Cities & Architecture

The Quest to Produce Meaning in the City

The Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury says that he would like to believe it is still possible to produce modernity from within rather than simply importing from the West.

Bernard Khoury. Courtesy: Suchi Deep © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

Bernard Khoury. Courtesy: Suchitra Deep © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

Bernard Khoury looks like a man ready for combat. He is dressed in regulation black and there is a coiled tension in the way he sits, even when he is almost completely reclined on the couch. His forehead is furrowed and there is a look of intense concentration on his face.

Khoury grew up in war-torn Lebanon, the son of one of Beirut’s foremost modern architects – two distinct influences that seem to have shaped his worldview and permeated his every work. As he puts it, “I can’t go to sleep where I come from. The most basic core values that you would find in an established, stable environment don’t exist there. You have to question everything you face, down to the meaning of authority, the meaning of a state.”

This persistent evaluation of accepted norms translates into an architecture that is often edgy, sometimes not even likeable. Even projects that seem apparently frivolous are loaded with subversive elements that force you to look beyond the superficialities. Unlike other architects who prefer to look at projects only in the physical context, his work is firmly placed in a political and social context.  “I am not here to produce architecture, I am here to produce meaning in the city,” says Khoury.

Bernard Khoury has to be one of the most intellectually stimulating and critically interesting architects in the developing world today. His ideas are of great relevance to us, especially seen in the context of our rapid urbanisation and in the indiscriminate embracing of architecture that has no relevance to our regions.

He spoke to Suchitra Deep on a wide range of issues while on a visit to India to take part in a lecture series organised by MASA (Malnad Architecture Student Association).

What was it like starting a career in 1993 when the civil war in Lebanon was officially over?

Well, I had a lot of hope reposed in the rebuilding of a nation. But it took me a few years to realise that there was no real reconstruction happening as I would have imagined it. The so called post war period was somewhat odd, in the sense that there was no proper evaluation of the events that had occurred, there was no political consensus.  All the major political issues were tucked under the carpet. Yes, buildings were being built and basic infrastructure was being rehabilitated, but in my opinion this is not reconstruction. Reconstruction is not just about building.

Al Qurm housing. Credit: Bernard Khoury © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

Al Qurm housing. Credit: Bernard Khoury © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

You keep talking about the fact that people were in denial. They did not actually want a dialogue or discussion. What would you have wanted – that this discussion would lead to some consensus on how to rebuild after the war?

A lot of us naively thought that we would go through the painful process of re-evaluating and revisiting some of the very problematic issues that led to this conflict. But I came to realise that we are very dependent on many parameters and issues that were beyond our political system.  Lebanon is not politically autonomous and so these painful questions, the sour realities that we should have confronted, were never faced.  This denial went on for a very long period and we see even now that the core issues that led to that conflict are still there.

Would you say that before the war there was a strong sense of architecture or a strong sense of how people build; then the war brought in a pause or a complete change and therefore a dialogue was needed?

Well, if you see Beirut as a city in the 1960s, it could have been looked at as a very modern city. At that point, we had the first and second generation of local architects who were very open to modernity. I think they truly believed – at least a few of them – that they could aspire to modernity as much as a Frenchman or an American. And maybe some of them even thought that they could be more modern than the moderns! You can still see leftovers of that glorious period of 20 to 30 years in Beirut. After that came the war and maybe some of these people were no longer preoccupied with being at the forefront of modernity, they were preoccupied with surviving.

Plot No. 7950 by Bernard Khoury. Credit: Jon Shard © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

Plot No. 7950 by Bernard Khoury. Credit: Jon Shard © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

When you say modern architecture, you mean Western architecture?

Obviously, because the modern movement was born in the West, but it did become the universal project.  I want to think that this first and second generation of local modernists did not look at themselves as people who were replicating the Western model. And that is a very important point.

Modernity and the Arab world have a strange relationship. It looks like an organic growth in the modern movement was constantly stymied by the recurrent conflicts in that region. Can you give us a historical perspective on this?

To answer that, I will have to get a little bit out of the architectural debate and talk about politics.  Up until the early seventies, the big Arab nations were not religious. There were strong Leftist influences in the Arab world. Some of them thought they were at the forefront – forget about architecture – it was all about politics. They thought they were players too. They were not importing a project. And in a certain way, they were open to modernity, which in turn had ramifications in architecture. But in the early seventies, with the rise of religion came the death of modernity because these are incompatible positions.

There is a lot of modern work in that region…

But we no longer produce it! I am talking about Lebanon, but this applies to the Arab world in more catastrophic ways and maybe to India in some ways. If you look at the hyperbole about these big cities in the Gulf that supposedly embraced modernity – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait – in my opinion, it is a catastrophic growth.

If you went back to the post-war reconstruction work in Beirut, it’s almost like, if you wanted to be modern, you had to import it. It was no longer produced from within. If our fathers and grandfathers believed even naively that they were part of a grand ideological project, their sons or their grandsons have become excrements of modernity. We have succumbed to a history which we are not even writing!

You want to make a statement with your building, you just get a Western architect to do it. In turn, they take something that has been developed for other purposes and contexts, add Islamic elements and bring it to a place where it means nothing. To me, that is political and cultural bankruptcy. I think this could have very dangerous political and social ramifications. If you take a mall in the suburbs of Houston and you blindly import it to Kuwait and you think that the same systems, the same typologies, the same logic is going to work, you are up for a catastrophe.

PLOT NO. 183

Plot no. 183 by Bernard Khoury. Credit: Grealdine Bruneel © DW5 BERNARD KHOURY

What do you see as your role when you work in these regions?

I don’t see myself as an ambassador of what I see and learn in American cities or in Europe. I want to believe – maybe even naively – that it is still possible to produce a modernity from within and to fight against that dangerous approach to architecture.

Do you think we are playing an ever smaller role now than before? Do you think that architects have made themselves irrelevant in modern society? 

We have become irrelevant. Architecture is in crisis. My own experience was that after seven years of education in supposedly the best schools in the world, I got probably not even a quarter of the salary of somebody in finance!

Then I realised later that I am not entitled to design many large projects without the help of specialty consultants. It wasn’t the case up until the early years of modernism, certainly not until the 19th century. Then you have the construction industry also imposing its’ own way of doing things. It dictates to you how you will materialise your ideas. The quality of construction has also dropped badly and you cannot even connect with any of the traditional trades in the region where you work. I am sure you can no longer build the Indian way here. You have to build the Anglo Saxon way.

What is the architect today? We cannot design an airport, a mall, a hospital – we cannot design anything because the governing rules of these projects are no longer in the hands of our practice.  The best of us have become media puppets who no longer have any authority over the commissions that they are working on. We have become monkeys performing through inane gestures such as swings and twists, because the core issues of our profession have been lost. So, yes, it’s a pretty sad picture.

Suchitra Deep is an architect with an independent practice in Bangalore.