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The Project of the City in Nineteenth-Century Lebanon

Yasmina El Chami

Beirut, Lebanon


PhD in Architecture



This dissertation examines the competing trajectories of Jesuit and American Protestant missionaries in nineteenth-century Lebanon, leading to the foundation of the two oldest and largest universities in contemporary Beirut, AUB and USJ. Situating these projects within a history of imperial contestation in the Levant, the dissertation questions the relationship between the missionaries’ educational aims and political ambitions, as revealed by their architectural and urban implementation in the territory, and later, the city. Through a combination of site-analysis and archival research, the dissertation uncovers the overlapping networks of imperial, industrial, philanthropic, and local patronage or opposition underpinning the missionaries’ architectural projects. I argue that missionary competition engendered a ‘collective colonialism’ that embedded a divisive logic in Beirut’s urban foundations, and chart chronological and ideological shifts in this collective project, unfolding across three scales: the territory, the city, and architecture. I show how, as each mission grew more entangled with imperial ambitions, architecture acquired crucial agency as a tool with which to attract, assert, and expand influence over the city. I conclude that, although oppositional in nature, both missions had deployed comparable spatial strategies in their pursuit of influence, materialising adversarial cultural and political visions for the city. Their architecture operated as a total project of economic, material, social, cultural, aesthetic, and urban control. By recovering the urban role of these private, yet foreign actors in a city under Ottoman rule, the dissertation thus reconsiders both the limits of architecture’s political agency and the nature of colonialism in nineteenth-century Lebanon.

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