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Mon 20 Jul 2009 04:00 AM

Searching for margins of spontaneity

RMJM's Bassam Zeino was born and raised in Lebanon. He served a year in the Lebanese military, studied architecture at the American University in Beirut from 1997-2002 and was a practicing architect at Beirut's NG Architecture from 2002-2006.

Searching for margins of spontaneity
Bassam Zeino, RMJM Office, Dubai.
Searching for margins of spontaneity
Zeino’s thesis focused on using metro systems to tap into Beirut’s places of spontaneous interaction.
Searching for margins of spontaneity
RMJM head office in Dubai.
Searching for margins of spontaneity
Large scale and small scale are crucial for conscientious urban design.

RMJM's Bassam Zeino was born and raised in Lebanon. He served a year in the Lebanese military, studied architecture at the American University in Beirut from 1997-2002 and was a practicing architect at Beirut's NG Architecture from 2002-2006.

In 2006, Zeino won a Fulbright Scholarship from the US State Department and was granted admission to study architecture and urban planning at New York's Cornell University. He pursued his Masters degree because his professional life was getting in the way of his desire to fully explore his passion for intelligent, socially responsible urban design.

Returning to academics with four years of professional experience and without the "initial naïveté" so common of undergrad students, Zeino was drawn to the idea of mixing experimentation and research with the realism of the market. He was looking for something truly rewarding; he wanted to give hope to people who thought that the ambitions and aspirations of academics had no place in the market.

Zeino wanted to demonstrate that, in Beirut-despite its five-year cycles of unrest, trendy retail districts and "selective amnesia" about the past-spontaneous social interaction does exist and through it, the identity of the city endures.

In his Master's thesis, Portraits in a Mirror, Zeino identified those places in which spontaneous interaction still thrives in Beirut and explored the notion of connecting those spaces through a network. His hypothesis suggested that only within these places of spontaneity, or "portraits", could a true socially-inspired conversation about the identity of Beirut be initiated. The architecture component came from Zeino's reasoning that the cafés, museums and libraries of Beirut initiate and ultimately drive that discussion.

In this exclusive interview, Architect spoke to Bassam Zeino to talk about Iraq, skyscrapers and elephants in the room.

Tell us your story...

My name is Bassam Zeino; I grew up in Lebanon. I did my elementary, high school and university there. I served a year in the military and I worked as an architect at a practice called NG Architecture for four years. That was a reality check.

I learned a lot of market skills from that office, but at the same time, I always felt something was missing. I was doing my office work during the day and focusing on my own hobbies and interests at night. After a couple years of doing that, I was looking for ways to combine them to become one in the same. That's when I came up with the idea for the proposal I submitted to the Fulbright Scholarship Committee.

My return to academics was extremely refreshing, but because of my work experience, I was able to come back with a much more realistic look at the industry.

How did the Fulbright Committee respond to your proposal?

They really enjoyed it; they found it fascinating and realistic because it was a critical look at what Lebanon lacks and what it needs. That's when I was granted the scholarship. The Fulbright Committee forwarded my proposal to Cornell University and they were very interested as well. Between Fulbright and Cornell, 100% of my tuition fees were paid. I studied at Cornell from 2006-2008. Everything I saw and experienced contributed to my understanding of how the things I was learning could be applied to Beirut.

If you can, explain to me the social dynamics of Beirut?

If you want to explain Beirut to someone, it's very difficult to do it by writing or speaking. You have to show them mechanics. You have to show how things operate, how people interact and respond to each other and you've got to experience the politics on the ground. It's very complex for someone to understand when witnessing it from the outside. You need to break it down and show it in croppings of everyday life; these croppings also represent one's own perspective on what he or she is trying to accomplish.

In your opinion, is it possible to separate politics from architecture in the Middle East?

No. If we separate politics from architecture, we're ignoring a fundamental part of it. That can maybe happen in places where people feel they've figured out the issues and there are a lot of rules and regulations in place. In the Middle East, however, politics is always near the surface. You're always conscious of the play between architecture and society. The spaces in the buildings we build become symbols of our everyday life.

Your Masters thesis was a look at what is lacking in Lebanon. Can you expand on what you found?

I'm not necessarily interested in the politics of the country; I'm interested in how politics is translated into social and cultural patterns.

During my interview with the Fulbright Committee, I was talking with the cultural attaché and I said if [civil unrest] happened in the US, you'd see films, books and music about it. You'd see a whole translation into cultural production, which would mark the era with a certain identity.

We don't really have that in Lebanon because there isn't much self-reflection or criticism into what is really going on. People tend to turn a blind eye to history and current events because it's exhausting to try to find ways to talk about them.

There is no conclusion of what's right and what's wrong. There is a bit of selective amnesia. When that happens, any potential for creative production that might be specific to Lebanon disappears. That is where the identity of the country starts to erode. Does the architecture in Beirut reflect that lack of identity?

Franchises come to Lebanon and make it look identical to other cities in other places; private-sector developers also lack an awareness or obligation to address sustainable long-term issues like ideology and identity. They bring short-term, immediate profit and, in doing so, neglect important social issues.

On the public side, the government is stressed out. It's caught between different directions and initiatives. So, they also lack a sense of direction or perspective. There is a gap-a void-and there's a lot of chaos going on in that void.

In terms of architecture and urban design, if there is no sponsorship of public space and there is a fear of public space because it can immediately transform into battle grounds or ‘grounds of strife', its left to the private sector to determine what is viable and what is not; it's left to choose what is ‘Lebanese'.

The private sector then chooses to serve the interests of tourists, mostly because tourists are much more controlled; much more predictable. You can provide for them and secure profits from them much easier than trying to provide for a diverse group of local citizens.

Then what's left for the citizens?

You end up with areas in the center of Beirut that are commercially policed according to certain ethical codes. Then, there are other areas in Lebanon where private, local police are telling you how to dress. So, it becomes very directed and orchestrated in order to maintain some sense of control.

But, in my thesis, I tried to locate areas in which there is still a margin of spontaneity. Places where people are still coming together under their own accord and breeding something there that is specific to that place. I used those spaces as inspiration; I tried to learn from them; and I tried to explore how they'd work in other spaces in the city and then try to establish some network of these public spaces. I call them ‘portraits' because essentially they're tiny glimpses into the true identity of the city.

The notion of ‘public space' seems very complex in Lebanon.

There are pros and cons to having strife. It's like having a massive elephant in the room. Until the elephant starts moving around and making noises, you're going to continue trying to ignore it.

In places like Dubai or Doha, for example, public spaces can be built but there's no strife and no crisis to bring out that elephant and show what's hidden there. When you come to a city like Beirut that has five-year cycles of destruction and unrest, people are continuously trying to detach themselves from it.

You have to ask yourself, ‘What is beyond the trees and the landscaping and the pebbles and cobblestone?' That type of self-examination is what reveals the elephant, whether it is big or small, and allows it to be properly addressed.

Are there places in the region where you'd really like to work?

When it settles down, I think Iraq would be a very interesting place to work. It has always had a reputation for a very intelligent and professional population, which just happens to lack stability.

Iraq will undoubtedly go through a period of post-war reflection. As a country it will have to determine its own identity and its direction for the future-that will be an interesting conversation.

As an urban planner, is there value in building huge skyscrapers?

If you think about being 10 storeys, 20 storeys or 40 storeys up, it stops making a difference. Yes, skyscrapers bring about density in the areas they plug in to, but every time you produce a skyscraper, you have to be very conscious about what is happening around it. You don't want to produce islands. You want places where people from different disciplines can spontaneously interact. You need diversity; you need towers, you need small scale, individual scale and big scale. It all has to come together.

If you could've been involved in any project at any time in history, what would it be?

I think it would be the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It was right at the end of a period of ego and fascination with the machine. At that moment, they were trying to turn the machine upside down to see what it could produce.

It tries to reinvigorate a completely segregated area and it tries to put art and experimentation back into architecture. There were many cynics and critics of that project. It tied into many movements and it tried to decide whether architecture should go down one path or the other. I'd say that building was an important point of debate in the history of architecture.

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