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Libyan Writer Ghoma

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Sunday, 15 July, 2007


By: Ghoma

The Quad: All the buildings are organised clearly with oversight
around the central park, - a green, quadrangular oasis.

        Dictatorship is a raw power. It abuses the power's sources and misuses its applications on daily basis. Therefore, it's the wrong authority to define what power is, and its time is the wrong time to plan and design the physical expressions to power's exercise. In normal times and circumstances, a large project such as the country's government's headquarters is an occasion for reflections on many things: the country's essence as well as the power itself: the sources of power, its distribution, and its exercise; the symbols, structure, and articulation of the power and its sources and their interrelationships, etc. It's an occasion for new concepts and paradigms to emerge, for both the Government and the City where it resides. What kind of power and how it's shared and articulated both vertically and horizontally; how it's concretized in institutions as both an embodiments of ideals and practicalities. What are the relationships between these institutions, that's, the legislative, executive, and the judiciary; and, how power is distributed between national, regional, and local levels. And what's the best to organize and run a government.

        What's the nature and future destiny of an Arab-Islamic-North-African city in the 21st-century and beyond? Is it a city of dominance and consumption or a city of free and productive citizens? Will government be an enabler to human creativity, or rather mere continues its role as an agent of abuses and misuses? In other words, it's a chance to open a debate between and among all sectors of society to chip in with whatever they can to define themselves, their country, and their government; and in the final analysis their cities and settlements. Qualifying their shared memory and concretizing their collective will. To ask the fundamental question: What brings them together. Libya has a chance to blaze the way toward defining some of the intricate problems of governments and cities.

        But, unfortunately even this time the government is a disappointment. It's stipulated, what it appears, a closed competition, among few international architectural offices to submit designs for its center in Tripoli without much ado or fanfare. Even the jury, seems, to have been picked with no one from outside Europe and USA. No Libyan, seems, to have been on it! Probably even the program has been prepared by other than Libyans. Who prepared this program and stipulated "a functional concept with a high level of design, as well as an architecture that inspires identity, representing both modern and tradition," has yet to be known? The input from Libyans, so far, seems, have been very little, if nay! Since even the "cultural consultant," retained by the German firm, which has won the competition, German too, was from Hamburg to boot! Very little seems to have to been given to the architects to go by, reason that they have cited the "National Economic Strategy, developed by Michael Porter, as source for the visualizing concept." No one knows ow a bunch of recommendations to open up the economy and to take advantages of the global market trends came to be taken to inspire "the visualization," of a government headquarters, as yet. But having USA's blessings and German endorsement was perhaps enough to inspire a design for government on the edge of the desert. Reason enough to exclude any input(s) from the place's sons and daughters?

        In 3-World, as usual, governments use expediency to justify their clumsy handling of major decisions. Take Libya's "Government District's " competition, one of the major capital projects in recent years, and, it seems, was put together so that the completion of its initial stages can meet an artificial deadline: the 40th anniversary of the coup d'etat! A project of such size and importance was made to be a bauble for the regime's silly propagandistic show-offs! Initial estimates of its costs range between $3.4 and $ 4.1 billions, and its final cost will only be known by God and His shadow's on earth. In the best scenario, the final costs will end two to three times the initial estimates, if Libya will be lucky enough to manage the tender bids for the construction ably and wisely; otherwise, and in the worst scenario, the project will be another sinkhole where money -and with it, corruptions- disappears before it was even counted.

        It took New York City few years, and some people think were not enough, to come close to some sort of a plan for the design and how to re-use the few acres, the site of the doomed World Trade Center (WTC), again. A project, in place of the Twin Towers, with far less importance and impact on the city and the nation at large than a Government Center for a national government. And this is in a nation, such as America, with jittery tempers and restless souls! Not some sleepy boondocks, like Libya. Tripoli City deserves better! It's deep roots and one of the oldest existing cities on the planet. With Tripoli, the whole country will feel the pain and with it will suffer the impact of this behemoth for the years to come - this, notwithstanding the architects' nice label of "Tripoli Greens!" Not least, for the haste with which this project was undertaken and put together but more so for the lack of what such a project requires and entails: Libya's participation.

        There're at least three levels to such a project, for a country as Libya, (lacking in experts and experience) each should have been handled separately and debated sufficiently before going to next stages. They're: Planning, Urban Design, and Architecture stages. Planning has to do with both the notion and mechanics of power and the overall idea of the city: How government will be structured and organized and what sort of city Tripoli will be in the 21st century? How Tripoli will relate to it surroundings and what will be its regional and its national roles? Such questions have to be defined within the overall goals and objectives of development for the country as a whole, and for each region, city, and locality roles within the scheme of things. Will Tripoli be only an administrative town? Or will it be more than that, say, a financial-industrial-distributional and educational major pole in the country?

        When such meta-theoretical, political-economic and cultural questions have been posed, and hopefully some answers were tempted. Then other series of questions will pop up to be thought about. What will be the pattern of land-use and economic activities in the Tripoli region? Mixed, uniformly distributed or separated and dispersed ? Will the area surrounding it be still the supplier to its agricultural needs, produce and vegetables, or these will be sought from somewhere else? Thus: Is it going to be a linear city hugging the littoral or a concentric city expanding into its southern hinterland, that's, which axis to be emphasized the north-south or the east-west, or vertically? Then others series of questions have to be looked at, searched, and decisions about them reached. An extensive, horizontal, or rather high-density medium verticality type city? A mumbo-jumbo capitalist city or some other perhaps less tried scheme, as Islamic-communitarian, neighborhood-structured, mixed-use patterned, less disparity-oriented and evenly articulated type of urbanization, that's, a city true to its heritage and the culture of its inhabitants? Whatever they're, they need to be found and made operational.

        Anyways, land-use and transportation modes have to be settled, first. If the city is going to have sub-surface, subway, and other above surface mass-transit systems; if that's the case, then wouldn't it be better to think between one district vs. many small nodes? That's instead of concentrating the administrative activity in one spot to be distributed among other city activities in pockets. The choice is between concentrated zones -where the nightmare of traffic congestion will require vast amounts of roads, parking, and other open spaces in an environment which requires smaller spaces with plenty of shade- or dispersed mini-centers. In other words why pull the underbelly of the city towards south and build a city within the city when you can use the existing city as a scaffolding and the grid upon which to extend the frameworks of the activities that have some compatibilities among them, in some sort of traditional Middle-eastern-north-African articulations?

        The planning stage must be followed by an extensive study of the urban design patterns not only of the proposed project, but most importantly of the whole where the new will fit into the existing. The question: Is it going to be a city of courtyards -open-closed types- well-proportioned squares, parks (big and small), to avoid direct sun and seek more shad - as Cerda (1859) in his plan for Barcelona, and which is still conditioning that city's development- or some new-wave, of badly Westernized model of an American-Asian version in their crazed obsession with spikes and city-scape profiles rather than the overall layout? Where will tradition and the desert fit in all of this?

        As to architecture, Brazilia (Oscar Niemyer, Brazil) -to which the winners have directly referred - or that of Chandigarh (Le Corbusier, Punjab, India); Dacca ( Louis Kahn, Bangladesh) [there're also, Islamabad, Pakistan; Abuja, Nigeria; Canberra, Australia, etc.]; all these cities, it's true had been planned in one shot, but those were different times. They'd been thought about, designed, and built under different circumstances, and with different expectations. The assumptions that underpinned these cities have already proved untenable and the paradigms were no less utopian, though all had an idea and some concepts to go by for their planning and designs, their method is still followed! They'd one peculiarity, they all were designed ex-novo, from scratch, settlements; and none was located in the desert. Thus, their designs carried little resemblance and utility to a Mediterranean city on the edge of the Great Sahara. Today, each city has its own problems and not one is a complete success by any stretch of the imagination. To still imitate the method, only God, or those with as much big ego will accept to take upon themselves the planning and design of a whole city at one shot, with possible millions of future inhabitants still unknown! History aside, O. Niemyer, Le Corbusier, L. Kahn, etc. were all products of fervent times, after WWII, of hope and optimism, when reason and industry were thought will meet human aspirations and to ultimately will dictate human behaviors. The project of Enlightenment had proven illusive and thus Post-modern-modernism has replaced optimism and collective harmony with prima-donna show-offs culture of consumption where individuals were left to fend for themselves, subject only to their presumed destinies. The result, architecture had long stopped to partake of human suffering and in recent years has accepted a less ambitious and more modest roles. The temporal, vanishing, and surface-deep expressions- a la celebrated Las Vegas or Disney Worlds'- came to replace former commitments to the social-oriented programs as the pioneering generation did.

        The ideal, and is still possible, first to define the symbolic, if not actual relation of the 3-expressions of power: the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. The combination of these and out of their interlocking, will come out the physical articulation, as the L-shaped Mall of Washington, D.C., where two axes, of the legislative and the executive, met in the abstract symbol of the Republic, Washington Monument... Instead, in the Libyan case, the lack of definition can be seen from the ambiguous articulation of the North-South axis, a bulge that will the city to go south literally and figuratively! The scheme started with Religion (mosque, not shown[?]) and ended with the Parliament building! However the most dominant and can be said to define the southern end of the axis is the 5-star hotel and conference center (the highest building, 140 meters!]. the intent seems, to be, God's House on one end and People's House on the other, but as ironic as it's, somewhere, between God and Mammoth instead, will come to reside the government of Libya!

        The reasonable thing to think about, there's no reason to concentrate the various ministers in one place. After being stripped down to their necessary minimum each ministry should be located where it'll be more accessible to its users and the public. Putting all, one beside the other, will be quite a task to even meet the challenges to control the access and safety of a continuous and large flow of humanity on daily basis.

        Once the major decisions regarding planning (programming) and urban design have been satisfactorily made, then things become a bit easier and clearer to handle. In such a case planning and urban design stages become the defining moments and framers to architecture's clipped role. Each building, say ministry, would be considered, sui generis, and handled on its own, i.e., given in a competition by itself and managed by a different team .Richness in variety theme-park kind of thing.

        What about the architecture of this project? It's still too early to make judgments on. From the model isn't encouraging. The iconic reference here, seems, to have been, either Brazilia, or Le Corbusier, or the emptiness of the desert, but for all practical purposes, perhaps the image of the cemetery, in its Western version, comes closest to mind, with its well-organized, and well-aligned graves in neat rows ending in the headstone(the hotel); which also resonates well, and recalls, another living counterpart to the cemetery, with similar likenesses, obsession with order, symmetry, uniformity, and discipline, that's, the Army with its habitual of well- uniformed and groomed rows of soldiers! Putting two rows of huge complex buildings -at a distance of one kilometer from each other[?] -a linear city- with a "central park," a la New York city! perhaps appealing and looks nice in a small scale model, but when imagined in real life with the Ghibly blowing and Bu-M3erga running around in his/her clunker, and when none of the green parterres is realized, and the lakes -actually ponds- are dry; and, the palm trees -wrong for the shade and sand, nice only for model production! are shaking and bowing, one can have an idea of the nightmare which will be created if such designs ever come to fruition.

        It's also ironic for a country looking for self-affirmation and identity to ask an architectural office which, in one of their short essays, "Ambiguous Space," its designers stated: "Architecture is required to do nothing more than generate 'neutral individuality' for the building and must not come into conflict with any new plans for the space that may be dreamt up in the future. The buildings are stripped of semantics, their facades non-graphical and their interior spaces empty." [They sound as pure Teutonic or actual penitent Germans, who, redeemed themselves by stripping down from their early 20th century identities, to become slick-willies of an 21st century economic engine and first country in Europe]. Such statements reminds one of the Bauhaus manifestoes, of early 20th-century, than today's world with much more complex demands. Walter Gropius, et al. Had produced their minimum dwelling units and programs, in Frankfurt and Berlin, and had stacked them into those anonymous 20th-century's tenements? Some of which perhaps were successful, but others had certainly come far short of their stated goals of solving the housing shortages; and to boot, mitigate the industrial city's alienations. Rather, much more likely, they've been suppressing workers' basic yearnings for dwellings of their own desires and tastes. "Universal space" and "neutral individuality" may be the answer to an well-fed yet alienated, disappointed, and pessimistic post-industrial worker in a knowledge driven economies, but certainly will do very little to bolster the spirits of an half-famished, depressed and oppressed individual in a post-colonial state! The stripped semantics, non-graphical, and empty interior spaces will only be added to an already great amount of accumulated disorientations and frustrations of a degraded humanity, stripped of meaningful citizenship and without rights to care for. One hopes that these guys have not yet designed, or will be also commissioned to design the buildings as shells privy of any contents, as if they were stores to be filled, on demand, with whatever goods available. This, should happen when the users are known quantities, though lacking in the qualitative definitions to go by. No semantics and no graphics will emphasize the desertic aspects of the country, or rather its lack of any pre-existing architectural and otherwise vocabulary that would lend orientation to the design to seek and form some sort language to speak to the alienated .masses.

        The project, with all its acrobatics of high-tech "Energy Farm," is short on where it counts: Ideas and Concepts! It's a very utilitarian scheme. By starting the axis with a mosque (north) and blocking the end with modest parliament building but more virile hotel building on the southern side, is an indication and a sign that the designers had nothing to go by in defining the physical embodiments of the variables and parameters of power and administration. That comes as no surprise either! In a place where the head of the state is paranoid nutcase, with his safety, hopping from one place to the next on daily basis, -not to talk about entertaining his visitors in a million-plus Tent- is certainly far from the ability to give direction to a project dealing power and administration ; and, which, he constantly trampled on and he still scorns on daily basis.

        If anything differently is going to take place, Libyans have to wake up and start defining who are they? And what kind of government and how far they it wanted it to interfere in the management of their daily affairs? In order to plan and design meaningful physical environment that will meet their aspirations, Libyans have also to take into considerations all the other aspects of human activities; which also need to be also clarified and defined. This project should be seen as initial step toward that clarification. Other competitions soliciting ideas should be held, open to Libyans and Arabs, as well as all others. From these, a group of mature and experienced architects and other professionals, after sifting through the projects, will come up with a set of ideas and guidelines. The emerging parameters and criteria will not only define what sort of government, whether "Quad" or zig-zag, Libya wants, needs, and no less, deserves; but also will constitute the bases of the design . Only then a competition can be held to finalize and concretize the embodiment of such a collective will.


More Articles Written By Ghoma

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