City Debates 2018: Charting future directions for architects and urbanists

​Safa Jafari Safa, Office of Communications, ss152@aub.edu.lb​​​ ​​​


The Masters in Urban Planning and Policy (MUPP) and Masters in Urban Design (MUD) programs at AUB’s Maroun Semaan Faculty of Engineering held their annual conference to explore various themes of contemporary relevance to the urbanization of the region, City Debates 2018​. Over three days, students, faculty, alumni, and professionals in a variety of related fields engaged in pertinent and thought-provoking, practical and academic discussions on emerging practices transforming the cities and regions of the Middle East. 

The theme for this year, “Architecture-as-urbanism, agenda for the new millennium,” investigated the adaptive processes of design education to paradigmatic changes in design theory and practice located at the critical juncture of the architectural and the urban.  Initiated in 2002, City Debates brings in experts who have contributed to questioning their fields and who have crossed disciplinary boundaries, and encourages dialogues that take stock of the recent past and chart future directions for new generations of architects and urbanists. It offers students space to present their research and participate in selected panels with professionals in the private and public sectors to discuss opportunities for practice in the field. 

The conference coincided this year with the 50th anniversary of the Bachelor of Architecture (BArch) program at the Department of Architecture and Design (ArD), and is the first of a series of events that mark the anniversary. The celebratory events will also include an exhibition, party for alumni in June 2018, academic conference, anniversary book, and gala dinner unfolding in fall 2018. 

“In 1963, the AUB School of Engineering introduced a five-year program leading to the degree of bachelor of architecture,” said Dr. Robert Saliba, ​professor of architecture, urban design, and planning who organized City Debates 2018. “Twenty students were enrolled in October 1963 and 10 graduated in 1968. To date, approximately 990 architecture students have earned BArch degrees from AUB including distinguished alumni who achieved renowned recognition locally and internationally with contributions to forwarding creative thinking.”

The conference offered an opportunity to assess the department’s modes of response to the evolving dynamics of design culture and its attempts at repositioning itself at the crossroads of the global, the regional, and the local. It identified five areas of discussion around the central theme of ‘architecture-as-urbanism’ that aimed to build a comprehensive agenda responsive to existing and emerging urban conditions: the formal agenda, the social agenda, the digital agenda, the ecological agenda, an​d the pedagogical agenda.

For the first time, two panels were set for speakers from ArD and the Department of Landscape Design and Ecosystem Management (LDEM), in addition to space allowed for both graduate and undergraduate students to present their research and participate in selected panels. 
“I’m both impressed and terrifically humbled by what I’ve seen in the last few days,” said Dr. Dana Cuff, professor of architecture and urban design at the University of California and director of CityLAB, an award-winning think tank that explores design innovations in the emerging metropolis. “Impressed with the intelligence of the students and the amazing vitality of the city and humbled by the scale of the problems that you deal with in studios here… you have some profound problems and solutions in front of you.” 

Cuff was keynote speaker at the conference opening and demonstrated in her presentation that architecture can provide generative solutions for significant challenges facing cities. She argued that the dominant condition in major cities today resists urban plans in favor of architecture that is at once customized infill and prototypical increment, and that shifting political grounds place new responsibility on design interventions to shape a more humane, more just daily life. 

Other keynote speakers were award-winning, international experts in sustainable development, architecture, urban planning, and design: Jorge Mario Jáuregui of Jorge Mario Jáuregui Architects; Philippe Madec of Atelier Philippe Madec; Antoine Chaaya of the Renzo Piano Workshop; and Adrian Lahoud from the School of Architecture, Royal College of Art London.
The conference also included three panels and two roundtable discussion tackling the five set agendas. Outside the conference sessions, the participants were offered guided tours and presentations on the history of Beirut and the Beirut Central District, in addition to a dinner that concluded the conference.

“Through fora like City Debates, these faculty and students have consistently advocated for more livable, sustainable, and equitable cities. They have illustrated their feasibility with concrete and creative proposals that they make and translate to the general public,” said Dean Alan Shihadeh. “They do this while speaking critically to the literature, helping shape the disciplinary sphere that speaks to urban planning in the Global South. We are very proud of this program.”