By Naji Assi & Toni Chakar

Rowaysset, A modern vernacular


The "Rowaysset Project" is an ongoing research and reflection process on architectural and urban issues that directly relate to Beirut in particular, and to any other city where the urbanization process imposes problematics that become unavoidable with time.

The origin of this work can be traced back to a collective university project on the topic of the 'vernacular' and its implications in the various fields of art. Students of the faculties of fine arts, graphic design, and architecture were invited to participate in the project within various workshops.

In architecture, the word vernacular usually relates to constructions of the past. In our workshop we tried on the contrary to approach the present time of the city of Beirut through investigations on one of its isolated northern suburbs: Rowaysset.

The French word vernaculaire describes a language in the process of construction, which we thought could relate to an architectural process. This meaning is not implied in the Arabic translations baladi or watani, which means local or national.

In their report on Rowaysset, five architecture students attempted to address the following questions:

1. Has the area of Rowaysset been able to develop an architectural language of its own that would allow us to apply the term vernaculaire to its constructions?

2. Are the known and 'traditional' methods of architectural drawing sufficient tools to record this language?


Located on Rowaysset's west entrance, on the intersection between street number one and Amhaz street, is the only multi storey building of the neighborhood typical of Beirut's 1940-1950's buildings found in abundance in areas like Furn-el Chebek, Basta, Ras Beirut.

The Quzah Building is composed of six floors and was originally built by its owners as a single family housing unit, one apartment for each child and an apartment for the parents. Today, its pattern of use changed and it now includes three stores, two warehouses (one of which is used as a housing unit) and eleven apartments on five floors.

This new distribution is unstable, in the sense that modifications may occur on the floors and within the apartments, as and when they are needed. What interests us is that despite all of these transformations the façade has remained unchanged in its appearance, still suggesting to the outside observer a repetitive floor. This contradiction between a conventional, stable exterior and a continuously shifting interior that veers to excess, even madness, is something that modern architecture (by which we mean the work of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and the European avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th Century) tried to avoid and even to fight against. But according to Rem Koolhaas, this contradiction has become a strategy in a city like New York, where the culture of congestion prevails. By this we mean the use of a single building for various, even contradictory purposes, some of which 'contaminate' the others creating a 'congestion' that results in the building's internal 'madness' .

The Politicization of Maps

Mapping an area like Rowaysset using the usual architectural drawing is impossible because such recording will omit the various actions that continuously redefine the shape of the area.

For example, when the students were surveying the Al-Salih house, they discovered a window in the reception room that had been blocked with concrete blocks and another one which had been opened up above, which allowed light and air to enter but prevented anyone looking in.

In architectural drawings, a 'window blocked with concrete blocks" is not part of the vocabulary and is difficult to draw. It has no apparent symbol. However, such an action is important since it indicates that an alteration has been made to the exterior of the dwelling, in this case, an improvised path which compelled the owners to modify their house's (private) relation with the outside (public).

The priorities of Reading

In light of this, the students had to develop symbols in order to translate and record the architectural language of Rowaysset as described above. These symbols had to derive all from a common logic, namely the relationship between what is fixed (plot boundaries and municipal roads) and what is not fixed (the houses with their additions and subtractions).

Within this framework, a decision was taken to draw everything that was stable in fine, dotted lines, while a thick continuous line was reserved for unstable and changing elements. This turned upside down the basic rules of architectural representation.

In Rowaysset, if we suppose that the wall is stable while the window is variable (or moveable); we are then forced to draw the wall in a thin line and the window in a thick black line.

This method of drawing would help the reader reach the essential, which is in the case of Rowaysset, what was constantly being transformed. This method of recording is also an attempt to ensure that social time , as opposed to mathematical duration, does not vanish in the esthetics of the perspective .

Stable and Unstable

Finally, the aim of this study has not been to find solutions to Rowaysset. Nor have we dealt with it as a problem area. This would be a presumptuous, even naive position to adopt, a reproduction of the situation in which the architect is the holder of all answers expressing a constant (almost pathological) need to create something from the supposed chaos he confronts. Many other areas around Beirut like Bourj Hammoud, Karm El Zaitoun, Hay El Sellom have similar social and spatial structures to those we encountered in Rowaysset and thus remain excluded from the urban and architectural debate because they contradict the esthetical paradigm underlying within Beirut's existing fabric.

This conception is not just the fault of architects but of an entire system of the academic education and social adaptation of a profession whose origins date to the Renaissance. The Rowaysset project was therefore an attempt to read and write not just for academic training but also for understanding. Perhaps it only produced a little knowledge. Most likely, this was not the result of our choice but was imposed upon us by Rowaysset itself. For who can stabilize an area that so believes in its own instability?

The infrequent sun.

The Quzah Building.

Rowaysset Site Plan