Lebanese Domestic Vernacular
The largest interior dimension of the simple flat-roofed house was limited by the common timber length to about 15 feet (4.5 meters). A square room of about 220 square feet (20 square meters) was sufficient to shelter four people. The floor typically had two levels, one 20 inches (50 centimeters) higher than the other. The exterior bearing walls, 1-1/2 to 3 feet (50 to 100 centimeters) thick, included niches for storage.
Over time, builders learned to enlarge the effective beam span by adding one interior support at the 1/3 point of the beam. They extended this principle to produce large spaces with an internal system of pillars, dividing the space into multiple zones for living, sleeping, cooking, storage, and shelter for animals.
In areas where timber was totally lacking, roofs were made of stone slabs (Hauran) or constructed in the shape of domes.
The next step in structural evolution, for families that were both prosperous and expanding, involved replacing beams and columns with arches. Techniques of stone construction had been firmly established since Roman times. This included vaulting (aqd), which was more durable than the more primitive, earlier building methods.
Contrasting with the closed nature of the rectangular house was a second type, the gallery house. Galleries were covered spaces that opened to the outside through a colonnade or arcade. They could serve as exterior porches or as open corridors linking the interior spaces. These gallery/corridors were well suited for unifying a house over time as it grew or subdivided to accommodate growing families.
The Liwan House
A liwan, or iwan, was a vaulted portal, open to the outside, which led to interior rooms to the right and left. The doors to these rooms were always near the front corners of the liwan and the area between the two doors was a circulation zone.
In its simplest form, dating back more than 2000 years, the liwan house was a freestanding unit on one of countless terraces in the mountains. Essentially a covered terrace, the liwan only made sense in a warm climate and when it was protected from wind, dust, animals, and people. This necessitated the addition of a courtyard in front. On a hillside, the extended terrace would be supported by retaining walls.
A house built around a courtyard could be fairly extensive, with variously oriented wings dedicated to different seasons of the year or clearly differentiated functions. Their closed character offered privacy and safety.
The Central Hall House
Although the house with a central hall originated about 3000 years ago, the style became well established in the 19th century and is now the most common, identifiable, and preferred house type in Lebanon. It is rare in neighboring countries.
The origin of this design may be the Roman atrium. The central hall was surrounded by rooms on two or sometimes three sides. The access was either directly from the rear or indirectly from the side via a corridor, but never from the front triple arcade. The house often had two floors and a symmetrical composition. It was found in cities as well as villages.
The development of these structures over time probably began with the simple rectangular house and gallery, with the liwan and central hall added later. But all of these types remained in use simultaneously.
The choice was dictated by economic considerations, local conditions or practices, and personal preferences. Tradition encouraged the repetition of house types, but sometimes modifications and combinations were made.
Radical Changes in the 20th Century
During the first half of the past century, the region witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, and the end of French and English colonialism. These changes brought modern modifications to the traditional houses, mainly technical innovations like plumbing and electricity.
The number of floors was increased to four until this maximum was again raised by virtue of concrete frame construction and elevators. Except for some French and English architects and urban designers during the colonial period, the role of the architect, if any, was only as a structure engineer. Most houses were still built by the master mason using traditional methods.
The second half of the century saw a slow disintegration of the tightly knit family unit into a group of individuals. An increasing preference for privacy made people discard the traditional houses.
This change coincided roughly with the countries in the region gaining political independence and with the economic boom from Gulf oil. The influx of people to the cities created a great demand for apartments. This spurred construction of apartment buildings with several flats per floor.
Apartments that occupied the full depth of a block became rare, and the increasing density of construction produced a distinction between primary and secondary elevations.
Living rooms had to be arranged along the main facade, which alone offered sufficient light and view. Therefore, the sequence of living-dining-salon had to be arranged parallel to the facade, preferably accompanied by a continuous terrace. This meant the end of traditional schemes.
Although natural illumination was improved, the rooms got hotter during the summer and they lacked cross ventilation, so necessary for comfort. However, the new arrangement, with the first intervention of architects, finally allowed the full separation of the three main areas of a home: living area (living room, dinning room, salon), sleeping area (bedrooms and baths), and services (kitchen, laundry, storage, maid's quarters).
The last links with the past were severed with the introduction of bewildering choices of contemporary building methods and materials imported from all over the world. The unity of construction and landscape were lost.
Sadly, most of today's urban, residential building activities do not respect the architectural values or practices of the past. Also lacking is a feeling for harmony and proportion; new buildings spring up in every conceivable shape and without any relationship to their surroundings. Extravagance has supplanted the simple honesty of stone.
The construction of a house, which was once the crowning achievement of one's life, brought about with the help of the whole community, is now more often a purely commercial venture. Perhaps one day we will learn to maintain our commercial viability but at the same time respect the spirit and the qualities of traditional design.
Victor A. Khoueiry is an architect and journalist living in Beirut.