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The Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) was established in 2008 to raise awareness about contemporary architecture and urbanism within civil society. In an interview I held on 25 June 2015 at the offices of the ACA in Beirut, George Arbid, the co-founder and current director of the ACA, discussed the work of the ACA and modern architecture in the region. Arbid explained the activities and aims of the ACA, including the establishment of an archive, a library, educational programs and the formation of the DoCoMoMo Lebanon chapter.
He outlined the important contributions of Arab architects to modernist architecture and the complexities of talking about “Arab architecture,” or an “Arab modern movement.” He also discussed the exhibition Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms, and its accompanying publication Architecture from the Arab world (1914-2014) a Selection, which formed the Kingdom of Bahrain’s pavilion at the fourteenth International Architecture Exhibition La Biennale de Venezia, in 2014.
Deen Sharp (DS): Before we discuss the work and activities of the Arab Center for Architecture (ACA), could you provide us with a broad introduction to the idea of modernist architectural heritage and its importance?
George Arbid (GA): Architecture in general terms is a cultural product, and is in constant motion. When [the public] speak of local architecture, they often mean traditional architecture. For instance, if you ask people what Lebanese architecture is about, they would talk about the nineteenth century or early twentieth century triple-arched houses with red-tiled roofs, stones and central layout. However, Lebanese architecture or, I prefer to say architecture produced in Lebanon, has gone through [several] transformations. I could claim that an architecture produced nowadays can also reflect local identity, and can be coined as Lebanese. The determining factors of that identity are climate, geography, topography, economy, need, building techniques, personal and societal beliefs, cultural aspirations, local ethos, and so on.
At ACA, we are interested in promoting the idea of architecture as culture, and therefore modern architecture of the twentieth century as part of [our] heritage. Like any architecture produced in the twentieth century, it was subjected to faster influences than in the earlier periods but anyone who knows the history of architecture well, knows that in earlier times architecture was something that was also contaminated. And, I would argue [contaminated] often positively by travels, wars, cultural influences and so on. Therefore, the identity of architecture has always been subjected to various influences. It is our task to try to define the specificities of architecture in the Arab world in the twentieth century, and promote the idea that it is a cultural product. […]