• Research Group on the Architecture of the Levant

    Submitted by: GRAL : Groupe de recherche sur l'architecture au Levant
    GRAL is an international pludisciplinary research and discussion group whose scientific field of research is the public and domestic architecture of the Levant. It aims to bring together university researchers in the different social sciences, as well as professionals, to initiate research on both the local (cities and countries) and regional levels (the Levant).

    GRAL aims at becoming a locus for debate and scientific exchange. It hopes to trigger forms of dialogue, to help in organizing scientific meetings and to launch, if necessary, research programmes. Combining a multidisciplinary approach with numerous entry points, new research opportunities are thus opened for each discipline.

    The group is especially interested in the origins of built forms in the Eastern Mediterranean, in their organic unity, in their differences and their variation in time and in space. It aims at understanding the specific architectural characteristics of each city and region, in order to extract common features and shared influences. The evolution of certain forms into archetypes is also of interest.

    The guiding idea is to progressively build on a sum of knowledge, firstly through a critical review of published litterature on the domestic and public buildings, and secondly by making inventories or establishing chronologies, biographies and specialized bibliographies.

    Our aim is to examine, on an annual basis, different types of public or domestic buildings, from historical to more recent edifices, from the imposing to the more vernacular ones.

    As an transdisciplinary group, GRAL invites architects, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, urbanists and geographers interested in the architecture of this part of the World to join. If you are interested, please fill in the form and send it back to us.

    Postal address:


    Buildings are silhouettes that fashion the cityscape bur are also one of its fundamental elements. They reflect, in their particular way, habits, ways of life and techniques, as well as the various representions of individuals and societies which created them and who re-used them.

    In most oriental cities, also labelled as "traditional", especially those of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, the conception and the production of built urban space was the expression of technical know-how and of unwritten rules accepted by the inhabitants and which constituted a large part of their urban culture. These norms were of course modified by new ideas and empiric experiments and sometimes by external contributions; they however evolved very slowly, which meant that the cityscape could remain similar over a whole century and, in certain cases, even over several consecutive centuries.

    During the 19th century, the evolution in the arts, ideas and behaviour as well as the influence of new programmes and external stimuli all influenced the pre-existing situation and deeply modified it. From then on, the coastal and interior cities underwent a phase of urban renewal that produced a series of architectural models, each expressing the diversity of the individuals and communities then present in those urban spaces, as well as the representations of the central or local powers. The trace of these influences is clearly marked both in the structure of the cities and in the style of its buildings.

    From that date till the 1950s, the architectural and urban forms of the various private dwellings, collective or public buildings, large or small, derived from a variety of choices and models. They expressed the confrontation between the local ways of life, settlement modes and integration mechanisms, themselves in constant evolution, and the numerous models proposed to the urban societies. Types and counter-types were developed and made to evolve through subtle mutations and corrections, introducing new techniques and building materials. They gave birth to composite or hybrid models, the result of continuous compromises between the local or imported "official" or "scientific" building techniques and the more vernacular ones of the inhabitants. In other words, they express the compromise between tradition and modernity, the illegal and the legal, the standard and the vernacular. By a series of adaptations and searches, resistances to ideas or circumventions of legal and technical obstacles, interesting forms were produced which, however, were mainly respectful of the older models.

    The situation was far different for the contemporary period, which started in the 1950s. In the period leading up to this date, which includes the colonial period, cultural, social, economic and ecological foundations consolidated the production of urban space through complex dialectical relations. However, the transfer of the ideas of the Modern Movement to the Levant introduced a break in the history of its architecture. While previously each period produced its own styles, methods, technical know-hows and specificities which the next generation either accepted, appreciated or rejected, the contemporary period was characterized by the sweeping away of all historical, aesthetic or functional values and by the projection of imposed models, over which the society at large had no hold. Indeed, forms of dialogue ended between the conceptors and society and was replaced by exchanges between deciders and professionals, who operated in most cases exclusively for profit. The way society adapted to buildings and the way it ajusted itself became secondary considerations in the production of the built environment; the consequence was the production of buildings quite unadapted to both to the local climate and to the environment, while also being out of phase with the organizational modes of the family cell and more generally, of the local society. These buildings invaded the cities and made them repulsive. The most extreme case is that of the shanty-towns, in which material poverty and forms of exclusion have completely pushed aside any possible compromise between the population and its representatives.

    Through a close examination of the various elements that forged the coastal and interior cities as well as their architectural styles, we hope to understand not only their various societies but also the internal logics that created or transformed them. The relevance of these ideas, as applied for each city, are proposed for scrutiny, so as to hopefully highlight new venues of research that transcend local or national levels, especially through innovative multidisciplinary approaches, which will fuel the individual fields and disciplines.

    May Davie
    8 rue Emmanuel-Brault
    37250 Montbazon
    Tel. : (33) 02 47 73 13 46
    Email :

    Levon Nordiguian
    POB 11-1424, Beyrouth
    Tel : 01 615 847
    Fax 01 644 855

    THE 1998-1999 PROGRAMME

    Preliminary contacts inside the group have identified the first research theme:

    The three-arched house

    also known, in Lebanon, as the "traditional house", by the "Liwan house" or "Late-Ottoman Arab House" in Haifa, by the "traditional building" in Lattaquiah or by "Beiruti House" in Mersin.

    This house is now commonly called the "Central Hall House", after the works by Ragette (1974). As the central hall is however a frequent element all around the Mediterranean, and even in several interior regions, the "Three-arched house" would seem a better expression for that specific levantine model of the 19th century.

    Several empirical observations explains this choice; some of them require confirmation, further investigation or correction. It would seem that the model shares several characteristics :

    • The regional extension of this architecture covers four States: Lebanon, Syria, Palestine/Israel and Turkey.
    • The model seems to be confined to the coastal area
    • The period in which it emerged was the turning-point between the "traditional" and the contemporary periods
    • Many variations are observed in each region
    • The model showed great adaptability for several simultaneous and different influences
    • It also was tolerant to other built forms
    A simple analysis of the physical aspects of the building is clearly insufficient, and an anthropological, historical and ideological perspective is necessary.

    To initiate the debate on the subject, several ideas and questions can be proposed:

    1) The geographical extension of this house: Where exactly can one find this model? What happened on the fringes of this area? Would it be possible to map the extension, taking into account variations through time as well as morphological details?

    2) Its origins, myths and reality: What is known about the real or claimed Venetian, Anatolian, Arab or Egyptian influences?

    3) The constituting elements and its internal and external organization: What relations exist between the family, the house and, more generally, society? Did this model upset the pre-existing family structures? What is the social role of the façade? What was the influence of the new distribution of rooms and their functional specialization? What can be said about the invention or the import of new types of furniture for these buildings? What can be said about the bathrooms, the kitchens, etc.?

    4) What technical know-how was necessary for its emergence: The knowledge of the mou'allem, the new Ottoman laws on buildings, the new building lots.

    5) The various stages of its emergence and the technical problems it met: From the dâr to the three-arched house. Why a tiled roof? What can be said about the staircases? How was the question of the structural stresses on the second or third floors solved? What relationship existed between the availability of local building material (ramleh, wood, limestone) and the import of new materials (steel girders, plumbing, electric wires, pane glass, wood decoration, marble, paint)?

    6) Current social and patrimonial value: what is the place of this building in national patrimonial policies? Who accepts them and who rejects them? What is their place in the current stock of buildings? How are they used or re-used? What are the relevant typologies and methodologies useful for their classification?


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