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Workshop Liban

Philippe Poullaouec-Gonidec

Chapitre 1. Le Liban et Saïda des identités aux enjeux de paysages

Landscape in Lebanon: In search for Identity and Context

Julie Weltzien

Texte intégral

If we acknowledge that an objective of life is the achievement of a continuous flow of harmonious experiences, then the relationship of spaces to one another as experienced over time, becomes a major design problem. When viewed in this way, architecture takes its place with the arts of poetry and music, in which no single part can be considered except in relation to what immediately precedes or follows it.
Edmond Bacon, 1967, p. 19.

1Magnificent mountain ranges, skiing and swimming on the same day, sunsets, spectacular coastline, narrow valleys, majestic cedars, waterfalls, olive graves, fruit trees (for example the scent of thyme and orange trees). Cool winters, warm summers, five different climatic zones, high rainfalls, one of the richest floras in the world. All this is the Lebanese landscape.

2Yet another perspective gives a picture quite different from the previous one: Urban sprawl, uncontrolled building activity, refugee camps, suburban disasters, jammed highways, built over coastline, deserted agricultural terraces, polluted waters, hardly any public open space in the cities and littered beaches and river valleys. Is Lebanon becoming a concrete republic?

3Definitely a picture of carelessness.

4How can one overlook these disasters? The political instability and the lack of deliberate and rational planning schemes (Khalaf and Kongstad, 1973, p. 3) are surely to be blamed for uncontrolled development.

5However there is another perspective.

All landscapes are more than an ensemble of physical and human components, and in turn are more than aesthetic objects to be observed. (...) Landscapes have a deeper significance, identity, and character, not easily quantified by traditional positivistic methods. This is because every landscape and artefact is associated with cherished attitudes, values, and images, making them evocative, idiosyncratic, and reflective of changing social values. (Park and Coppack, in Muir, 1999, p. 272-273)

6While trying to understand the facets of Lebanon’s opposing and varying landscape pictures and perceptions, it is worth to shed a light on the notion of belonging, of shifting places, and its effects on the land. Sense of belonging as a basis for sense of place. “Place is identity. Things out of place are not properly themselves, and move as living forces towards their natural home” (Turner, in Muir, 1999, p. 280).

7A people that was under foreign administration over many years, a country that hosts minorities and refugees from all over the region, a country that underwent 15 years of Civil War, will rather develop an attitude of placelessness than authentic attitudes towards place.

Four Stories

1. Ancient and contemporary myths

8Nearly anybody asked about the qualities of the Lebanese landscape will start talking about the above-mentioned beauties, the legends, the pride of the mountains, the magnificent cedars. A viewpoint that, at first sight, lost its relationship to the challenges of every day life, that overlooks the destruction, but maybe serves as an anchor to an identity otherwise about to loose. The ancient myths talk about the symbolic significance of place, myths that are still alive in peoples' memories, but have become placeless. Such as the legend of Adonis known since the 5th century BC:

9Adonis is the son of Myrrha, who, to escape the fury of her father Theias, put herself under protection of the Gods and was turned into a myrrh tree. Ten months later, the bark of the tree burst open and a child, Adonis, was born.

10Adonis was beautiful and when he grew up, Astarte (Aphrodite/Venus) fell in love with him. However, her love was not enough to stop him from his favourite pastime: hunting. During his ultimate hunt, he was gored to death by a boar, Astarte hurries to his assistance, but cannot save him. His blood flows out and its gift of life is passed on to the flowers. The flowers are the anemones that colour the hills every year in deep red. His blood, as it is said, mingles with the water of the river that then becomes red; red from the soil that is washed into the waters with the heavy rainfalls and the melting snow.

11This is an ancient myth that picks up, of course, on earlier myths and probably rituals of sacrifice; a myth that talks about a renewal, an everlasting cycle of life and death, death making place for life each year. However, it is also a story of passion, of fate that governs the men s life: the ancient theme of death and resurrection. A story that recognizes and acknowledges the connections and interrelations between man and his surroundings, a myth that other than addressing general themes of life, describes a very particular landscape, a place well known and lived.

12It is the story of the river Nahr Ibrahim, the Adonis River, south of the city of ancient Byblos. At its spring, in Aphca, where Adonis died, the Romans built a temple: a place of worship, building up on a myth of a place that determines its location carefully chosen. The climax of the myth takes place at the spring of the river. It evolves from a lived drama into a temple where one can re-experience the latter. Architecture as a place of worship, in tune with what Bacon expresses: "One of the purposes of architecture is to heighten the drama of living" (1967, p. 19). An architectural language that speaks of respect and modesty that clearly stems out of a deep relationship with the land.

13Traces of similar kinds of places still exist all over the country, examples of architectural manifestation of landscape appreciation of different periods, let them be Prehistoric, Roman, Phoenician, early Christian, etc.

14Apparently respect and modesty and relationship to the land are not themes that govern contemporary development.

15Rather than generalizing on the myths that are cherished nowadays (stereotypes such as the big car, the newest sun glasses, the villa with a flat lawn, the personal achievement, the dream of a better life in the Western world), it is interesting to focus on another issue: the sense of place and the sense of belonging as opposed to carelessness. Is there a sense of belonging that leads to responsibility that again fosters values other than the quick individual achievement, but care about the land? Questions that in this context can only be marginally touched, but should nevertheless be addressed.

16On a large scale, two examples may demonstrate some reasons for a more or less careless attitude towards the land:

  1. The foreign rule over the country established an education System, which on one hand offers the country an outstanding chance for development and on the other hand teaches values that do not originate from the culture. The Lebanese Flora and Fauna, natural Systems, geography and geology are not transmitted at large to the students. The effects are that if taught in a French or American institution, students might learn more about the respective cultures and natural Systems than of their own country. At the same time, education is the entry card to University, which again is the entry card to the Western world, meaning a possible escape from political and economical instability, meaning to be able to support a family frequently from outside the country.

  2. The other extreme are the Palestinian refugees. More than 300 000 (about 10% of the Lebanese population) live in camps and slums all over the country in mostly inhumane conditions, waiting to return and hardly given a chance to integrate in Lebanon.

17The myth of the better world and a better life lies in both cases somewhere away from Lebanon.

18Sense of belonging?

2. The Bay of Jounieh

19The recent Civil War lasted from 1975 to 1990. During different stages of the war, different groups of the society had to leave their home environments and settled in different areas inside and outside the country.

20Jounieh, a former fishing village, is a town situated at 20 km North of Beirut, located in one of the most stunning bays of Lebanon. Before the Lebanese Civil War, Jounieh had already become an important administrative commercial, and entertainment centre (with the Casino du Liban). However, the inhabitants counted only 25 000 people.

21Jounieh is a Christian community, and during the Civil War, it became a refuge for Christians from other regions, particularly Beirut. During the war the population increased over 500% and now counts 125 000 in habitants. The slopes of the mountain are now chaotically filled with high-rise buildings until it becomes too steep to build and until one reaches the grounds of the church up on the mountain that overlooks the bay. Building activity that in hindsight can be measured by the number of building permits given out increased enormously. Of course, during wartime, hardly anything was controlled. The effects are manifold and just to mention a few:

22The bay is nearly completely overbuilt, a highway cuts through the town, and the scale and density of the buildings are inappropriate. In addition, what was once the fishing village, the old town Minha al Jadida, is deserted and about to fall a part, the coastline has been altered and made inaccessible in parts, and suburbs with shopping malls cover the coast. No effort has been made on building up a context between old and new, between buildings and landscape, sea and land. The common assumption that a war rather destroys houses than produce them is turned upside down in Lebanon. Jounieh is one of many extreme examples for uncontrolled building activity during the Civil War.

23Sense of belonging?

3. South Lebanon

24The Israeli occupation of the South of Lebanon in 1982 caused another exodus of refugees within Lebanon as well as outside. The example of Mona (name changed to remain anonymous) and her family might reveal parts of the picture. The family had to leave their village when she was 6 years old. They were accepted as political refugees in Germany and stayed there for the next 11 years. After the withdrawal of the Israeli army. Germany no longer accepted the family and they had to return to what had once been their home. Mona was 17 years old when she came back; she was just about to start an apprenticeship in Germany. She spoke and wrote German fluently, but could only speak the local oral Arabic: she was never taught how to read and write classical Arabic. There was no chance for her to pursue her studies or to find a job. The family now lives in Beirut, the father working as a taxi driver as there is no possibility of income in his village.

25One day Mona took me to her village to meet her grand-parents who stayed throughout the war. On the drive to the village we saw a dreamy landscape, fruit trees, snow covering the Mount Hermon, small villages, only a few of those concrete skeletons that are usually scattered all over the landscape. In between one sees wonderlands emerging; dreams made out of concrete. Dream castles and villas with sometimes 15 m high retaining walls for the sake of a flat lawn; completely ignoring the topography of the land.

26Mona explained that those were the landowners coming back from Europe or South-America, importing their image of what their own house should look like.

27There are few limitations in Lebanon. No place where one is not allowed to build and knowing the right person may also allow one to build however one wants, for instance, fairy tale castles.

28As another example, in the village, there is a football field for the young with signs or the sides warning the youngsters: "land mines." If you loose your ball and want to fetch it form the neighbouring field you risk loosing a limb. The young boys take it as a challenge to get the bail anyway.

29The choice is between loosing a ball or maybe a limb.

30There is also the hill across the stream on the other side of the village, which is unreachable for us, too dangerous.

31Sense of belonging?

4. Hamra, Ras-Beirut

32Hamra, Ras-Beirut, the peninsula of Beirut, before the war, the commercial and cultural centre of the town. Now Hamra, Ras-Beirut turns out to be a busy, rapidly changing neighbor-hood "The spectacular transformation of Hamra from a garden farming area to a dense and fashionable commercial and cultural centre has been too swift and overwhelming to permit the operation of any clear or consistent pattern" (Khalaf and Kongstad, 1973, p. 130). Now after the war the story goes on:

33Two family houses, big Jacaranda trees, a small courtyard, a light blue VW beetle, flowers on the balconies relative silence, and an atmosphere of peace in the otherwise ever noisy sounds cape of Beirut. This happens to be a perfect picture for tourists with a romantic view. Patina and history make the charm of the place.

34However, peace is disrupted 5 meters away. In the neighbouring plot, the hole for the 26 floors apartment building is already dug, the trees uprooted.

35A meeting with the owner of those two beautiful houses destroys the romantic perspective He just sold this piece of land for 3 000 000 US $. The same investor who is digging up the plot right next to his bought it and has similar plans. The story will go as it did for many other houses and gardens in the area: the buildings are knocked down and the site is converted into a car park. The trees are asphalted up to the bark, so they die faster and can be cut down, leading to high-rise building surrounded by car parks instead of a garden.

36The owner himself grew up in those houses. His sons studied at the American University of Beirut, just a few steps away, now they live in the United States. The father, foreseeing his age, decides to live with his sons and to sell his piece of land. To achieve support for maintaining his buildings is near to impossible, neither is he provided with provisions for his age.

37A city plan made by the private interests of two men.

38Sense of Belonging?


39The recent history of the Lebanese landscape seems to be a process of fragmentation; a process that neither creates nor builds on context.

40Understanding landscape as a value, a cultural, historical, and economical one are the tasks that need to be tackled by landscape architects.

41Municipalities have to understand the material they have to administer in order to transmit the art of reading the land before changing it, to outline all the facets behind the picture on the surface.

42The task is to understand landscape as the platform of activities that can be moulded. Commonly landscape is regarded as a plot that is left over and then adjusted, more out of practical necessity than understanding, not realizing that we deal with a System where every change has an effect on the other. This process is a dead-end road and will never lead to a sustainable and sensitive development.

43The tasks of the landscape architect must also lie in the involvement of people on ail scales as a necessary process of contextualization. This includes and building up a sense of place that is not stuck in old myths, but builds on them and leads towards a contemporary interpretation and understanding. The education of particularly the young generation towards recognizing opportunities and taking responsibility is inevitable.

44Creating awareness and appreciation, to stimulate a sense of belonging, to build up context and to recognize values before it is too late, is a long, but necessary road.

As people seek to establish roots and recreate identifies, an awareness of landscape its and origins can provide a rock or a peg around which new perceptions of self can be constructed.

Muir, 2000, p. 303.

45Sense of Belonging, in ch’allah.



Bacon, Edmond. Design of Cities. New York, Viking Press, Revised Edition 1974, first published 1967.

Khalaf, Samir, and Kongstac, Per, Hamra of Beirut, a Case of Rapid Urbanization. Leiden, E. J. Brill. 1973.

Muir, Richard. Approaches to Landscape. London, MacMillian Press Ltd, 1999.

Tuan, Yi Fu. Space and Place. The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press, 1977.

© Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2006

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