City Debates : Re-Conceptualizing Boundaries: Urban Design in the Arab World

Les conférences City Debates de l’AUB (Université américaine de Beyrouth) sont devenues des rendez vous importants de la recherche urbaine au Liban et plus largement au Moyen-Orient. Voici l’argumentaire et le programme de cette nouvelle session, qui a lieu les 3 et 4 mai. Plus d’information sur les participants et les résumés de leurs interventions en suivant ce lien.

CONCEPT NOTE

The title of City Debates 2012 embodies two problematic and promising concepts:

“urban design” and the “Arab World.” The first designates, “a [young] discipline that has been unable to develop any substantial theory on its own” (Cuthbert, 2003, viii); and the second an elusive term,  geographically, politically, and ethnically. Despite these qualifications,  urban  design  is  a  lively  and  strong  emerging  discipline  profoundly anchored in professional practice, real world projects, and future visions. On the other hand, the “Arab World” despite its geographical ambiguity, is an emblematic term profoundly engrained in common parlance, academic discourse, and media diffusion, that generally brings images of a region rampant with constructed and elusive national identities, overwhelming wealth and poverty, religious mix; and most recently the “Arab uprisings,”  a  bottom-up  revolution  shaking  the  foundations  of  centralist  decision- making.  Hence, the Arab World is a prime territory for questioning urban design as a discipline in flux, due to its abundance of sites of memory, sites of worship, sites of conflict, sites of contestation, and sites of globalization. Such diversity invites a multiplicity of opportunities for, and practice in shaping, upgrading, and rebuilding urban form and civic space while subjecting global paradigms to regional and local realities.

City Debates 2012 is also about urban designers “on the margins”, and how they narrate their cities, how they engage with their discipline, and how they negotiate their distance “away  from”  and  “in  reference  to”  global  disciplinary  trends.  As  such,  the  term “margins” implies three complementary  connotations: on the global level, it invites speculation  on  how  contemporary  urban  design  is  being   impacted  by  the  new conceptualizations of center-periphery originating from the post-colonial discourse; on the regional level, it is a speculation on the specificity of urban design thinking and practice within a particular geographical context, here the Arab World; and finally on the local level it is an attestation to a major shift in urban design focus from city centers to their “margins” with unchecked suburban growth, left over spaces, and informal development.

> Framing the Debate

The discourse about urban design in the Arab World may take two distinct paths; either a  geographically-based discourse comparing sites and cities along the same lines of inquiry;  or  an  issue-based  discourse  designed  around  paradigms  and  perspectives pertaining to theory and praxis. City Debates 2012, will emphasize the latter approach, and will focus on four aspects of urban design thinking: the regional, the holistic, the operational, and the visionary. Such constructs intersect with sites and practices and bring forward urban design issues of ideology and context.

Section I. The Regional: Re-Conceptualizing the Boundaries between Local and Global

This track investigates how “design networks” have been instrumental in propagating and generating an  autonomous discourse on “the margins” by increasing the fluidity of the exchange of ideas and concepts  and by creating an open, dynamic, and reactive regional dialogue. Here, urban design is conceived of as a  catalyst for change, as a channel for importing and domesticating models, creating regional paradigms, and interrogating mutual perceptions between international and local practitioners. This interface between the local and  the  global  has  operational  mechanisms  that  encompass  awards,  competitions, consultations,  conferences, web sites, publications, and joint design studios. Two questions emerge: How are  such design networks promoting replication, collage, hybridization, and innovation? And is there an  emerging “geography of design exchange” with its regional centers  and  peripheries,  its  own  instruments  of  regionalization  and  an  autonomous discourse(s)?

Section II. The Hybrid: Blurring Boundaries between Design Disciplines

The interlocking disciplines of architecture, urban design, and physical planning are being challenged in  their ways of thinking about and shaping city space by new patterns of physical urbanization and growing environmental concerns. Emerging disciplines such as ecological landscape design and landscape  urbanism are providing alternative means for conceptualization that stress ecology over morphology; network surface over urban form; and the confluence of architecture, landscape, city, and infrastructure. These dynamic and integrated visions are emphasizing the holistic and the interdisciplinary, while widening  the scope of design investigation. Concurrently, attempts at grounding urban design theory in the social  sciences are leading to a new understanding of urban space, locating it at the intersection of social theory,  human geography, and cultural studies. To what extent has urban design in the region kept pace with  these  changing paradigms, and how far does contemporary urban design theory account for regional specificities?

Section III. The Operational: Bridging Boundaries between Research and Practice

As a  profession-oriented discipline, urban design defines itself through operational research and reflective practice.  With  the waning of modernism, design research retracted from the universal to focus on to the  regional  and the local; and expanded its scope from the morphological to the ecological, communal, and speculative. Practice itself acquired an evaluative edge with the increasing accountability of the designer to the community and the market and the mounting public expectations with regard to sustainability and participation. How is urban design “on the margins”  responding to these global challenges? How is recent design-based research reflective of paradigmatic shifts in urban design thinking? And is there an active engagement between urban design research and professional practice?

Section IV. The Visionary: Crossing Boundaries between the Utopian and the Real Urban design as project has always been a mediator between idealized pasts and idealizing futures  and  a  channel  for  importing  and  domesticating  modernity.  For  the  past  two decades, the image of the Middle Eastern city has wavered in the public and professional imaginary between two extremes: the global hub and the postwar city, the first exemplified by  Dubai  and  the  second  by  Beirut.  Between  the  two,  a  vast  extent  of  intermediate landscapes from suburban informal settlements, to metropolitan new towns and expanding holy cities exist. What are the underlying dialectics that connect and differentiate these diversified landscapes? Are the margins still a colonial testing ground for the ideals of the center or just a market for  overused and discarded ideas and concepts? How are the dreams of globalization being subjected to an emerging “new political consciousness” and to the immediacy of the here and now?


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