The New ‘Context’ in Architecture: Learning From Lebanon

The Issam Faris Institute at the American University of ’s Historic Campus. Image © Zaha Hadid Architects.

Context in architecture has become a subject bloated with discussion and debate over the years. And, as a matter of fact, it has come to matter very little in its formal and typological sense. Take, for instance, the fluid forms that compose Zaha Hadid’s hundreds of projects around the world, or Frank Gehry’s exploding compositions seen from South America to the unmistakable Guggenheim in Bilbao. The form architecture takes in these cases, and countless others, is in itself a deliberate disregard towards context in its literal sense.

But is this disregard for context a mistake? Observers would often say so, though I would like to disagree. It has become frequent that projects like these, largely formal and not politely accommodating their historic surrounding, actually take greater interest in social urban issues that have a direct impact on the city dwellers. Quite simply, successful architecture today is one that serves society culturally and practically, addressing tangible problems of 21st century cities and dealing with context in a solution-oriented manner, going beyond aesthetics (whose value is only temporary) and into future-invested urbanism. Case-in-point? My hometown: Beirut, Lebanon.

Cases from Lebanon on this new approach to context after the break…

The American University of Beirut’s Issam Faris Institute

The Issam Faris Institute at the American University of Beirut’s Historic Campus. Image © Zaha Hadid Architects.

Zaha Hadid’s design for the Issam Faris Institute  at the American University of Beirut’s historic campus in Lebanon is a project often criticized for its obtrusive form in a sensitive surrounding. However, looking deeper, one cannot but notice the admirable decisions taken in the development of the project, which offer a bold way to address the almost dramatic lack of green public space in Lebanon – specifically Beirut.

The Issam Faris Institute at the American University of Beirut’s Historic Campus, in progress. Image © Ramzi Naja.

First and foremost, the proposal offers access to a large, previously disconnected forest area of the campus both from within the building and from the street. While this decision pays respect to the inhabitants of both the building and campus, its more significant impact is on a larger scale. The message is simple: if there is a batch of greenery, allow people to get there with ease.

The Issam Faris Institute at the American University of Beirut’s Historic Campus. Image © Zaha Hadid Architects.

The difficulty of pedestrian navigation in Beirut is also tackled through the project. Zaha Hadid Architects placed ramps that connect different topographic levels and the different floors of the building, diminishing disconnections between elevations in the site, thus improving accessibility. The ramps, dedicated to walkers, come as a strong response to the local situation, where citizens often find themselves battling with cars and street shops for a place to walk.

The Lebanese American University’s Campus in Byblos

The Lebanese American University Campus in Byblos. Image © Nadim Asfar

Like the Issam Faris Institute, the Lebanese American University’s campus in Byblos similarly addressed the need to preserve green space for this rapidly urbanizing region. In 1991, Samir Khairallah and Partners was invited to design a six-building campus on a steep hill ranging in elevation from 200 to almost 500 meters above sea level. The architects decided to allocate the entire campus in a cluster flanking a main pedestrian street, a decision that honestly and directly presented the least damage to the existing greenery.

The Lebanese American University Campus in Byblos. Image © Ramzi Naja

Samir Khairallah and Partners  took on the different levels of topography in the site by linking the campus from within the buildings themselves. Every building can be accessed at two levels, some at up to four different levels, allowing the inhabitants to surpass the topography when possible, but also strongly linking the project to the hill it sits within. Even the central street exists on three different levels that move with the surrounding topography. The architects offered nature their respect in such a way that allowed for the easy, practical circulation of faculty and students.

The Saint Joseph University’s Campus of Sports and Innovation

The Saint Joseph University Campus of Sports and Innovation. Image © 109 Architectes

Unlike the two previous examples, the Saint Joseph Campus of Innovation and Sports sits in a rather dense quarter of Beirut. The designers, Youssef Tohmé   and 109 Architects , designed the project as six separate structures surrounding a well defined open communal space. This space is placed in such a way that it cannot be built over or used as parking space – a common destiny of such spaces in Beirut. In fact it serves as a strong core to the project, providing direct access to the roof landscape, a back drop to the main theater, and a passage between the six independent structures.

The Saint Joseph University Campus of Sports and Innovation – Plan. Image © 109 Architectes

This entire configuration is derived from the simple decision of locating the outdoor space as a central courtyard, a direct response to the complex local problem of public space, while the roof garden addresses the same issue in a different situation. The project sits awkwardly in its surroundings, paying very little attention to the buildings and voids that engulf it, but it speaks to ideas that could be a source of change for the city.

The Saint Joseph University Campus of Sports and Innovation. Image © 109 Architectes

These three projects dig into the very structure of their settings, addressing less obvious but more imposing problems in blunt and practical ways. Their gestures bring the negotiation with context to an unprecedented level of rationality. In light of the aggressive urbanization the world is undergoing, the time has come to get past appearances and focus on how architecture works with its place. After all, as long as the architecture serves the people within their local context, should we really care if it sits timidly next to an ancient building or not?

Cite: Naja, Ramzi. "The New ‘Context’ in Architecture: Learning From Lebanon" 05 Apr 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Aug 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=355579>

2 comments

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    Hi, I agree with you on the general principle, that context doesn’t mean rigorously conforming to the local traditions or the general vernacular, but providing the work of Zaha Hadid Architects as the first example of this seems a bit strange. Granted the Issam Fares building might not be the worst thing we have ever seen, you seem to have narrowed down the critique to 2 points, both to do with external landscaping. One is to connect it to the forest – it’s a great idea, and you might know more, but are people going to traverse through it? And why? The problem of level changes and the ramp solution is something that is commendable but should be a pre-requisite given the site and requirements. You’ve said that if it satisfies the occupants, then we shouldn’t worry about context. But you haven’t talked about the actual building itself. Why are the windows that awkward shape? Where are the materials and labourers sourced from? Time will tell how well it works for the occupants, but I have seen/read about ZHA buildings in the past where the communication between architects and construction has been distinctly poor, and as a consequence, the building has started to fall apart within a year of it being opened (The Guangzhou Opera House), and the amazing issue of sight lines at the Aquatic Centre at the Olympics; both relatively core issues with recent projects off the top of my head. Again, I actually kind of like the Issam Fares building, but is it really about ‘appearance’ as you claim? It all seems very arbitrary. There is far far more to ‘local context’ than just how ‘timidly’ it sits next to an existing building.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Hello Emaad, and thanks for your thoughts.

      First, I just want to reiterate that the intention behind the article is not to judge any of the listed projects, but to try and look beyond typical prejudices and find what actually does deserve credit. I believe the two elements I speak of are more than just landscaping… the circulation around and to/from a project is its most essential contact with its setting, which is where I intended to focus the argument. As for the space inside, particularly the windows, I can tell you it is quite unsettling since I have been inside the building, but I found that to be a little out of the scope of my argument. Going back to the pedestrian ramps and stairs, I believe those are integral to the project and its context, which for me merits credit regardless the arbitrary form. Of course the relationship between the building and its users over time is an issue in itself, in a couple of months we can know how that goes!

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