighted governments, whose aim is limited to increasing profits rather than developing and rejuvenating communities and derelict built heritage. To this end, new models should avoid embracing a curational preservation approach that tends to museify heritage as described by contributor Michele Lamprakos. Rather, an integrative approach should be pursued, which views built heritage of urban ensembles such as the medinas as evolving, changing entities which adapt to their users new lifestyles while keeping their urban integrity, as exemplified by Lamprakos’ case studies of Wadi Hanifa, Sibam and Darb El Ahmar.
Civil society has been playing a rising role in the battle for the preservation of built heritage. Several NGOs and organizations fighting against the destruction of built heritage in the Middle East demonstrate that the battle to preserve the built heritage is on the rise. For instance, in Morocco, the Association Casamémoire dedicated to the 20th Century built heritage of Casablanca and Domocomo Morocco, the Moroccan chapter of an international NGO, document and protect the modern heritage across the country. In both Lebabon and Egypt, various initiatives have emerged and call directly on citizens to document, examine and participate with their urban context. Megawra 6, an “architectural hub”, has recently been created to act as a debate platform to promote a sustainable and socially responsible built environment. The Blog Cairobserver aims to start a conversation about Cairo and encourages Cairo inhabitants to claim their right to the city. Heliopolis Eye is an activist group that seeks to involve the local community in safeguarding historic buildings in the district of Heliopolis in Cairo. In Lebanon, social movements have also emerged to protect the country’s urban fabric and heritage. Save Beirut Heritage is a group that is advocating for “a genuine popular awakening” and it encourages people to document through film and photography buildings that are illegally destroyed. Contributor Lamprakos’ description of three successful rehabilitation projects should not veil the in situ reality: there are hundreds of derelict medinas and old buildings, whose decay is further accelerated by obsolete urban infrastructure and the subdivision of the housing stock by poor rural migrants. These conditions have rendered the built heritage in the Middle East even the more fragile and prone to desecration, transforming it into a contestation ground par excellence.
> When apprehended from a different angle, built heritage could serve as a departure point for the sustainable urbanism of tomorrow in the Middle East. Suggested approaches include the generative urbanism described by contributor Besim S. Hakim as an incremental design that tells us what actions to take to build well, rather what end-result to reach.  Another approach mentioned by contributor Nader Ardalan is a spiritual planning process in accord with both ecological and human systems. If principles of vernacular Middle cities have the tendency to be easily romanticized and literally reproduced, leading to pastiche, their frameworks and processes could serve as salient grounds from which to speculate and learn. The blueprints for the Middle Eastern cities of tomorrow should respond to context specific conditions while at the same time respecting the current needs of its environment and users; and hence, be plural in nature to respond to the wide multiplicity of conditions. The quest for this new model necessitates the questioning of the methodology that designers use to conceptualize the urban environment in the Middle East.  For instance, contributor Aziza Chaouni’s essay delineates a new approach that expands the agency of the designer towards urban infrastructure such as water infrastructure. When water infrastructure are invested and reimagined by designers, they have the potential to become catalysts for new efficient and sustainable urban models.
Are these aforementioned envisioned characteristics for cities wishful thinking or could they actually materialize in the near future? Further research are still needed to fuel the ongoing discussions initiated in this book; discussions which should apprehend Middle Eastern cities in all their complexities, diversity and specificities.

1. Jürgen Tietz. Building Democracy: How does Democracy Reach Architecture? Retrieved September 15th, 2012.
2. Development and Design “Out of Context: Development and Design in Lebanon,” Architectural Design. 2005-01
3. Duanfang Lu. Third World Modernism.London: Routledge, 2010.
4. Joan Ockman. “What is Democratic Architecture?: The public Life of Buildings.” Dissent Volume 58, Number 4, Fall 2011, pp. 65-72.
5. Fabio Lucchini and Davide Morandini, Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution 2012.
6. http://www. Retrieved September 15th, 20012.