Architecture students set out to rebuild village of tolerance



By Hannah Wettig


Learning how Druze and Christians avoid meeting each other in the mountain village of Salima was one of the tasks a group of French architecture students recently mastered.

“Without the children we would have never known,” said Julien Maillot from Paris. “While the adults were hesitant to talk about any tensions, the children told us where their parents had prohibited them to play.”

Wednesday ended a 10 day workshop on reinventing public space in the mountain village near Baabdath, organized by the French international organization Patrimoine sans Frontiere (Inheritance without Borders). In the village school, 14 architecture students from France and four from Tripoli presented their projects. They focused on the landscape of the village and ideas they had developed on how public space can be used mutually by inhabitants of different confessions. Reconciliation, but also the preservation of ancient buildings, was the aim of the French organizers.

Druze and Christians once inhabited Salima in equal proportions. But during the civil war most Christians left, “mainly because they had more money, so they could move to Beirut,” explained Cedric Lombard, a student from Marseille. Now about 80 percent of the village population is Druze. The Christians are moving back and rebuilding their destroyed houses, but it’s a slow process, and hostilities between the communities remain high.

French students Maillot and Lombard worked with Fouad Hassanein from Tripoli to develop a plan for a youth center ­ to be located intentionally across from the village school. The first step in their research was to inquire in interviews which space was used by whom. As a result, on their drawings the village is divided into red and blue zones. The colors represent the confessions. The ruins of an old house across from the school were decided to be a good location to have children of the different confessions meet, because it stands at one of the few places frequented by both Druze and Christian villagers.

It is not certain which, if any, of the plans will be realized, however. “We hope so, but we don’t believe there will be money,” said Lombard.

It would have to be financed by the government, insisted Hassanein. “If individuals sponsor it, it will be associated with their confession,” he said. “It won’t be neutral space anymore.”

Patrimoine sans Frontiere and the Institute of French Architecture raised $40,000 to support the workshop in Salima. However, this money will not be used to realize the ideas of the students, explained Waldemar Faddoul, one of the workshop’s organizers. The money was used to organize this workshop, and the ones to come. “As a first step we just wanted to create activity in the public space,” says Faddoul, a Lebanese currently studying architecture in France.

Apart from the students’ projects, the 10 day program included exhibitions, concerts and films that were shown in the central square of the village. Patrimoine sans Frontiere also invited the bibliobus ­ a library van full of children’s books that moves from village to village ­ to park for the time of the workshops in the center of the village. “We offered a program for all generations,” said Faddoul. “It’s a great success that the events attracted both Christians and Druze.”

In the coming years Faddoul is planning for more workshops. Maybe some of the architecture students in next year’s program will be able to continue the ideas that were developed in this workshop. Maybe some day they will be realized. “We hope to raise more money in France,” said Faddoul. “But it also depends on how the population reacts to our approach.”

According to Lombard, Hassanein and Maillot, the village’s residents welcomed the students and their ideas. “They were so helpful, drove us places we needed to see, brought us lunch and invited us to coffee all the time,” said Maillot.

Experiencing Lebanese hospitality was one of the high points of their visit, the French students insisted, but they were also thankful that they learned about Lebanese culture by working with Lebanese students. “We often had different approaches,” recalled Maillot. “So we had to explain very precisely where we are coming from in order to work out the differences.”

They gave their proposal for a youth center as an example. While Maillot and Lombard wanted to tear down the old house and build a new youth center, which would probably cost less, Hassanein insisted on preserving the building. “We have so few old buildings in Lebanon,” he explained.

For the student from Tripoli, the 10 days in the mountain village were a cultural experience as well. “I would have never imagined,” he said, “that tensions are still so high here.”