Rowaysset, a modern vernacular
By Naji Assi
Sequence of Tense (Seoul)
Debate transcription – 27/03/2006
You said that when students went to Rowaysset they were arrested. Isn’t there a political force or something working to keep inhabitants inside the limits of Rowaysset?
Usually political parties in Beirut do have an authority on such neighborhoods. There are obvious similarities with Beirut’s southern suburb where the prevailing "party" is the sole ruling force on all aspects of urban life. Moreover, if we want to be even more realistic, political influence on urban life and its degree of mobility is a recurrent phenomenon all over Lebanon. These patterns correspond to geographically constituted communities.
What is interesting in Rowaysset is the fact that it escapes the direct influence of the ruling political party and governs itself by an intricate system of negotiated space on a daily basis.
Only during the elections, one can relate back to the expected relation between politics and the local urban life.
You stated during your presentation that the traditional ways of drawing and the usual architectural presentation tools were not the appropriate means to approach an area like Rowaysset. However, you also used photography, which is also considered as a traditional tool. Are you actually producing diagrams or any other analytical documentation?
It is true that photography is very similar to architectural drawing in the sense of the unavoidable rules of perspective space in which bodies travel through as defined points. This is why part of the work the students were doing was the production of very strict representation rules and codes to reveal the underlying architectural and urban events within Rowaysset. It was also about defining where value resides in the architectural reading of that neighborhood.
You presented Rowaysset as an example of a vernacular in the process of modernization, and you mentioned that the relations between private and public are different in these vernacular forms. You also mentioned that the private space has gone into a rapid densification process. What does the public space mean then? The market, the plaza, how did these change in the process of rapid densification and what does public mean?
Rowaysset did not go through a modernization process. When the initial real estate project was stopped and since the workers families have started settling, Rowaysset entered its own time.
Regarding the issue of public and private, I suggest the following morphological reading: when Beirut expanded outside its walls it entered its modernization process during which the port’s first basin was constructed and a dynamic trading activity was starting to change the pace of urban development. While Beirut was expanding, Rowaysset was constructing a very introverted urban fabric.
Today Beirut has created suburbs around it while Rowaysset is still an enclave. It has not witnessed the creation of public space crucial to any gradual urbanization process.
Photograph of outdoor stairs: This is the only type of open space caused by the site topography. The use of these stairs is intimately related to the life of the adjoining houses.
Map showing a quarter surveyed by the students: This map shows the opacity of the urban fabric, also it reveals how deep where the students able to walk in that specific neighborhood, how much open space could they possibly encounter.
The network of streets and stairs are more part of the private space, here it’s different, only a few stairs and streets where accessible but also vigorously controlled.
In the case of Korea, in shantytowns we also see public streets turning into private spaces. This is common and not so particular to Rowaysset only. Do you define this aspect as specific to Rowaysset, to vernacular?
No I don’t think it is particular to Rowaysset. This is also found in the traditional “Arab city” where we witness an intricate addition of many private spaces and where the boundaries between private and public are blurred. I am not saying that there is a logical link between the urban form in Rowaysset and its belonging to an Arab country. What is common to both, Rowaysset and the “Arab city” is the final outcome, the urban form. However the mechanism behind such appropriated urban space is very different. If we take as an example the “impasse” or the “dead end street”, the one we encounter in Paris is the street component capable of reaching the thickness of the inherited old medieval city. The “dead end street” in the ottoman city was part of the family cluster and used to connect the private courtyard to the souk.
In Rowaysset the street component is the result of a combination of both the morphological and the social prevailing patterns.