A finalist for Tamayouz’s Woman of Outstanding Achievement, Lebanese architect and academic Hala Younes delves into the beauty and importance of Lebanon’s landscape and cultural heritage.
Q&A with Hala Younes
Lebanese architect, academic at Lebanese American University, and founder of her namesake studio, Hala Younes is a finalist for the Women in Architecture and Construction Award’s Woman of Outstanding Achievement category. Here, she discusses the importance of landscape heritage and the pitfalls of modern development.
Since undergrad, you’ve contributed to research on landscape heritage and the preservation of a land’s topological qualities. What drew you to these topics, and why do you feel they’re important to spread awareness about?
I had the opportunity to grow up in a beautiful part of Lebanon, with parents who maintained their interests in agriculture while still being involved in other fields related to modern Lebanon. During the 1970s and 80s, the never-ending vacation of our childhood was punctuated by war. The ensuing instability left my generation with a long, suspended summertime in the mountains, with nothing to fill our boring days with other than observing nature and its treasures.
This mountain became a part of my being and I never felt this was exceptional until I witnessed the dramatic transformation of the environment during the so-called reconstruction era, and the indifference of the technocrats towards the beauty of the land.
My education through the School of Cultural Geography helped me articulate the dialectical relation between culture and environment, and understand why the preservation of the cultural landscape was to be at the very heart of our concern for heritage and culture. The feeling that the coming generation will never experience the same places that we lived in and, thus, will live in another culture, leaves us with a sense of helplessness, which we can only fight by trying to show, share and perpetuate our experience.
Your research focuses on Lebanon. What do you find most interesting about Lebanon’s natural environment and landscape, and do you feel it is under threat from modern development?
What is interesting about our environment is precisely that it is not natural. We live in a man-made country where any piece of land, if looked at carefully, can tell thousands of years of history of landscape, which means thousands of years of human effort in finding a way to live on earth. And this is really moving if you think about it.
The land is a living artifact under our feet and it is very sad to see it torn and erased by poorly designed developments and infrastructures. What is putting landscape under threat is not modern development – the aim of modernity was to offer a better future and a more inclusive world. What is threatening the cultural landscape is weak cultural knowledge, poor design, lazy minds, and insufficient scientific tools and efforts that have been applied to the thinking and planning of modern developments.
Tell us about your academic role – what do you hope your students leave your class with?
Of course teaching is the best way to share and spread awareness about our fragile environment, but what I try to cultivate in the studio is the idea that the realm of architecture extends far beyond the design of objects. Or, to put it more precisely, that design is about the creation of links and connections between places and people. It is a weaving process. The more links you establish the richer the environment you create is.
I like the metaphor of the plasticity of the brain (intelligence being the ability to create more connections). The more connections you create, the more intelligent your architecture is. Architecture is about the invention of intelligent places.
In a time when receiving an interesting commission is a privilege, I like students to leave the class with the firm belief that architecture is not just about building; it is also about highlighting environmental relations within their communities, about raising awareness through education, teaching and research, working in public services and administration, and, especially, it is about political involvement.
How do your built projects reflect your principles?
The easiest way to create relations is by means of visual connections. Framing a view through a window offers a vista of a site and sometimes connects to more complex layers of visual memory.
I like to tell my interpretation of a photo taken by my friend Gilbert Hage from the rooftop of the Hilton Hotel in Downtown Beirut. The photo captures what was supposed to be the highlight of that rooftop: the view of Sannine, the mountain dominating the port. Later, in a traveler’s hotel, I tried to recreate an archetypal vista depicted and reproduced in numerous Orientalist paintings and engravings. On that day, which was the end of works, the mountain was veiled, and the silos of the port, freshly painted in white, stood for the memory of the snow of Sannine.
A few years later, I took a photograph while at Al Mantara, a house I was rebuilding in the mountains. The photo was of the view of the snowy Jabal Ghaimoun – I didn’t know if I was looking for Sannine in my home village, or for my childhood mountain. The weaving of connections is a complex process that links layers of space, culture and personal memories.
One of your residential projects, Terrace House, received a lot of attention last year. Why do you think your work resonates with others so much?
My work puts forward a common concern shared by a large part of society and the professional body, and which is present in the production of many colleagues: the care for a more delicate relation to site conditions and a way of living that is closer to nature and less conspicuous.
I built Terrace House for my loving brother, who gave me total trust and freedom for the design and implementation of the project. I feel this confidence is reflected in the house and makes the work resonate in a more powerful manner.
Tell us about your work with Lebanon’s pavilion at the most previous Venice Architecture Biennale.
For the Lebanese pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, I had two objectives: first, I hoped to bring together the Lebanese architectural community, which is full of talent, to have a say on the international architectural discourse reflecting our country. Second, as the curator, I wanted to speak on what is at risk today, which, through the growing commodification of the land, is the possibility of architecture itself. And this is at risk unless we widen our horizons and take care of our territory, valuing it as our most precious and ultimate monument.
The exhibition featured a wooden model of a portion of Lebanon along with maps and photographs dating from 1957 to 2015, which showed the growth of Beirut and the complex and promising relation with its hinterland. ‘The Place That Remains’ is more than unbuilt land, it is the necessary place for hope.
What are you working on now?
I am preparing the re-edition of Lebanon’s pavilion, ‘The Place That Remains’, in Beirut. The exhibition will open on 27 November, 2019 in Beit Beirut in a slightly different format.
We are also starting important outreach work in collaboration with the Ministry of Education to bring school children to visit and interact with the exhibition in order to propose a more stimulating relation to the discipline of geography. Geography is more than a boring course of intermediate classes; it is the science that explains our relation to the land. We are also asking architects, planners, geographers and artists to create additional maps and content to be projected on the relief model as a matrix for numerous discourses.
Our Meet the Finalists series is a compilation of interviews with those who have been shortlisted for our awards. Hala Younes is a finalist for Tamayouz’s award for women in architecture and construction, which awards female architects from the Middle East and North Africa.