In from the Sea

Traditional fishermen in Lebanon land a ­custom-designed community.

In a former radish field on the edge of Tyre, on the southern coast of Lebanon, an egalitarian community of Catholic fishermen is moving into a colorful modern housing development. Designed by Hashim Sarkis, an architect and Harvard professor, the complex transplants the fishermen far from the coast to contemporary apartments a few minutes outside the city but is infused with the values that have kept the community together for generations. “Hashim has taken into account the way these people live,” says Youssef El Khalil, president of the Association for the Development of Rural Capacities, which funded the project. “It’s not the kind of design where everything looks like everything else.”

The project’s design and construction spanned a tumultuous decade. In the past three years alone, the prime minister was assassinated, popular protests caused Syria to end its occupation, an Israeli air campaign strafed the area, and most recently Hezbollah shut down the government until it won concessions from the pro-Western leadership. All politics being local, the fishermen’s housing crisis had a rather specific relation to the perpetual turmoil: because of the never-ending war with Israel, they are prevented from deep-sea fishing in the Mediterranean, making them very poor; and because UNESCO designated their city a World Heritage Site in 1984, protecting its 3,000-year-old heritage from bombing and tourist development, they cannot build up their homes, making them very cramped.

“What happened with that fisherman community is a very sad but inspiring story,” Sarkis says. “When Tyre was declared a World Heritage Site, everybody thought it would be a good way for the city to live again after it suffered from the wars and population loss, but it turned out not to be the case. Ironically, the community that suffered the most is the one that lives in the old historic city, and that’s primarily the fishermen.”

The main consideration in the design was finding a balance between the public and private spaces—maintaining enough openness to create a sense of community while preserving the privacy of the ex-tended families sharing two-bedroom apartments. Each of the 84 units has a large balcony or backyard garden and a separate staircase, and they are oriented around a shared courtyard. Surrounded areas are planted with ficus, citrus, poplar, and olive trees as a shield from impending developments and to blend with the agricultural landscape. Blue-gray paint on the outside and bright yellow in the courtyard mark the separation between public and private within the complex.

But, at first, the Al Baqaa Housing Cooperative (the name means “to stay” or “to survive”), formed by the fishermen to realize the project, had a problem with the design. “When I showed them the unit plans and they saw how different they were from one another, they said, ‘We wanted them all to be the same—why are they different?’” Sarkis says. “Over a few conversations, I began to understand the problem. They did not want to create any stratification.”

Sarkis explained that, in order to fit all the units into the site and give them equal square footage, they had to be different: most of the apartments are duplexes, but the ones on the corners and facing the street are single story; the ground-floor units have private gardens instead of balconies, and the top floors get roof access. “The difference compensates for the inequalities the location creates,” he says. “Once they got that, everybody became very happy.”

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