En-Counters in Karm El-Zeitoun


In the same way our immune systems naturally reject unfamiliar organisms, growing informal cities seem to relinquish typical urban planning procedures. Observed carefully, this reaction mechanism appears to emanate from dwellers who have consciously decided to take urban matters into their own hands. Arising from the current ineffectuality of the debate opposing “top-down” versus “bottom-up” strategies, this work argues for a symbiotic relationship between these two polarized scales of intervention. As such, it positions the architectural designer as an actor operating according to interdisciplinary principles rather than a celebrated autonomous entity. Driven by a sense of urgency, I let go of mainstream design processes and embrace instead the perceived irrationality of a local semi-vernacular context, choosing the residential neighborhood of Karm El-Zeitoun in eastern Beirut as its case study. In close proximity to some of the Lebanese capital’s most luxurious districts, Karm El-Zeitoun was originally a planned quarter, following a strict orthogonal layout, which progressively acquired an informal status.
I document this uncommon transition from the formal to the informal through narrating a set of more than one hundred unanticipated, entangled stories of dwellers who have been creatively transforming their urban environment, reacting to one another and to the larger context. More so, the book explores the potential of a reflective design practice that addresses the multiple layers of thick urban processes, and seeks to demonstrate how these narratives of informal occurrences can redefine the architectural designer’s original interpretations. It showcases how, in Karm El-Zeitoun, this hybridity of site forces combined with my own aspirations as an architectural designer materialized in a series of acupunctural interventions that refute a problem-solving approach and privilege instead a careful negotiation of socio-political and socio-economic relationships. Resulting both from an appreciation of banalities and a holistic understanding of context, these interventions are made possible thanks to the availability of an array of residual plots within which I inject operative public spaces that can subtly generate, or provoke, larger political networks.
This provocation is exemplified by the building of one of the proposed interventions, which I undertook in summer 2018, when I decided to finance, manufacture and assemble it, with the support of Karm El-Zeitoun’s dwellers. The built structure, which appears to be a simple public staircase with small viewing platforms and an olive tree in a pot, stands in defiance to a proposed shopping center, planned to replace that edge of Karm El-Zeitoun in a few years.
In sum, I contribute to the research on the roles of different actors in the city, by arguing for a political role of the architectural designer in addressing informal spaces. This role challenges the traditional attitude of looking at informal contexts as saturated areas where architectural designers have nothing to add. Thus, I address a rarely discussed scale of intervention that is set between the architectural scale and the urban scale, and more particularly, between traditional programmatic schemes and urban infrastructural upgradings. As such, the work highlights the importance of addressing informal neighborhoods as individual situations, and denounces preconceived assumptions as valueless, particularly when they advocate that beautification strategies are favorable solutions. Conversely, I propose and advocate a methodology of intervention that seeks to reconcile the divide between decision-makers and architectural designers who work in interdisciplinary ways and reinterpret daily urban occurrences in ways to reconfigure the informal city.


What prompted the project?

This journey was initially motivated by my interest in the agency of dwellers, their power hierarchies, unspoken laws, anecdotes, and subtle interventions in neighborhoods that lack formal rules of building and planning. In Karm El-Zeitoun, I realized that these practices are manifested as discreet operations and negotiations that alter the spatial configurations of individual houses, buildings, streets, and demonstrate their potential in challenging the rigidity of the neighborhood’s orthogonal urban fabric. While they often emerge as improvised physical interventions executed by the dwellers themselves, these modifications sometimes surface as intangible interpretations employed to alter the planned behavior of spaces and objects without intervening on their physical properties. They arise from an intuitive tendency to find meanings beyond those proposed by planners and designers. Relatively, I wanted this project to explore the reactive mechanisms that are both consciously and unconsciously employed by dwellers to carry social, political, cultural, and environmental energies by instrumentalizing rather than romanticizing their manifestations. I thus hoped to examine if an understanding of Karm El-Zeitoun as a spatial repository of intangible yet contrasting forces can hint at architectural design applications that are rooted within the daily lives of dwellers, their resilience and leisure, power and agency, rather than their typically publicized misfortunes.

How important were the conversations held with the inhabitants of Karm El-Zeitoun? How were these then used to fuel the project?

These encounters piece together an alternative understanding of Karm El-Zeitoun that goes beyond its physical properties and into the streets, homes, and hearts of its people. Through the exploration of a number of themes ranging from racism and discrimination to acceptance and resiliency, they embody the intangible parameters determining life across the neighborhood. These encounters thus represent frozen moments in seemingly random yet tangible spaces that are solely activated by instances of engagement with dwellers and their practices. Their locations are not necessarily fixed, nor are their programs consistent or particular, meaning that they can therefore be understood as sites of informality charged with the potential of various scales and intentions. Understanding this becomes crucial in envisioning the ongoing exchanges between the studied context and myself through the creation of a design methodology that argues in favor of concurrently absorbing Karm El-Zeitoun’s informal operations while importing external yet contextually relevant discourse. Retrospectively, it is this symbiosis between my reality and the realities of dwellers manifested through the encounters, between top-down and bottom-up approaches to intervention, that ultimately formulated my position in the neighborhood and the type of interventions I proposed.

You talk about generating new architecture tools that go beyond mere representation, could you expand on this notion further?

I decided early on to examine Karm El-Zeitoun with the veracity of an x-ray scan -one that materializes and maps its underlying forces. This attitude demanded tools that are less interested in the obsessive hunt for the neighborhood’s ultimate truths, and that are capable of recording dwellers’ purposeful concealment or emphasis on some realities over others as well as their often-intangible operations. These tools range from non-representational kinetic models that distort and deform to reveal dwellers’ readings of their own spaces to experimentations in mapping and cartography that trace their subtle interventions on the micro-infrastructural objects surrounding them (air-conditioning units, lighting and electricity poles, garbage containers, generators, cameras, etc.), and from introspective drawings that examine my evolving relationship with Karm El-Zeitoun to kit-of-parts interventions that reinforce a fragmented representation of the neighborhood. While their applications are diverse, each of these instruments were produced to either echo or challenge the aforementioned encounters, to build on suggestions put forward by dwellers or to question and provoke their theories. Essentially, this project is the careful negotiation of two smaller schemes: the chronological narratives of Karm El-Zeitoun and the collection of architectural tools and design methodologies that in turn react to them. In other words, the superimposed nature of the resulting composition explores how a hybridized product surpasses the sum of its parts.

How did these inform the over 100 interventions designed?

Using these tools, I was made aware of dwellers’ tacit realization that the micro interventions they envisage to improve their daily lives (mostly regarding infrastructure) cannot remain at the speculative level. Instead, they are immediately planned, executed, and tested to achieve small yet desirable changes that are in direct negotiation with larger operations at work within Karm El-Zeitoun. This raised important questions about my role in the neighborhood and the kind of interventions I ought to propose, especially in a context where large-scale projects are often abandoned due to their substantial size, cost, time-consuming nature, and the political turbulence they often engender. Can I conceive of compact spatial interventions that learn from and react to the daily lives of dwellers and whose execution necessitates the consent of fewer stakeholders? Can architectural design formulate in informal contexts a role that isn’t motivated by a desire to compensate for the lack of governmental presence and that finds ways to challenge this absence? Within this context, the project naturally migrated from a single all-encompassing large-scale proposal to a dispersed series of programmed (or purposely un-programmed) architectural interventions that mediate between the object and the urban scales, between one independent intervention and its larger network. While the scopes and motives of such interventions were relatively clear, their potential locations within the tightly knit fabric of Karm El-Zeitoun were difficult to identify. This is because I was searching for spaces where my contributions would not obstruct the fluidity of dwellers’ quotidian operations. Interestingly, this suggests that the vacancy of certain spaces does not alone qualify them as sites of intervention. The decision to ultimately search for spaces that are neither acquired, appropriated, instrumentalized, nor activated by dwellers thus guided a new chapter of my expedition.

What prompted the need and desire to manufacture one of these speculations?

At the heart of this project was a desire to propose speculations that can be rapidly implemented and tested, and whose influences on the neighborhood can be evaluated. I wanted to design architectural interventions that are not mere products of extensive research processes, but that are themselves new instruments of investigation. In such cases, the exploration never truly ends but is instead further reinforced through design applications. Interestingly, there is no better way to validate or refute the latter claims than to examine how at least one of the proposed interventions transcends its two dimensional representation and enters the realm of reality. While the previous motive is undeniably personal, and seeks to reinforce the argument I propose in this project, there are more compelling reasons that prompted the desire to manufacture the intervention. In fact, my time in the neighborhood and with its people planted in me a certain resistance to speculate about interventions that promise to improve the daily lives of dwellers, and that remain on paper. It somehow felt unfair, after months of encounters, insider inquiries, and established trust with the dwellers, to extract so much from Karm El-Zeitoun and to give back nothing tangible. As such, the built structure is both an attestation and a responsibility.

How does the intervention negotiate between the “bottom-up” and “top-down” approaches to intervention?

The intervention uses its agreeable and seemingly benign appearance to subtly irritate multiple external forces attempting to exploit the neighborhood under the premise of providing better public utilities. On one hand, it reacts to the forced renovations of Karm El-Zeitoun’s staircases, which were induced by the political rally conveniently preceding the 2018 parliamentary elections, by delicately inhabiting the last unrenovated staircase (based on dwellers’ suggestions) and preventing any dubious external interference. On the other hand, it rebels against opportunistic private agencies seeking to benefit from the ongoing renovations to upgrade a major drainage line on the northern residential edge of Karm El-Zeitoun to facilitate the future implementation of an already-planned shopping center that will eradicate this part of the neighborhood. As such, the intervention is surgically positioned above an 82-centimeter gap within the abovementioned staircase –under which runs the targeted drainage line– and produces constant clashes between the political figure using Karm El-Zeitoun to gather additional votes, the private company planning its shopping center, and the division of the municipality that provided me with a permit to implement the structure. Interestingly, this latter department supports a candidate who was running against the foregoing “savior” of Karm El-Zeitoun’s staircases.

What are your hopes for the project in the foreseeable future? Are you interested in continuing this within other sites and conditions?

I still ask myself questions today, a year and two months after my graduation, about the conclusion of my role in Karm El-Zeitoun. Is my role in the neighborhood automatically concluded with the culmination of my intended exploration? Or does it linger until I consciously and willfully decide to let go? Retrospectively, after spending the last year building on my thesis work and seeking to formulate a clear position at the inauguration of my career, I realize that I am finally ready to examine if the methodology I propose and advocate can be synthesized to explore other contexts, especially sites where the role of architectural designers is deemed ineffective. The project somehow entrusted me with a humble desire to find relevance in the discipline beyond its common manifestations, beyond its commercially celebrated status as a luxury practiced, produced, and consumed by the global elite in the world’s most popular cities. In other words, I am not interested in replicating the project in other conditions as much as I am interested in exploring the strengths and limitations of the political position that framed its development.

What is for you the architect's most important tool?

For me, the most important tool is instrumentalizing the discipline’s inherent political role. This begins with a simple recognition, as many authors have suggested, that choosing to abstain from the profession’s evident -yet commonly overlooked- political dimension is not an apolitical stance; rather, it is an attitude that cripples the interdisciplinarity of architectural design and its social and political responsibilities. In this project, my reconciliation with the political role of architectural designers in society came with a simple realization that being politically driven does not necessitate being loud. In Karm El-Zeitoun, the agency of dwellers, their subtle and ingenious interventions, their provocation of the state and larger external networks, inspired me to constantly search for, situate, and choreograph the smallest physical trace with the largest socio-political influence -with the aim of designing light spaces that are less concerned with the “image” and more with the daily lives of dwellers.


Mohamad Nahleh received his Bachelor of Architecture from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon in 2018. His Bachelor’s thesis, 185 En-Counters in Karm El-Zeitoun, was acknowledged as one of the world’s best graduation projects on Archiprix International 2019 in Santiago de Chile. He is now commencing his Master’s of Science in Architectural Studies (SMarchS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).