The White Pavilions of Interwar Beirut

Migration and Modernity

Migrating communities as a burden for the host societies? Beirut tends to prove that migration can sometimes offer a rather challenging context for regeneration and innovation, both for the host societies and the migrants.


bauhaus now

This article is from the first issue of the magazine  ”bauhaus now”. 

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In the wake of the First World War, Lebanon and Syria, then under French Mandate, received impor- tant waves of Armenian refugees that settled in cities like Beirut, Aleppo, or Alexandretta. In 1923, these refugees were allowed to acquire the citizenship of their host countries. In Lebanon, this was the start of a successful integration of the Armenian community into the rather complex ethnoreligious mosaic that defines until today not only the religious and social but also the political and economical life of the country.

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The arrival of the Armenians coincided with the introduction of the concepts of modern architecture and urbanism to Beirut. Indeed, the city that had been chosen to be the capital of a new nation state witnessed an important construction boom that inaugurated a very prolific and eclectic period in architecture in which new concepts and ideas, as well as new materials and building techniques, were experimented with. Beyond architecture, modernity was bringing to Beirut a new way of dealing with the daunting legacy of world wars and crises that the region was facing at that time.

Modern European humanitarianism was born and was meant to be trialled first in the Middle East. It relied on secular intergovernmental institutions that sought to accompany, if not replace, the missionarybased welfare that the West practiced in the region before. Modern architecture was one of the means of this modern humanitarianism. Which role did these two facets of modernity play in the integration of the Armenian community in Beirut and to which extent did they contribute to its success?


From Refugees to Citizens

When the Armenian refugees arrived in Beirut in the wake of the Armenian Genocide, the city was still recovering from the wounds of the war. A third of the city’s population had died from starvation and entire villages around it were empty. In 1922, 35,000 refugees were living in Beirut, 8,000 of which in camps built near the city’s lazaretto. In 1926, the number of refugees in the camps reached 12,000.

Dr Joseph Rustom (Beirut) is an architect and scholar at Houshamadyan, a project to reconstruct Ottoman Armenian town and village life.

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Gradually, the tents went replaced by huts, constructed with wooden crates and tin. French military barracks, namely the famous Baraques Adrian, were recycled as places of worship, schools, and dispensaries. Internal trade quickly ourished in the quarters of the camps that adopted the names of the lost hometowns (Adana, Sis, Hadjin, Marash, etc.). Furthermore, the reconstruction of Beirut after the war as well as its promotion to a capital of a new nation state offered the refugees excellent work opportunities that they quickly took profit from.

Despite the hostility of the population towards the competing Armenian labor, the city’s notability approved and encouraged the work of the migrant newcomers. Quickly Armenians reached high positions in the newly created state institutions. Others participated in the flourishing literature and arts scene. An important factor played a crucial role in the integration of the Armenian community: their religious belonging. As Lebanon was destined by the French to be a country ruled by the Christians, the Armenian presence numerically consolidated this choice.

With the Lausanne treaty of 1923, which allowed refugees to acquire Lebanese citizenship, the presence of the Armenian migrants in Lebanon was to become permanent. This new status necessitated a new geographical and territorial organization of their life in the country. Keen on applying modern “functionalist” concepts, the French authorities distributed the refugees according to their social rank and competencies. The farmers were sent to rural areas while liberal professionals, traders, and craftsmen were kept in the city. The results of this policy were disastrous as the regional ties among the refugees were much stronger than the professional ties. They were therefore allowed to remain grouped according to their geographical origin and new residential quarters were planned for them.

The Limits of Modernity

The construction of the new quarters was a complex operation that included several protagonists: international institutions like the League of Nations’ International Labor Organization and High-Commissioner for Refugees, the French mandate authorities, the Lebanese government, and numerous local and international Armenian charitable organizations. Between 1927 and 1930, several plots were bought outside the city, where land was cheap, and the construction of the quarters was launched. Interestingly enough, only individuals who were able to reimburse the price of the land and the construction materials through monthly payments were eligible for the new housing. Through this policy the French authorities sought to empower the refugees by giving them the means to acquire their own homes instead of simply offering them shelter.

From the choice of their location to floorplans and materials, the new quarters were conceived according to the hygienic criteria of modern urban planning. Access to light, air, and sun was considered essential to insure a healthy environment for the new residents. For instance, the quarter of the White Pavilions, shown here, consisted of 20 pavilions of reinforced concrete, each containing eight housing units. Each housing unit had two rooms, a kitchen, and a restroom. Reinforced concrete as well as mass-production and pre-fabrication building techniques were considered essential to achieve the goals of this architecture.

While French o cials and European humanitarians praised the new settlements, the reception of the new housing units by the refugees seems to have been less positive. The strictly residential quarters were far from meeting all the refugees’ needs in comparison with the lively camps and, while their location on a hill o ered more sun and air, they were remote from the main commercial arteries of the city where the camps were located. The hill actually o ered too much sun and the reinforced concrete did not o er suf- ficient protection from its heat. The refugees therefore built traditional wooden structures on the top of their dwellings in which they spent most of the spring and summer to escape the overheated concrete structures.

New Homes through Old Ornaments

Around 1929, the number of Armenian refugees in Lebanon had reached 40,000, with a big majo ity of them living in Beirut. Quickly, the e ects of the world economic crisis of 1929 reached the Middle East, provoking an important decrease in the international aid funds. A new phase of the construction of the Armenian refugee quarters was to begin, established on international Armenian solidarity. The plots for these new quarters were chosen on swamps that required draining but were located along main national arteries. Funding was insured through Armenian international networks of solidarity.

Called Patriotic Unions, these networks gathered the former co-citizens of the same Armenian town. Bound together by civic solidarity, they organized the construction of new quarters that took the names of their lost hometowns. The housing units were conceived by the refugees themselves and discussed with the French and Lebanese authorities in a procedure that strongly resembles what today we would call participatory design.

Solidarity instead of Welfare

The urban expansion that Beirut witnessed during its golden years in the 1950s and 1970s as well as the savage urbanism of the war and post war periods, led to the de facto integration of the Armenian quarters into the city. Because of their particular urban and social structures, these quarters were nevertheless surrounded but not swallowed. Indeed, a quarter like Bourj Hammoud, Beirut’s Little Armenia, still boasts today its Armenian origins despite several waves of Armenian migrations to Soviet Armenia in the fifties and to Europe and North America during the Lebanon war (1975– 1990). Furthermore, today the Armenians take part in the Lebanese consociational system of government that allocates political power among the religious communities according to fixed ratios. In the Lebanese Parliament, six seats are assigned to them and Bourj Hammoud is one of their major electoral constituencies.

Looking back at the century that separates the arrival of the Armenian refugees to Beirut in the 1920s to their successful integration in today’s Beiruti society, several reasons could explain this success, on top of which the autonomy that was granted to them to organize several aspects of their life in the city. Having lived for centuries as a recognized minority under the Ottoman rule (1516–1918), the Armenians were also used to taking care of themselves instead of depending on the welfare state. Furthermore, they were driven to do so by the local authorities that did not label them with reliance or passivity and encouraged them to integrate all the spheres of public life. The strong local and international networks of solidarity built by the refugees and among them also played an important role in reconstructing their lives. These networks were not considered as a threat to the state but rather as one of its multiple partners.

Modernity’s Success and Failure

Did the fact that the refugees were the co-religionists of the French and the Lebanese Christians play a role in their integration? To a large extent it did. Nevertheless, in their “divide and conquer” politics in Lebanon, the French were also keen on transforming the Armenian community into yet another minority that needed their protection. By doing this, the French were partly betraying the noble principles that animated nascent modern humanitarianism in Europe, at least as it was conceived and preached by the western secular intergovernmental institutions.

Did modernity with its multiple facets participate in the integration of the Armenian community? It seems that it did twice: by its partial success and its partial failure. Modernity brought above all a much needed paradigm shift to the population of a nascent nation state. And, if the concepts of modern European architecture and urbanism partly failed, they led to the creation of a flourishing vernacular architecture that still catches the eye of the Beiruti tourist today. The failure of the concepts of modern European humanitarianism was more problematic as it consolidated sectarian divisions and contributed to the creation of an intricate system of government based on religious belonging.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to be learned from the Armenian experience in Lebanon as it proves that migration should not necessarily be tagged with the negative notions of crisis, exception, instability, and decline, neither should migrants be necessarily associated with the notions of passivity, reliance, and acquiescence. The Armenian quarters of Beirut that have received since the 1920s several waves of migration – Palestinians, Kurds, Iraqis, and, more recently, Syrians – stand as a living testimony that can help both researchers and decision-makers develop alternative criteria to approach migration crises in our world today.

    Joseph Rustom [2017]

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