Like the village wise man, Hashim Sarkis has a knack for making the counterintuitive intuitive, which accounts for some of his success meeting the needs of his buildings’ users—among them farmers, fishermen, and child workers—who often depend less on formal education than on their keen observation, close relationship to the environment, and common sense in their daily lives.
“Thinking about space helps us to imagine certain political, social, and economic circumstances and situations,” says the Lebanese-born Sarkis, who is Aga Khan Professor of Landscape Architecture and Urbanism in Muslim Societies at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and principal of his own firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Whether creating a new Gulf Arab city or a subsidized housing project on the outskirts of a rural town, for Sarkis the process of learning about a community and of designing for it are intertwined. “It’s not possible for us to imagine what their community is without building a building,” he says.
The fishermen’s housing project in the ancient port city of Tyre in south Lebanon was the first of several commissions from Lebanese civil society organizations that he has tackled. Others include a cooperative olive-oil press, an agricultural center, a school for working children, and a public library branch.
Because of Tyre’s rich archaeological history, the city was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in the late 1990s. This meant that local fishermen were not permitted to add onto their homes, which were located within the boundaries of the historic site, as their families expanded.
Sarkis was in the country at the time working on the Beirut souks project with Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, when he was approached by a friend, the head of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) funding the fishermen’s project, to propose a design for new housing or the fishermen’s extended families in a radish field donated by the Greek Orthodox Church outside the heritage site. His challenge was obvious: How do you create modern apartments that feel like home for a community that has lived for generations in traditional houses by the sea?
Working against the notion dating from the 1960s that social architecture lacks “continuity with formal explorations,” Sarkis was convinced that you can “empower people through design.” He tailored each corner of the housing complex to respond differently to the adjacent sites, a hodge-podge of uninspired, unregulated construction that rose during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. The interior courtyard—a common feature of many of Sarkis’s projects—provides an oasis of greenery and cool breezes, and a gathering place for residents.
The 84 units were designed with various configurations, a feature Sarkis favored despite the initial objections of the future tenants, who feared that this would create unwanted competition. Over the course of several conversations with them, Sarkis reasoned that, because some apartments were duplexes, some had roof access, and others ground-level gardens, to be truly equal, they had to be different. The prospective tenants found this acceptable, seeing that each unit would have something special.
The housing commission led naturally to projects with other NGOs in Lebanon, who often partner to pool resources. And while Sarkis acknowledges that “there is a bit of altruism in all of us,” he admits that his conscience isn’t necessarily what motivates him to take these assignments. “What private clients would come up with these kinds of projects?” he asks, his enthusiasm evident. They provide “freedoms at certain levels that are not usual in architectural projects,” such as dealing with unique programs; having a say in site selection, phasing, and other aspects that are typically predetermined; and working with first-time clients to achieve “self-expression through the architecture.”
One of his latest commissions will help develop an area of the Lebanese capital that few see. A branch library devoted to travel and the Mediterranean Sea will be located in Hamra, Beirut’s most vibrant and diverse district, and will bring together books and readers in a city that would benefit from higher concentrations of both.
To comply with requirements for two means of egress and handicap access on the 4,844-square-foot wedge of a site, Sarkis configured the book stacks along a ramp that wends back and forth. The peripheral incline and central atrium are illuminated by a skylight and a band of glass that wraps around the building—“scores the pigmented concrete facade,” as Sarkis says—getting more expansive in areas where light is wanted and narrowing where books are stored. A rooftop café will afford views across the city to the sea.
Sarkis pores over these projects with love, but confesses that if they were all he did, there would be no practice: “I play a bit of Robin Hood with my other clients.” In the meantime, like many in Lebanon these days, he makes ends meet by “looking for the necessary” and “trying to achieve the most with what is available.”
The facade of the fishermen’s residence was in fact supposed to have a different finish—either stone and stucco or stencil on stucco—instead of the bold blue, red, yellow, and orange pigments it now displays. The colorful exterior, unusual for Beirut, was inspired by the contractor, who told Sarkis at the end of the project that with the money left in the budget for the facade, “We could buy a bucket of paint.”