This study examines the nature of territories in the region of Lebanon that are governed by alternative systems in contrast to state-based structures of governance. In these territories, the state has minimal-to-limited influence on the social, political, and economic activities of such given areas, since certain non-state actors exert a structure of governance based on their political agenda. This research will focus on the dominating tools and practices applied by non-state-actors, their impact on the built environment, and the freedom of the local residents. Such practices include the existence of special economic zones that allow for access to black-market and tax-free goods, the influence of political propaganda enforced through the urban plan, and the establishment of welfare-institutions to provide the residents with ontological services.
The project proposes an apparatus that recombines the identified practices with new qualities by reflecting the mirror images of such practices in a new cultured habitat. To convey this, the project suggests a fictional spatio-political structrure that takes place within the landscape of South Lebanon, that aims to enable the residents with the space and resources needed to resist the manipulation of power by non-state actors. When existing in the premises of such an apparatus, the participants are equipped with the ability to self-orchestrate the mirrored image of non-state actors’ practices, and to perform out of their own free will. The proposed apparatus is composed of different archival bodies that would shelter such acts of resistance. As an urban element, it becomes a sanctuary for the residents of the surrounding landscape, as it would provide a temporary spatial liberation, while existing on its premises.
What prompted the project?
The project was inspired by the politics of the Middle East, and my own experiences encountering their limitations and challenges. I always had an urge to visit districts in Lebanon that are locally known as areas that ‘the police’ are forbidden from entering. Such districts often take the form of refugee camps, suburban ‘no go zones’, grounds of non-state militant activity, and any area where state presence is intangible, due to a number of political conditions. My curiosity developed towards the unusual urban features that characterized such districts, which included the typology of the built-environment, foreign countries’ flags and their symbols, pictures of unfamiliar political-figures, and factors influencing the overall way of life. Moreover, I had questioned the reasons that prevented these districts from falling into what I perceived as anarchy, knowing that ‘the police’ were forbidden from entering. The answer was not in the state discourse that advocated the presence of a singular state-authority. Rather, the answer lay within the reality of the existence of multiple authorities that participate in governing regions within the state of Lebanon by means of alternative systems.
What informed the choice of Lebanon as site?
The landscape of the study is situated in the Southern hinterlands of Lebanon, where the presence of the Lebanese-state is greatly outweighed by local militant activity. The current political-state of the hinterlands is held by a fragile truce that is frequently breached on the levels of the airspace, the maritime regions, underwater oil fields, the Blue Line, and probably even under the Blue Line limit. It is a territory characterized by the dust of debris caused by constant destruction and reconstruction of the built environment, the loss of mind and (biological) matter, a widespread scene of amputated limbs and concrete slabs, and massive security surveillance. Thereby, the information stored within the (physical) matter of the built environment, or that of the mind, is fragile to physical permanence, as the storage of information continuously shifts between an occupation of the past, and that of a present time. At times where biopolitics is being used to orchestrate mass-migration, personal data and privacy is institutionalized and occasionally hacked, and foreign-military intervention is indefinitely legitimized by “war on terror”; an archival apparatus is positioned within the turmoil to resist the local and international rhetoric of occupation.
with a focus on their tools and practices of governance.
Could you expand a bit more on these alternative systems and how they operate?
My research explores southern Lebanese territories that have a significant presence of local and international non-state actors, with a focus on the alternative systems that are being exerted in such territories. The term “non-state actor” refers to the institutions, organizations, or political-parties that surpass the limitations of their intended role, to compete with the state on governing the territory they operate on. I devised visual documentation of the areas of Hareit Hreik, Tyre, Bent-Jbeil, and Naqoura, which predominantly mapped the activity of local non-state actors, Hezbollah and Amal Movement; as well as foreign/international non-state actors, the network of French institutions and UNIFIL – United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. Through mapping exercises, non-state actors were exposed at several instances on enforcing their agendas in the built-environment, as it guarantees them a prolonged – or possibly a permanent – presence in their stronghold areas. Among my findings, I discovered the possibility of imposed regulations set by non-state actors that affect the urban plan of their territories. Moreover, I investigated the strategic power of public spaces, i.e. parks and cemeteries, as an urban extension of the political propaganda of the actors, and the grave impact this has on the local resident’s free-will.
How and to what extent does your apparatus empower the people?
The apparatus empowers the people by offering an ‘Escape to an Alternative-Power Archive’ – EAPA. The proposed ‘Escape’ is intended to target the residents of non-state actor’s territories, whom have witnessed their free-will, freedom of expression, or even sensual desires, undergo sociopolitical constraints. The ‘Alternative-Power’ represents the status of the apparatus as a counter-player to the existing non-state actors in its vicinity. It operates according to an alternative system in which strategies and tactics would emerge spontaneously through interaction, requiring no moment of political decision or political construction. Such an apparatus is embodied in the ‘Archive,’ that would have the capacity to collect and store the citizen’s physical valuables, as well as their memories, beliefs, and sensual experiences, with their consent. In return, this content can be accessed and compiled by the citizens to spontaneously produce or reproduce acts of resistance. Thereby, EAPA becomes an instrument of measurement, or even a collective of knowledge, capable of increasing society’s agency by equipping them with the tools and practices — that were derived from the non-state actor’s practices — to confront their local environment. Participants have the seamless ability to modulate across the outpost’s archives, ranging from theatrical performances and business frameworks to data on people and memories, in order to produce interdisciplinary acts of resistance. This would offer the participants the chance to orchestrate such practices themselves, and to perform out of their free-will, only when existing on its premises.
What role do you think architecture can play within scenarios as this?
The conducted research has exposed the interrelation between architecture and politics in the context of Lebanon. The mapping exercises on areas with a significance presence of non-state actors exposed how urban plans of cities can be used against the local residents to redirect public opinion or public behavior, and to alter any space that can potentially host acts of resistance. EAPA’s course of action makes it a vulnerable target for attacks, however, the architectural translation did not respond to its qualities by proposing a bunker. It is rather a spatio-political apparatus that makes use of its neutral status to guarantee its well-being. Within the apparatus, the architectural translation of the course of action was achieved in a way that would grant the participants with spatial liberation. The organization of its main components – the archival outposts – was achieved in a circulation system interconnects them by offering multiple routes to reach different angles of each outpost, which implies that the participants will be able to craft their own trajectories on each visit to the apparatus. Through the nature of the circulation system, the participants would be able to completely disappear within the apparatus; however, at certain moments, they would reappear as footsteps and shadows, or as unidentifiable and distorted images of themselves. The disappearance would activate their full freedom in pursuing indefinite acts of resistance; free from being seen or judged from other participants.
You mention the term sanctuary, how does the project approach this term?
The apparatus can be labeled as a sanctuary since it is an urban exception that is situated within a politically tense landscape. It seeks to attract the local residents during their free time, and offer them a temporary escape from their assigned roles. The aim of this research is to work along the lines of agonism, to identify the parallels of governing techniques between non-state actors and the Lebanese state. Agonism, here, refers to the political theory that emphasizes the potentially positive aspects of certain forms of a political conflict. Thereby, the final-output does not offer fantasies of liberation from the practices of non-state actors, rather it offers a haven that can be accessed by the citizens, militants, soldiers, and refugees, during their free-time, to take on new roles that are not subjected to prior sociocultural prejudice. The free-time of the active locals in the landscape of intervention were mapped as per their “assigned” roles; participants being: the UNIFIL battalions, local residents, militants, and Syrian Refugees. Hence, the mentioned characteristics when placed together attest to a place or experience of ‘sanctuary.’
What is for you the architects most important tool?
Field work, in all its kinds, is one of the main triggering factors that have affected my process of thought throughout my projects. I don’t believe that architects should use the same tool to express their ideas. They should rather develop their own set of tools based on self-acquired interests and personal strengths. My strategy is to invest a big portion of my time in conducting research and extracting elements that are site-specific, and after that I resort to the advanced modeling software to translate my findings to diagrammatic drawings.
Ahmad Baydoun is a Lebanese architect and researcher who completed his professional architecture degree from the Lebanese American University (B.Arch 2017) and the École Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris. Baydoun is currently working in a start-up called Coup Architects in Beirut, where he is in charge of completing the design proposal of an upcoming school project in Baghdad. He has previously worked as an architect at DW5 Bernard Khoury Architects where he was involved in a multidisciplinary range of work from research projects, to concept discussions on various projects, to the illustration and production of digital images and drawings.