The Arab City – the devastation of old centers and the rise of new ones

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The Arab City - the devastation of old centers and the rise of new ones

In a region at once feared and exoticized, we have been witnessing for more than a generation the devastation of old centers and the rise of new ones

In architecture, as in many disciplines, the question “what is global?” has provoked much discussion in recent decades — yet it has all too rarely moved beyond the inevitable clichés. Again and again the terms of debate have been reduced to an easy opposition between “local” and “global,” with architecture granted the role of bridging “tradition” and “modernity,” even as such debates overlook the very modernity of tradition as an idea. Lately these oppositions have seemingly motivated two very different approaches: On the one hand, we’ve seen a spate of highly publicized projects in which buildings are conceived as built metaphors and function as a form of branding. On the other hand, the local/global debates have inspired renewed interest in practices that are socially grounded: practices in which indigenous craft, labor, and materials are blended with imported western technology and in which fluid concepts like “authenticity” and “heritage” are embraced unselfconsciously, as architects talk earnestly about expressing cultural specificity and difference.

To be sure, no matter the differences in scale or intent, the projects that result from the local/global dynamic are usually packaged in broad motifs — motifs that can be easily digested in our continual infoscape of architecture-as-image and that underscore the multiple meanings of “representation” in the field. Indeed, representation in architecture can refer not only to the act of drawing or of participation in society but also to the capacity of buildings to embody meaning, to become iconic. Which leaves us to consider: what is actually happening as global practices meet local conditions? When architects are enlisted in the work of identity building, whether for a city or state, institution or corporation, what identities are being constructed? What meanings are being represented? What margin of resistance might architects claim? And given the tensions that can arise between constructed image and lived reality, can architecture ever really exist beyond context or content, beyond place or program?

Today there is no better context for this investigation than that of the Arab city. I realize, of course, that it is risky to categorize cities along ethnic lines and to lay claim to so large a concept as “the Arab city.” Nevertheless the term “Arab” can evoke particular images and connote unique aspirations — aspirations which are now animating a new generation of architects, historians, and scholars who remain irreverently optimistic about the power of a secular, transnational, progressive and intellectual Arab. In this sense the notion of “Arab” allows us to see certain cities as more than “Islamic” or “Arab-Islamic” — religious references that have long dominated much scholarship. In a region at once feared and exoticized, we have been witnessing for more than a generation, simultaneously and not coincidentally, the devastation of old centers and the rise of new ones. […]