Situated at the crossroads between Western and Arab cultures, the Beirut Arab University encourages students to think about both past and present, at both local and global scales
Arriving for the first time at Beirut Arab University (BAU) school of architecture, part of the Faculty of Architectural Engineering, you cannot help but admire the view. The four-storey building, sited at the edge of a plateau, is entered from the top, and as the eye is drawn up towards egg-crate stone sun-baffles and ahead − to marvel at the twinkling Mediterranean languishing some 10 kilometres to the west − the section steps down into a studiously convivial internal courtyard. Activity is everywhere in and around the light-filled space, which brings together design studios, library spaces, computer labs and workshops.
First established in 1962, the faculty moved to its dramatic location on Debbieh Campus in 2006. Although almost an hour from the city by student bus, campus life is connected to Beirut by a concern with the challenges that face this once-thriving cultural melting pot, an urban milieu marked in modern times by strife. To an extent, the BAU mission emerged as a way of dealing with such conditions, seeing Beirut less as a case study and more as a point of convergence for what Ahmed Attia, Dean of the Faculty, describes as a ‘diversity of influxes’ concerned with ‘place-making and the cultural identity of cities’ in the Arabian Gulf and Middle East.
Attia is unsentimental about the pedagogical challenges presented by the globalisation of practice, and pragmatic about the need for students to be worldly − able to steer between domestic priorities and the increasing mobility of modern life. In this negotiation, between local and global scale, BAU has a strategic function: ‘It is clear the role of Lebanon as a bridge between Western and Arab cultures’. This is not just about being open to diverse ideas, but about framing the school as a context for dialogue: bringing the world to Beirut. This objective is put into practice by engaging with institutions such as the RIBA (BAU recently acquired accreditation at Part 1), in exchanges with regional partners such as Alexandria University, and in a programme of visiting academics.Such initiatives contribute to the school’s comparatively cosmopolitan sensibility, as well as conferring the institutional authority associated with providing an international hub for debate.
‘BAU teachers train architects primarily for the Arab world, but they know that if the school is to compete it must create adaptable and flexible professionals − not just technical experts’
Visiting professor Ana Serrano, a Spanish architect whose practice, Serrano Evans, is based in London, offers workshops at BAU that mobilise alternative ways of thinking about design; this year her focus is on narrative as a tool for architectural conceptualisation, an approach that − at face value − seems at odds with an established emphasis on typology. Yet she believes her contribution aligns precisely with Attia’s objectives: ‘BAU teachers train architects primarily for the Arab world, but they know that if the school is to compete it must create adaptable and flexible professionals − not just technical experts’. Although traditional and regional precedents are held in high esteem, debate encourages students to think independently. ‘The BAU idea is about moving towards a culture of critical thinking.’
As a result, many student projects embrace themes of dialogue and change, attempting to strike a balance between local and global demands. In his proposal for a traditional craft school in Baghdad, Karrar Ihsan Al-Jassani celebrates Ancient Near Eastern motifs
while studiously avoiding pastiche. Geometrical studies and attention to the relationship between construction and ornament inform his design, which choreographs an architectural promenade to a rhythm of exchange between darkness and light. Tarek Akra’s tourism development at Sidon, Lebanon’s third largest city, builds not only on the notion of traffic between past and present, but on an idea about professionalism that casts the architect as mediator between technological, social and spatial concerns. With the aim of rehabilitating a deteriorated site, the ambitious project encompasses elements of landscape, infrastructure and architecture.
Rand Jamal Farhat’s rural centre for the treatment of children with cancer occupies a challenging locale in Bekaa, a fertile valley district in Lebanon renowned for agriculture. In an effort to address primary human issues of wellbeing and loss − issues often ‘medicalised’ in care-giving institutions − Fahrat’s proposal organises its accommodation into a ‘healing village’ with spaces designed to promote emotional and mental health, hoping to give young cancer-sufferers back the childhood that their illness has taken from them.
The active sense of exchange embodied in the central space of the faculty building characterises much student work. This intellectual and architectural dialogue − between foreground and background, past and present, local and global − doesn’t seem threatened by the idea of what tomorrow may bring, but rather informed by a curiosity about future possibilities.