Caption: A graffiti in Beirut reads: “Our end does not need to be this way.”
 A graffiti in Beirut reads: “Our end does not need to be this way.”

There wasn’t a single minute of silence following the disaster; no respite from the sound of screams and sirens, from the glass breaking and scraping, from the never-ending reverberations of the blasts. The clean-up felt like an auditory protraction of the violence that had been thrust upon us. The detonations brought an eerie sense of relief, like hitting a hard surface after an interminable fall. At first, you sigh, convinced that this is it; you tell yourself it's all over, and that there is no falling further than this. The pain then makes you regret surviving the fall and, as it subsides, you realize that nothing is over, and that the world will only end again.

No one had ever seen such large-scale, instantaneous destruction. The spectacular magnitude of the explosions could not but distort one’s relation to time. It led many to believe that the events that transpired in the port of Beirut on August 4 at 6:08 pm had lasted somewhere between a few minutes and seven years. At first, everything seemed to suggest that this was an occurrence contained in space and time that was behind us. Within days, experts spoke of post-traumatic symptoms, post-disaster responses, and post-conflict recovery; we had rewound, replayed, and reenacted every shot and every angle of the events. Maps neatly outlined the perimeter of the devastation and assigned zones to local and foreign relief agencies. In the weeks that followed, however, fire returned to the port and black smoke repeatedly rose above the city and in various parts of the country, indicating that the conditions that had led to August 4 were in fact all but addressed. The perpetrators were still among us, orchestrating yet another season in the cycle of dispossession, destruction, and (re)construction that, by now, we knew all too well. Despite decades of political organizing, and months of public dissent, we were still bound by structures that sought to determine the future with such vicissitude that it had become unthinkable. August 4 resoundingly affirmed what we’d suspected but hoped wasn’t true: that there was nothing left to look forward to.

In the wake of the disaster, academics and practitioners of architecture and urban planning rushed to recommend guiding principles for approaching the recovery process that would reconfigure a large part of the city for the coming decade at the least. Cautioning public opinion against repeating earlier post-disaster responses such as the contentious Wa’d (2006) and Solidere (1994) projects, engaged practitioners called for a people-centered approach that would address deep-rooted urban inequalities in the ravaged neighborhoods and redress their fractures with the rest of the city[1]. These calls rightly sought to influence the reconstruction process on two essential fronts that had been handled disastrously in previous reconstruction experiences: they aimed to incorporate the voices of dwellers in resistance to spatial cleansing and erasure, and they refused to adopt the geography and temporality defined by the catastrophe and its immediate repercussions. That said, these calls also pointed to challenges that spatial practitioners have yet to overcome, if we are to employ our practices at as means to look forward together and collectively reclaim futurity. On one hand, experts’ demands for civic engagement require that we radically reconfigure and broaden our methodologies, tools, and language in ways that allow us to truly engage with the spatial experience and knowledge of others[2]. On the other hand, to break out of the space and time of the destruction requires that we come to terms with the slow unspectacular cycles of violence upon which the city has depended to build and sustain itself in the past century, and that we recognize how, through our work, we have directly and indirectly contributed to the erasure of worlds and to the elimination of possible futures.

When the world seems determined to end again and again, and when the future has, in and of itself, become inconceivable, how can spatial practitioners employ our tools to cultivate collective capacities for imagining futures beyond the world’s end?

On the left, a 1961 advertisement by the SLAF for its real-estate development project “Adonis” in Zouk Mosbeh, (Revue magazine, July 1961). The headline reads: “Adonis Urban Center will be the city of the future”. On the right two images illustrate the dense urbanization of Adonis and Zouk Mosbeh between 1960 (top) and 2013 (bottom), facing the much-contested Zouk power plant.

Looking beyond the world’s end

To expand the profession in ways that allow us to collectively think shared futures, it is useful to contextualize and historicize the establishment of architectural and planning practices, and to understand the ways in which they have deliberately distanced themselves from vernacular spatial practices, and even violently replaced them, at the service of dominant ideologies and their ideals of futurity.

The introduction of the Building Law under the French Mandate was a turning point in the dynamics of spatial production in Lebanon. An extension of the modernist-colonialist project, this moment entrenched the hierarchical, elitist position of experts vis-a-vis urban space[3]. Effectively, it discredited vernacular socio-spatial practices that existed at the time, and it professionalized and bureaucratized the practice and discourse of spatial production, resulting in the alienation of those who until then had an unmediated relationship with their built and lived environments. Thus, the Building Law was a bid to seize the means of spatial production, an early attempt to establish a predictive relationship with the land and consequently, to determine the future of the territory and of its inhabitants. In this new dynamic, spatial practitioners emerged as the right hand of power in its project of modernity and nation-building through the production and regulation of space.

As the political economy evolved over time, so was the regulatory framework for building and planning amended to sustain it. Starting in the 1950s, the growing demand for capital accumulation caused the gradual release of limits on building heights. As of the 1990s, tax alleviations and special building regulations further encouraged investments in the tourism and services sectors at the expense of industry and agriculture which had previously been a source of livelihood for around half of the population[4]. Under increasing pressure from the private construction sector, the Building Law was amended again in 1992 and 2004, tailoring to the practices and business plans of real-estate developers and the intensive exploitation of land following the end of the civil war[5]. In the 2000s, additional measures were introduced to intensify capital circulation and to facilitate the displacement of those who stood in its way[6]. During the two decades that followed, the Building Law contributed to a violent urbanization characterized by exceptionality and exemption, which took shape in the figure of the luxury residential tower and was accelerated by discretionary decision-making and informal legal frameworks, responding to the ever-changing needs of neoliberal financialization[7].

In the absence of official planning decrees, the Building Law dictates the shape of the built environment in 85% of Lebanese territories and subjects them indiscriminately to the same rule of abstract calculations regardless of their context or specificities using quantitative notions such as building height limits, building coverage, and floor area ratios. Invariably, this has generated landscapes of sprawling generic architecture, and an increasingly quantified, commodified relationship with land.

The evolution of the Building Law, the regulatory framework for building, and their applications demonstrate the intimate relationship between urbanization and the political economy, illustrating how spatial practitioners’ expertise may be utilized by power to determine the shape of the world —and of its future. However, they equally reflect the diminishing role of spatial practitioners in decision-making processes that shape the environment, and the gradual delegation of the future of the city to corporate actors who privilege a financial approach to urban space at the expense of both social and spatial considerations. Yet, this reduction is not indicative of the practice’s increased autonomy from ideology or power, for its space and agency remain deliberately constricted: at best, we act strategically within structures that predetermine a range of possible actions, of possible outcomes; at worst, we are sentient instruments for maintaining a status quo within which we have vested interests. By this logic, we are called to question processes that include spatial practitioners just as much as those that exclude us. If we do not challenge the legitimacy of the structures that contain and constrain us, even the most progressive politics, rights-based policies and participatory processes will fall short of widening ever-shrinking realms of possibility.

In this endeavor, one of the main difficulties lies in effecting a critical shift from the duality of institutionalized state-led spatial production on one hand, and atomized individual response on the other. It implies that we reject the paralyzing fear instilled by hegemonic discourse, which persuades us that what exists outside of the nation-state is bound to fall into the entrapments of neoliberalism, and that we imagine a third space where the limits of scale in grassroots organizing may be rethought through the establishment of trans-scalar networks, and where spatial rights may be leveraged as grounds for building political ecologies that are capable of rearticulating notions of collectivity and livability.

 Stills from SAKR Real-Estate TV advertisements released in September 2020. After the economic collapse and the introduction of informal capital controls on bank deposits in 2019-2020, the company devised various deals suggesting to swap depositors’ devalued savings with real-estate assets in Lebanon and Greece. The bottom frame reads: “Instead of implicating them, bequeath to your children a house or property in Lebanon or Greece”.

In the past, our future was fading

Over the past two decades, a large number of cities have witnessed the displacement of their dwellers through state-sponsored and market-led mechanisms. In Lebanon, this was accomplished by the state’s progressive handing over of urban space to the private real-estate sector, and by its continual deregulation of the urban sphere through neoliberal policies and legislation. Constraining legal frameworks for property and inheritance accelerated profit-driven spatial transformation in some urban neighborhoods, while institutional neglect, the absence of housing policies, and socio-economic marginalization plunged others into enduring precariousness and hostile living conditions. As a result, property ownership in the capital largely shifted from families and individuals to real-estate developers and investors, as many middle-income groups sought homeownership in suburbs-in-the-making, and low-income dwellers accessed substandard, informal or precarious housing in the historical urban fabric. The future of the city had become determined by visions of unfettered capital accumulation and circulation. But if the financialization of land and housing tends to evoke a dissociation of space from its physical and its social dimensions, it is nonetheless fueled by policies of resource extraction that have immediate and protracted repercussions on the landscape, the environment and dwellers.

Effectively, the entanglement of Beirut’s urbanization with national and transnational circuits of extraction and capital propelled ensuing spatial injustices well beyond the blurry confines of the greater urban agglomeration. In 1962, as the capital and its suburbs were being built, the Cimenterie Nationale single-handedly acquired 900’000 square meters of land in the small town of Badbhoun in the north of Lebanon, a few hundred meters uphill from its processing plant and future private port on the coast of Chekka. To meet its increasing appetite for concrete, the state granted cement companies exceptional permits to facilitate their expansion. These included permits to occupy Maritime Public Property and to exploit rivers and springs for the production and distribution of cement[8], announcing the forthcoming dominance of the sector over landscapes and resources, as well as dwellers, their livelihoods, and their futures. Until the early sixties, Badbhoun had been a town largely neglected by government services, land-use planning, policy and development, which facilitated the quarry’s infiltration in the area at the expense of agriculture, fishing, and public health[9]. Purchasing land was crucial in securing the company’s control over the town and its resources well into the future, and ushered in the entanglement of the capital’s urbanization with the extraction of cement in less visible “elsewheres” that lack the administrative and institutional capacities to appeal to predatory practices. The Cimenterie Nationale and Holcim, established in the north, and Sibline, stationed 40 km South of Beirut formed an oligopoly as of 1993 when cement imports were banned. The collusion of the cement oligopoly with the Lebanese ruling class enabled its illegal and unruly expansion across innumerable towns in Lebanon, enabled national price-gouging, and firmly established the sector’s control over urban planning institutions.

When urbanized areas doubled in size between 1994 and 2005[10], over 1’200 quarries spread in less urbanized areas[11] to sustain the momentum of construction and reconstruction in the capital and in the region. Production reached its peak at 6 million tons in 2011 – 1/6th of which was exported – and is today estimated at 6.5 million tons. Besides being physically transported across borders to (re)build other cities, the cement industry was also enmeshed with the inflows of foreign capital that sustained the real-estate sector locally. In parallel, as city-dwellers were displaced at an alarming rate starting in the early 1990s and again in the mid 2010s[12], many sought affordable housing in suburbanizing satellite towns, often rife with latent environmental risk and slow violence[13]. Despite being located in the vicinity of polluting industrial zones, lethal power plants and toxic quarries, these “satellite suburbs” today host a growing population comprised partly of those whose eviction compensation packages did not allow them to remain in the city and who were subsequently channeled out through market forces, including those who left these very towns almost a century ago to seek work in the capital. Through this lens, the city reveals itself in its territorial and extra-territorial dimensions, exposing the far-reaching and violent collaterals required to sustain it and its vision for the future.

In this environment of growing urban pressures, urban neighborhoods that miraculously managed to retain parts of their historical fabric[14] offered affordable yet precarious living conditions on the margins to those who could not find their place elsewhere. This symbolic survival in the capital city came to epitomize the larger problematic of how to exist in a dying world. And so, these neighborhoods and what they represented were romanticized–and eventually monetized–as worlds-within-the-world where multiple realities are held in violent tension. Within one urban cluster, European expatriates pay exorbitant rents to be seduced by the charm of the historical urban fabric, while low-income elderly dwellers live in homes that are deliberately left to decay as they struggle against threats of dispossession and eviction[15]. Despite pushing the most vulnerable into abject living conditions, these neighborhoods allowed for some communities like migrant workers, Syrian refugees, and queers, to construct common worlds by setting up spaces, claiming narratives and visibility, and practicing forms of solidarity. However, they equally witnessed the dismantling of social networks, support systems and spatial practices for many older generations of dwellers.

In hindsight, this dwindling ecology was fraught with recurrent unsettling, and by a choreographed disintegration of common worlds. Even long before pandemic-induced lockdowns saw the light of day, years before the ammonium nitrate was unloaded on the port of Beirut, the futures of those worlds were fading.

This complexity warrants a proportionate response which cannot be reduced to a localized intervention of architectural preservation, urban rehabilitation, or reconstruction. Rather, it calls for acting in ways that address more than the immediate effects of the August 4 disaster, for positioning ourselves critically in relation to what was, and for conceding that in the past, the future was already dying. Accordingly, it demands that spatial practitioners embrace disillusionment with the past even as we mourn it, and that we counter the de-futuring processes that have governed spatial production thus far by advancing political, social, and spatial imaginaries that can expand the realm of possibility and bring about “new infrastructures of life”[16]. By fostering a “grounded, situated and pervasive design capacity” as communities who are bound by a common will to survive adversity, we may begin to unravel and common the means of spatial production, and to question the validity of the city as the primary mode of collective inhabitation and enduring socio-material form[17]. Widening the realm of possible futures thus suggests that we betray our professions on one hand and our understanding of the city on the other, in other words, that we rise above our existential fear of obsolescence, dismantle our professional and disciplinary worlds and reconfigure them. To look beyond the world’s end is to peer beyond the end of our practices as we know them. After all, if architects do not build, and if planners do not plan, then what is it that we do?

 A billboard advertisement campaign released in 2013 by the Ministry of Energy announced explorations of potential oil and gas reserves using scenarios of future armament, economic growth, and transport development.

Futures where we may choose to die

The Linord real-estate corporation was launched in the early 1990s alongside Solidere and Elyssar. A mixed-use development spanning 2.4 million square meters of reclaimed land, Linord was meant to be a developmental vision for Beirut’s Northern coast, and claimed to address environmental concerns of the waste dump on Burj Hammoud’s coast. Like Elyssar, the project was never realized due to financial and political reasons. However, since its inception, Linord has accelerated the establishment of additional landfills on the footprint of the project’s future floating city, plaguing the very neighborhood it had claimed to fix. This project is one among many examples of how exclusionary visions of the future bring about present atrocities, and reminds us that imagining the future enables us to act upon the conditions of the present.

By August 8, the disaster’s roots in global networks of maritime capital were as common knowledge as the incompetence and dysfunction of the Lebanese government and its institutions[18]. The explosions brutally magnified the complex web of multi-scalar powers that had been at play leading up to the tragically inevitable disaster. Yet, this web’s components were difficult to identify clearly, qualify succinctly, or name as a recognizable entity—and, consequently, ended up being near impossible to dismantle. Its effects are nonetheless recognizable: it strains futurity, reducing our capacity to conceive time as anything but the extension and intensification of the present, and creates narrow futures in advance so that none other would come to replace them. Drawing from the work of writer, theorist and filmmaker Kodwo Eshun, futurism would be the attempt to intervene into this reduction[19] and to affirm that other possible futures–and other ends of the world–are indeed possible. Faced with the prospects of neo-fascist and regressive futurisms, developing insurgent futural practices would be a path towards reclaiming time and futurity not as more of the same but as sites for what if’s and if only’s that are capable of reengineering the now. This pursuit of futurity is not to fetishize life or romanticize resilience, nor to fulfill an ideal of free-will and individualism, but a means to carve out sites where deliberation is possible, i.e. where I may choose to perform acts not simply because they keep me alive[20].

Sociologist Elena Esposito argues that the logic of financial projection relies on models that can predict all possible future courses except the future of finance, and of a world, led by such models[21]. If real-estate in Lebanon has historically been a prime destination for private capital, the financialization of property and the housing market in Lebanon was first introduced by Solidere’s reconstruction of downtown Beirut in the early 1990s[22]. Since, the conversion of urban space into financial assets has taken on different forms and has become the primary mode of city-making: vacant luxury towers abound, housing policies are restricted to homeownership loans, while banks and other financial players utilize the built environment as a means to grow and diversify investment. Increasingly entangled, the property and financial sectors projected, speculated, monetized, and traded futures while failing to see how a world driven by such a logic would ultimately cave in on itself. Full circle, the global-local conditions and networks that made the August 4 disaster possible are similar, if not identical, to those that kept the country afloat while it ran on speculation and traded in futures—until the future finally caught up.

While such circular logics are doomed to failure precisely because they fail to account for their own effects on their outcomes, they are a cautionary tale for any insurgent futurism, urging us to face the unknowability of the future, not because it is independent from us, but because it would not come about without our intervention. Yet an insurgent futurism cannot simply be reduced to imagining the end of the world, nor about visioning the infinite extension of an idealized world–it is neither dystopianism nor utopianism. Rather, it must be propelled by the end of the world, and plan for its eternal recurrence, i.e. always already in the future.

To contribute to this endeavor as spatial practitioners requires that we push our tools and methodologies outside the studio, outside of drafting software, outside of scientific papers, outside of focus groups, where they can assist in precipitating collective narratives, images, gestures, apparatuses, and discussions about how things could be, what they could look like and how we could live and die through them. If the unfolding of 2020 made virally visible our globally entwined but differentially experienced condition of precariousness, it equally exposed the collapse of systems, ideas and dynamics that had purported to be eternal. Amid globally shifting geopolitical configurations and with the looming normalization of settler-colonial regimes[23], what does it mean to be living on a subtly expanding fault line where the capital city may be severed from the mainland within decades due to rising sea levels? As we near the limits of inhabitability, we are also pushed to envision the future of our professions as situated and operating in contexts of increasing conflict and militarization, intensive resource extraction and environmental risks, mass migration, and rising fascism. We are compelled to converse across disciplinary worlds to instigate processes of imagining life in post-urban, post-natural, post-national, post-capitalist environments as means to identify and foster ecological-territorial potentials and assemblages. However, at the same time, we must be doubly vigilant: on one hand, conjointly defining the terms of livability and collectivity to balance out the inherent libertarianism in pursuing this project on the sidelines of the state; and on the other, developing devices that, through their effect on the world, do away with their own need to exist.

Our failure to foresee the compounding crises and collapses around us has revealed the limits of our predictive faculties thus far, particularly as spatial practitioners. It suggests that, to look beyond the end of the world, we may need venture out where we are not expected and invite in unlikely accomplices, that we transgress back and forth with strangeness, and sometimes, that we simply and humbly sit still.

[1] Examples include Beirut Urban Lab’s text “Initiatives in Response to the Beirut Blast”, published on the Lab’s website in the days following the explosions; and Public Works Studio’s “Protecting the Tenants: A Core Issue in Recovering a Viable City”, published in September 2020 in the UNDP’s Peace Building supplement.

[2] In this regard, the reconstruction of Nahr el Bared in 2007 is useful to look back on. Despite employing a participatory approach, architects failed to respond to dwellers’ needs and expectations, and instead were faced with the limitations of their methods of communication and perception. See Marwan Ghandour, “The Architect-Citizen: The Nature of Civic Engagement in Postwar Reconstruction Projects in Lebanon”, ACSA International Conference, 2012

[3] Marwan Ghandour, “Building Law: A Critical Reading of the Lebanese Case”, Paradoxes of Progress: Architecture and Education in a Post Utopian Era, 2001, pp.54-60

[4] Marwan Harb, Le Chehabisme ou les limites d’une experience de modernisation politique au Liban, Université Saint-Joseph, 2007, p.64

[5] Marieke Krijnen and Mona Fawaz, “Exception as the Rule: High-End Developments in Neoliberal Beirut”, Built Environment Vol. 36 Number 2, 2010

[6] To mention a few: in 1992 and 2014, revisions of the rent law facilitated then expedited the eviction and displacement of tenants living under old rent contracts (pre-1992). In 1994, IDAL - the Investment and Development Authority in Lebanon – was established by the Hariri government with the aim of promoting foreign investments in the country.

[7] Marieke Krijnen and Mona Fawaz, “Exception as the Rule: High-End Developments in Neoliberal Beirut”, Built Environment Vol. 36 Number 2, 2010

[8] Public Works Studio, “Koura’s Land: From Fertile Resource to Raw Material for Cement Factories”, Jadaliyya, 2019

[9] Public Works Studio, “Beyond Cement” Competition Brief, 2019

[10] Ghaleb Faour, “Evaluating Urban Expansion Using Remotely-Sensed Data In Lebanon”, Lebanese Science Journal, Vol. 16, No.1, 2015, pp.23 - 32

[11] Talal Darwish et. al., “Assessment Of Abandoned Quarries For Revegetation And Water Harvesting In Lebanon, East Mediterranean”, 2008

[12] Both directly related to amendments to the rent law which abolished rent control in 1992, then facilitated tenant evictions in 2014

[13] Examples include areas such as Naameh and Bourj Hammoud –located near landfills, Jiyeh and Zouk –located near a power plant, Barja and Zalka –located near limestone quarries, where dwellers, sometimes unwittingly, live through invisible, delayed forms of violence which generally manifest as cancers and chronic illnesses.

[14] Neighborhoods most affected by the August 4 explosions,i.e. Karantina, Badawi, Mar Mikhael, Gemmayze, Roum, Rmeil, Geitawi are some of them.

[15] Samar Kanafani, Inheritance And Heritage: Considerations For Unified Action Against Gentrification In Beirut (working paper), Issam Fares Institute – American University of Beirut, 2019

[16] Arturo Escobar, “Out Of The Studio And Into The Flow Of Socionatural Life”, Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds, 2017 (p. 26)

[17] Ibid.

[18] Laleh Khalili, “Behind The Beirut Explosion Lies The Lawless World Of International Shipping”, The Guardian, August 8 2020

[19] Kodwo Eshun, Narratives of a Near Future, talk at the HEAD, Geneva, 2018

[20] Autonomy as explained by sociologist and design theorist Benjamin Bratton and referred to by feminist scholar Helen Hester in her keynote lecture at Strelka Institute’s The Terraforming (TTF) 2020

[21] Elena Esposito, “The Construction of Unpredictability”, The Time Complex. Post-Contemporary, Armen Avanessian and Suhail Malik, eds, 2016

[22] Bruno Marot, “The Financialization Of Property And The Housing Market In Lebanon”, Legal Agenda, 16 August 2019

[23]See “Sudan-Israel relations agreed, Donald Trump announces” published online by BBC on 24 October 2020; “Lebanon, Israel hold second round of maritime demarcation talks” published online by AlJazeera on 28 October 2020

Monica Basbous is an architect, researcher and educator based in Beirut since 2013. Her practice focuses on questions of urban mobility, informal spatial practices, politics and representations of space, and speculative geographies. Monica teaches architectural design at the Lebanese American University since 2017, and was lead researcher and partner in Public Works Studio between 2016 and 2020. She holds a MSc. in Architecture from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (2012) and was a fellow of Ashkal Alwan’s Home Workspace Program (2015-2016).