It’s a balmy spring evening in Beirut and I’m taking a stroll through my alma mater’s campus after a long day of hopping around the capital. I haven’t been here in a while, not much seems to have changed. A sense of calm prevails as another busy educational day draws to an end. I’m walking towards Green Oval, one of several open areas around the American University of Beirut campus and a place that oozes with nostalgia. I spent the greater part of my university years prancing around these corners.
AUB has long had a tradition of welcoming back its alumni and encouraging them to keep their university bonds strong. Many graduates who go on to perform highly on the global stage would often give back to the university through their fields of expertise. This is well exemplified all across campus and the surrounding neighborhood.
The short walk from the Medical Gate to Green Oval tells the story of the institution and the country that hosts it in a very particular way. Relaxed but vigilant security officers greet and politely ask for official university identification. I had not anticipated this; my card was not on me. In past visits this would equate to no entry, but on this occasion I knew the guard and we had a long chat about the ‘good old days’, especially when AUB became safe grounds for its students, on May 7, 2008. That day, we took shelter on campus as black shirted pro-Syria gunmen took over the streets of Beirut in a week that re-defined modern Lebanese politics.
He lets me in with a smile, I wave and proceed. My next stop is Assembly Hall. I pause for a minute to gaze at the building’s aging but eternal façade. This hall has hosted the most prized literati, intelligentsia and heavy hitters of the region and the world. I recall a famous video that was shown to us of Nizar Qabbani giving a legendary two-hour speech to a packed raucous crowd that spilled into the plaza outside in 1995. Qabbani begins by professing his eternal love for Beirut where he learned true love and had his first kiss. After lamenting the age of McDonalds and Disneyland, he tells the story of his first visit to Assembly Hall in 1965 and adds "since then, every time I come to Beirut, I make my pilgrimage to this hall to admire its quaint design."
A few feet away lies the rebuilt College Hall. On the 125th anniversary of the university’s founding, a large explosion ripped through the peaceful campus flattening the 120-year-old building and the nearby library, also killing one of the staff. The university largely survived the 15-year civil war through a series of intricate and well calculated moves that appeased all parties. This included allowing militias to set up base at various times and for the US Navy to temporary take up ground on the car park at lower campus as part of the Multinational Force in Lebanon. But this was post-war, and the message was clear, the perpetrators known.
I continue my walk along the scenic lower route as I pass by the president’s residence at Marquand House. In 1984 Malcolm Kerr, university president at the time, was shot in cold blood here on his way to his office at the old College Hall. Kerr, born in and raised in Beirut to American professors at AUB, chose to do away with security as an act of loyalty and defiance. This was despite his predecessor David S. Dodge having been kidnapped by pro-Iranian militias and sent to Iran via Baalbeck. Shortly after his murder, a statement was released by Imad Mughniyeh’s Islamic Jihad, a militia now thought to be a pre-cursor to Hezbollah, which claimed responsibility. Kerr’s violent death mirrored the fate of many Lebanese during that period. Education was yet again the target.
The sun continues to sluggishly set across the vast Mediterranean. My walk is suddenly interrupted as I gaze at this beautiful concrete structure. The bold béton walls rise triumphantly among the well-trimmed hedges, centuries old cypress trees and symmetrical walk ways. The finishing, ever so smooth, gently absorbs the sunrays as the large curved windows reflect the glare of the ocean. The building’s area doubles as your vision vertically traverses the landscape, seemingly floating on a bed of greenery and gravel. This was Zaha Hadid’s gift to her alma mater, the Issam Fares Institute (IFI).
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Hadid, an AUB mathematics graduate, won a competition to design the building in 2006. It came at a defining moment in her illustrious career. Her firm ZHA was finalizing designs for the London 2012 Olympics Aquatics Centre. She had just been awarded the much coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in 2004, becoming not only the first woman to do so, but also the first Arab and Muslim person to receive the honours. She had become a legend on the same level as her long-time friend and mentor Rem Koolhaas, co-Londoners Richard Rogers and Norman Foster and her inspiration Oscar Niemeyer. The latter whose ‘International Fair Ground’ in Tripoli, north Lebanon, is considered one of the greatest modernist architectural assets in this part of the world.
The IFI building would mark her triumphant homecoming to the Arab world. She had received plenty of offers by that period, only to turn most of them down. Her personal goal of wanting to help rebuild Iraq had not yet realized. A few years later she would be selected to officially design both Iraq’s new parliament building and its central bank in Baghdad. Perhaps it would now be prudent for the Iraqis to ensure her dreams come true, it is the least that can be done in honour of the woman who has long put her Iraqi allegiance ahead of all else.
Dame Zaha Hadid’s long and illustrious career is emblematic of the fighting spirit many Lebanese and Iraqis ascribe to. Her family, socialist, revolutionary and progressive by nature, allowed her to travel on her own to Lebanon in the 70s. She began her journey of self-expression at a time when Beirut was the playground of artists and creatives and money flowed in. The Lebanese capital and AUB gave Zaha the launching pad she needed to explore her inner artist. London gave her the global stage to assert that status.
Zaha Hadid’s architecture and designs are as radical, extreme and inspiring as the country she hails from and that which adopted her. She managed to blend modernism, futurism and suprematism flawlessly. Her fiercely hard working attitude coupled with her absolute infatuation with the art form of constructing beautiful built environments and landscapes, garnered her applause from even the staunchest of critics. Her boldness and desire to challenge the status quo became a trademark. In her last recorded interview two weeks before her passing, she said: “If you want to do well as an architect you have to work very hard. See the world, travel, read and look around. I don’t know any good architect that doesn’t do that”.
But her designs are certainly not to everyone’s taste, and only time will tell what lasting impact her work will have on 21st century architecture. Some of the most iconic works of the previous century are still threatened with demolition, and many communities continue to struggle against greedy property developers who have little appreciation of the fine aesthetics and social purpose.
Back in Beirut I’m making my way to the exit, greeted with a sign reminding me that this year marks AUB’s 150th anniversary. The institution has been at the heart of Lebanese ingenuity since its inception. Education has long been one of Lebanon’s major exports and the country’s most realistic chance at success and sustainable development. It is understandable but regrettable that the majority of educated Lebanese youth are choosing immigration as an escape form a distressing reality. State institutions are ailing as the infrastructure crumbles under the heavy load of the presence of 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The economy is on the brink of collapse and crises seem to loom one after the other in the beautiful land of the Cedars.
But all is not lost as bright minds continue to come back and give back with full devotion and gratitude. A generation of Lebanese might have left, but as evidenced by Zaha Hadid and the majority of Lebanese throughout history, that same generation will return and help in whatever way they can. Lebanon’s future might just be safe after all.