American University of Beirut

Joint urban design studio brings MSFEA together with MIT and Beijing’s Tsinghua University

​​​​​AUB-MIT-THU Joint Urban Design Studio | Spring Term 2021
Beirut-In-Flux: Trauma and Urban Form - Speculative Visions for Uncertain Futures

Instructors: Robert Saliba, Hana Alameddin, Ribal Aman Eddine (Teaching Assistant)


On August 4th, 2020 Beirut made international headlines after a blast ripped through the Lebanese capital, levelling countless buildings, taking over two hundred lives, and making it, once again, an unintentional laboratory of urban recovery.

For a city that previously witnessed multiple destructions and reconstructions – from the fifteen year civil war (1975–1990), to the air bombing of its southern suburbs (2006), among others –this blast presented itself as a new trauma added to the city's dystopic modern history, and a defining moment in the trajectory of its transformation. This is especially pertinent since the blast comes at a very critical time for a country battling an unprecedented economic crisis exacerbated by extreme political instability, and amid a global pandemic that has put into question the standard notions of time, city, public space and community.

This graduate urban design studio, which runs in parallel to MIT's Urban Design Studio — Beirut '21: Trauma Urbanism: Karantina and the derelict sea front and Tsinghua University's (THU) Graduate Urban Design studio, approaches Beirut as a site of permanent impermanency, where trauma is no more the exception but the rule, and where traumatic change is open to perpetual uncertainty. As such the city is conceptualized as an urban laboratory for speculative futures open to multiple imaginative scenarios bringing forward experimental thinking about the city and urban design.

Hence the studio engages the agency of urban design not in humanitarian, remedial and short opportunistic terms but as dynamic manipulation of urban form responding to successive and open waves of conflict and catastrophes. The purpose is to investigate urban form under trauma on its own terms identifying its vocabulary and syntax (morphologies of destruction), multiple narratives (dialectics of reconstruction) and diverse design tactics (magnification, catalysis, morphing, retrofitting…), bringing forward the emancipatory potential of traumatic urbanism, and engaging contemporary theories of urbanism ranging from architectural to infrastructural to ecological and landscape urbanism to formulate an speculative vision/fiction as a base for a holistic intervention.

During the first phase of the studio (Reading / Decoding the Post-Blast City), students worked on researching, dissecting and diagnosing the site in order to 1) ground the post-blast impact zone in its city's spatial and temporal contexts, and to 2) create a shared frame of reference and material across the joint urban design studios. This phase proceeded along different research tracks (Beirut as traumatic city, Beirut as fragmented city, Beirut as port city), bringing forward generic issues and contemporary theories of urban design, to investigate the 'morphologies of destruction' and 'dialectics of reconstruction' instigated by successive traumas and the resulting recoveries, the evolving identity of the city and the collective image held by its inhabitants, the changing role of its port and transport infrastructure in shaping urban form and spatial structure, etc.

Building on the above research, students from all three universities (AUB, MIT and THU) joined in mixed groups to articulate speculative visions for alternative futures of the city during the second phase of the studio (running March 2021), grounding their work in contemporary theories of urbanism and their implications on the traumatic urbanism. These visions will be translated during the third and final phase of the studio into urban design strategies and interventions that address the generic the issues of identity, infrastructure, ecology, open space and private development.

In parallel to the studio, three open lecture seminars were held, bringing guest lecturers from Delft (Carola Hein; Professor and head, History of Architecture and Urban Planning at TU Delft), Berlin (Laura Semak) and Beirut (Nadim Karam) together with AUB, MIT and THU faculty members and graduate students to share their experiences and research findings and start a conversation around urban trauma, recovery, and the potential role(s) of urban planning and design in the increasingly uncertain future of the post-traumatic city.

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