The Embassy Fortress

So it seems the State Department’s office that regulates embassies’ design standards is once again returning to, well, design principles. Though for the US government that means much more than just architectural style: “design” for the bureau of Overseas Building Operations also means security issues, costs, and other factors that have made American embassies so drab and so evocative of tone-deaf, aggressive, and bunker-mentality foreign policy. But look at their website! The future London embassy might not be Edward Durell Stone in New Delhi, but it’s better than Baghdad… and certainly Cairo too.

I’m reminded of a paper I wrote as a modernism-loving undergraduate in Poughkeepsie, where I took up the challenge of not only defending, but praising the most ostracized building on campus: the 1959 foreign language building designed by Paul Schweikher. Here it is in its heyday. The building has aged badly, lost the purity of its concrete, vaulted barrel roofline, lost an Alvar Aalto-inspired auditorium, had AC units put in all the windows, and the Erwin Hauer-designed sculptural screens have been neglected. What does this have to do with American embassies? The building — a self-promoted island for foreign language study removed from the campus — was of a headier era of American design principles and international aspirations, often expressed through modernism. The building was raised on a plinth, the image of modernist (elevated) separation. English was not to be spoken inside; only foreign languages, especially Russian, sitting at booths in a state-of-the-art electronic language lab.

The ideas behind a facility dedicated to modern language learning techniques grew out of the design competition and construction of the new United Nations Headquarters in New York. The expression of these aims through modernist architecture had been set with the new “world headquarters” in New York, drafted by an international team of architects led by American Wallace Harrison and constantly prodded and berated by Le Corbusier. In addition, the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which boosted high school and higher education funding for mathematics, sciences and foreign languages, pointed to the political age of high-minded American ideals, like training for the foreign service and prosperity through modernization and development.

The foreign language building in question was inspired by an unrealized design for a new American embassy in Amman, Jordan in 1954, by Paul Rudolph. Rudolph’s Amman embassy was a kind of modernist tent, and not nearly the modernism-meets-the-Orient of Josep Lluis Sert’s American embassy in Baghdad. But Rudolph’s design was rejected, apparently for being designed too much like a “fortress.” In 1954 an embassy in Jordan could not be removed from the city; in 1959 the foreign language building that it inspired opened on the edge of a prestigious women’s college campus, asserting its concrete separation from all the brick, ivy, and quadrangles.

All this is to say that I have a soft-spot, or maybe a misplaced nostalgia, for concrete modernism, or at least for the illusion of American foreign policy ideals that they might represent. Or maybe I just like the irony of Rudolph’s Amman embassy being rejected for the very reason that has dictated American embassy design for decades. But before I get carried away with this bit of news from the State Department: a change toward design does not mean that good architecture will prevail. Just look at the runners-up for the London embassy contest. Eager praise for unforgiving, 1950s high modernism aside, would the US ever approve a great embassy design like this, today?

Designed by Richard Meier & Partners Architects.

Possibilities in Tahrir

I’ve been looking at this picture — an old postcard of Tahrir I got in Cairo in 2009 and now have on my book shelf in England — since January 25th.

Today I read this essay by Mohamed ElShahed in the Architect’s Newspaper, about the history of architectural possibilities in Midan Tahrir, and I had to approach the picture again:

With the current revolution underway, architects, planners, and dreamers have been calling for meetings, discussions, and debates on what to do with the square. Topics of discussion include: should it be redesigned and how; how will the revolution and the martyrs be memorialized; and should it be renamed…

… Cairo has always been a city of great works of architecture and intelligent city planning. It is also a city marked by many failures at the hands of hasty architects and unimaginative politicians. Yet no one politician or architect has been able to lay claim over the design and symbolism of Tahrir Square, which remains as a collection of fragments from many failed or unfinished plans and urban fantasies.

An appropriate book arrived in the mail today, just in time for questions of urban modernity in the Middle East. I’ve been looking for pieces about Tahrir’s architectural history and how the built environment affected political action in the Egyptian revolution, and this other very interesting piece by ElShahed gets at that, with great photos of Tahrir in the early 1960s and in the Mubarak years, when everything green was replaced by permanent construction sites and hemmed by fences, “part of the government’s policy of discouraging public assembly.”

The statue-less column in the center of the midan is long gone, though we can still remember it with Sonallah Ibrahim:

The importance of this square does not lie in the fact that it constitutes the center of the city, or that it is surrounded by strategically important buildings like the Hilton Hotel, the Egyptian Museum, the Mugama (which comprises 1,400 offices occupied by thirty thousand employees who deal with sixty thousand people per day), and the American University. Nor is it important because at its center stands an empty statue base erected twenty-five years ago, after the death of Abd al-Nasser, for which the Egyptians have yet to choose a personality to occupy it; nor because, according to a popular joke initially targeting one of the Arab kings, it is the space used by the prime minister to distribute the national budget: he stands at the center of the square and hurls the national budget into the air, taking what lands on the ground for himself and giving what remains in the air to the people.

The Faster Times – Young Le Corbusier in Istanbul

In 1911, the last decade of the Ottoman Empire, a young Swiss-French architect visited Istanbul. He sketched as much as he took notes there, in “Stamboul,” capital of the fading Islamic power. Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier, went on to become the contentious, formative architect and urbanist of the 20th century, credited with ideas like the house as “a machine for living in,” and the primacy of “space and light and order.” Le Corbusier’s travel diary was the first book he wrote and, according to Ivan Zaknic, the translator and editor of the MIT Press edition, “the last he submitted for publication, only a few weeks before his death on August 27, 1975.”

Journey to the East is a catalogue of a pioneering modernist’s first encounter with so-called vernacular architecture, which shaped many of his future buildings – none more than his curving, concrete cathedral at Ronchamp. Which isn’t to say that it reflects the mosques of Istanbul but rather the spiritual power that the young Le Corbusier felt “upon the hilltops of Stamboul [where] the shining white ‘Great Mosques’ swell up and spread themselves out amid spacious courtyards surrounded by neat tombs in lively cemeteries.”

Read the rest at the Faster Times.

Aga Khan in Old Damascus

Syrian Houses

Photo by Matjaz Kacicnik/Aga Khan Development Network

It’s back to Damascus (though I’m in New York) with a new story in Architectural Record about a restoration project of the Aga Khan Development Network in the Old City of Damascus. The accompanying slideshow, care of the AKDN’s photographer, looks very nice.

The Old City of Damascus, in Syria, might be a UNESCO World Heritage site, but in recent years money has poured in for new hotels and restaurants. Dozens are already open, while licenses have reportedly been granted for more than 150 hospitality projects across the half-square mile area. In some cases, old buildings were razed to make way for newly constructed establishments. Others involved the often-hasty restoration and conversion of historic courtyard houses. With a lack of technical expertise, cheap concrete has replaced stone and mud brick, and many developers decorate with a pastiche of Orientalist elements.

Now the Aga Khan Development Network, the organization that promotes the preservation of Islamic heritage, is hoping to demonstrate a new development model for the area. The group is in the midst of slowly and judiciously restoring three of the Old City’s most splendid late-Ottoman houses: Beit Nizam (Nizam House), Beit Sibai, and Beit Kuwatli. All three will reopen collectively as a yet-to-be-named luxury hotel. According to Ali Esmail, CEO of Aga Khan Cultural Services in Syria, the AKDN wants “to bring to life those important historical assets” without comprising their architectural integrity.

Read the rest at Architectural Record.

Can conservationists save Oscar Niemeyer’s fairground in Lebanon?

A short piece in the Christian Science Monitor, following up on a visit to a modernist fairground relic in northern Lebanon.

By Frederick Deknatel, Contributor / April 20, 2010

Tripoli, Lebanon

An abandoned international fairground in Tripoli, Lebanon, designed by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer – the architect behind Brasília and the United Nations Secretariat in New York, among other buildings – faces an uncertain future.

Nearly complete when Lebanon’s civil war began in 1975, the modernist international fairground was mostly abandoned throughout the fighting and the following two decades of reconciliation and reconstruction. A theater housed in an oversized concrete dome was reportedly used as a weapons dump by Syrian soldiers, who reinforced it with unsightly steel rods, still visible.

Named after Rashid Karami, a Tripoli native and 10-time prime minister who was assassinated in the last years of the civil war, the site is a forgotten, sprawling artifact of architectural modernism.

It tells part of the development story of the 1950s and ’60s, an era of political disruption and ambitious building projects.

Mr. Niemeyer had just completed his signature government buildings for Brasília, Brazil’s capital built on a savanna, when he accepted the commission from Lebanon’s government in the early 1960s. His 15 pavilions set amid an oval park expressed his commitment to reinforced concrete, from the ceremonial arch to the pyramid to the amphitheater, helipad, and curving exhibition hall.

Today the cracked, empty buildings get less attention than the grounds; a conservation group has restored the park’s flora and is now fighting for its architecture.

In 2006, the World Monuments Fund listed it as one of its 100 most endangered sites, in response to a failed plan to replace it with a tourist village based on Disneyland. For now, the maarad, or exhibition, as Niemeyer’s park is known locally, sits near the sea on the edge of the city, its only occupants curious visitors and residents out for a walk.

‘The road for Damascus’, GlobalPost


My recent piece on the problems of architectural preservation and development in Damascus for

DAMASCUS, Syria — Like Cairo’s Pyramids and Shiraz’s roses, to paraphrase travel writer Colin Thubron, the oasis of Damascus conjures running water. But that was 40 years ago.

These days the Barada River runs dry through one of the world’s oldest cities. Meanwhile tourists, long a rarity in the socialist Syria of Hafez al-Assad, are now flocking to the historic center of Damascus.

But a boon for the country’s economy and image is also a threat to the capital’s heritage, as a spate of often-hasty building restorations and conversions in the UNESCO-protected Old City has turned the area into a kind of historicist fantasyland of nostalgic architecture driven less by preservation than development.

Along with Aleppo, Damascus boasts the highest concentration of preserved, traditional Arab residential architecture in the Middle East. For decades the Ottoman-era courtyard houses and merchant palaces in the half-square-mile Old City crumbled as wealthier residents left for Western-style apartments in garden suburbs outside the city center. The flight began under the French Mandate in the 1930s and continued after Syrian independence in 1946 and throughout the end of the 20th century as the city’s suburbs expanded along the dry hills that edge the city.

Read the rest here.

Guernica is memorialized but who remembers Hariqa?

In 1925 the French bombed Damascus from the air for 48 hours, killing nearly 1,500 people and leveling whole historic neighborhoods. It was twelve years before the Luftwaffe destroyed a town in northern Spain for Franco. Fifteenth century architecture was reduced to rubble – one contemporary photograph shows the ornate wall of a courtyard house teetering around ruins, its doorways opening up to a pile of stones.



Druze farmers in the Jebel Hauran south of Damascus had taken down a French surveillance plan in July and by the fall their rebellion ballooned to a widespread Syrian-Arab nationalist revolt against the French. The Druze had been “transferred” there from their home in Lebanon by French and Ottoman troops, following hostilities with Maronites in the 1860s.

For Michael Provence, who wrote an authoritative book on the subject with subtle references to the insurgency in Iraq, the 1925 revolt opened the Middle East to its first forceful articulations of Arab nationalism following the collapse of the Caliphate and the imposition of colonial order. Predating the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39, which Timothy Mitchell called “the first sustained anti-colonial rebellion in the Arab world,” (quoted from Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity) the Syrian uprising and the subsequent French devastation of Damascus translates the struggles of Syrian sovereignty and their primacy in the history of self-determination in Bilad ash-Sham.

The bombs landed hardest on the commercial hub south of the Damascus Citadel between the late-Ottoman-era markets of Hamidiyyeh and Madhat Pasha. When it was rebuilt, Damascenes called the area al-Hariqa, “the fire,” lit by French bombs. The name holds today, listed plainly on maps, an outlier of urban regularity hanging on the edge of the UNESCO-protected Old City.

Around an axis of a pedestrian plaza with a large central fountain extends a neat grid of commercial streets. On a map the box of Hariqa looks like its own walled area – a bit of European urban planning amid the jumble of lanes and alleyways otherwise obstructed only by Straight Street, the Via Recta, which St. Paul walked down.


Via MidEast Image: “Original photograph by Luigi Stironi, Damascus, of the aftermath of the French bombardment Sunday October 18th 1925.”

In targeting Damascus the French ensured they killed more than people, wiping out a piece of the city’s unique record of eastern Mediterranean residential architecture, An Ottoman yearbook in 1900 recorded nearly 17,000 houses in the province of Damascus, of which it’s estimated half still stand today (see Jakob Skovgard-Petersen and Stefan Weber, “Modernizing Private Spaces: The ‘Aqqad Family and Houses in the Late 19th and the 20th Centuries” pdf).

“In all the eastern Mediterranean – from Egypt to Greece – the Syrian towns of Damascus and Aleppo are the only large cities which preserve domestic architecture on such a scale,” Skovgard-Petersen and Weber wrote in a book on the restoration of one Damascene mansion, the Bait al-‘Aqqad, now the Danish Institute. “Other important cities, such as Cairo and Istanbul, have lost practically most of their residential architecture and preserved only those buildings considered historical monuments (mosques, schools etc., and some major residences).”

That the French destroyed a part of Damascus is not unknown history – it’s the subject of books, and a detail in general histories of the mandated Middle East. And yet in light of recent growing attention to the architectural preservation of the Old City, which more often these days means renovating a neglected Ottoman merchant house and turning it into another restaurant or boutique hotel that fabricates a memory-product of “Old Damascus,” the destructive remodeling of Hariqa eighty years ago assumes new meaning.

Look beyond the irony that the French blew it up and later became key players in UNESCO, which designated the Old City a World Heritage Site in the 1979. The Roman-era sewers of the Street Called Straight have been dug up and replaced in the last few years, prompting articles on the shoddy beautification – little more than new wooden doors – of the shops that line the cobblestones.

laffayetteVia MidEast Image: “Photograph by Luigi Stironi 1925, of the Sidi al-Amud area of the old city of Damascus/Syria, bombarded by the French Mandate authorities in Oct. 1925… A Sign of the French Laffayette Gallery still standing in the middle of the road. On the left is the Quwatli House,one of the most spectacular of the old mansions of the old City. The Quwatli’s Mansion served as the residence for Ibrahim Pasha during the Egyptian period 1832-40,and later as the German Consulate.

Dedicated voices call for preservation of Damascene architecture, for the lifting of stones one by one from a courtyard, cleaned, and placed painstakingly back in place, as they were in the last decade at Beit Jabri, among the most popular places for tea and shisha by a fountain in the Old City. (Ignoring the Shish Tawouk, which is pliable and comes with a side of spaghetti).

Out of the charms for Old Damascus a desire comes to preserve formal architecture and develop new historic space. An imagination for an Ottoman or pre-Ottoman past emerges, tied essentially to the realization of the courtyard dream – even if cement or poured concrete has been used between the old stones (as in a number of these hotel and restaurant conversions), even if the fountain has been lit and made into a swimming pool (as in the 200 Euro-a-night and up Hotel Talisman).

Pleasure capital shapes architecture. Like the saving of traditional houses in Marrakesh and Fez by ex-pat Europeans and astute Moroccan hoteliers, the preservation/restoration of the Old City of Damascus is central to the country’s arrival on the profitable travel pages of New York and London print. But keeping Hariqa in mind, minding that French bombs flattened a section of the city so hard that one word – Guernica – spurs a host of terrible associations, how does history fit into this grand development scheme?

Damascus burning in October, 1925, via MidEast Image