Pan American Health Organization in DC

Uruguayan architect Roman Fresnedo Siri‘s design for the Pan American Health Organization in Washington DC  won an international competition and was built in 1965. It’s as close to Corbusian modernism as you can find in DC, with the brise soleil and pilotis. The building is at the corner of 23rd and Virginia in Foggy Bottom , set back from the sidewalk by several meters.

Siri also designed the horse racing stadium Hipodromo do Cristal in Brazil in 1951.

Photo from Panoramio.

Nearby in Foggy Bottom, concrete apartment high-rises dominate. Most of them have rusted balconies.


Marjeh Square: a space of the would-be Syrian uprising

Marjeh Square in Damascus in January 2011. Photo: Benjamin Douglas

On March 15, a short clip surfaced of protestors near Souq Hamidiyeh in Damascus calling for a free Syria. According to young Syrian activists, this was to be the beginning of the Syrian revolution. While al-Jazeera reported that there were “dozens” of demonstrators, the Syrian privately-owned newspaper al-Watan reported that there were 30 “instigators” whose numbers were inflated by the large on-looking crowds. An American eyewitness and journalist wrote a revealing account of the day, noting that the protestors were attempting to reach Marjeh Square, only to be thwarted and then arrested by an outrageous security presence.

The Syrian media, which normally withholds opinions on local political events not involving designated political figures, launched a full-scale attack on the demonstrators using supposed comments from shopkeepers in Marjeh. According to al-Watan, one shopkeeper said, “We talked with the group [of demonstrators]. . .and one of them heaped insults at us and at the symbols of our nation, and one of them began to attack a shopkeeper . . . this is when the neighborhood intervened and told them to leave.” The article then cites foreign instigation and an Israeli text message campaign that helped spur the protests.

The March 16 sit-in in Marjeh Square attended by families of political prisoners and supporters. Source: Imad Bazzi

On March 16, in an entirely separate gathering, the 21 families of political prisoners convened for a sit-in in Marjeh Square near the Interior Ministry. The security presence was again overwhelming, with security forces swiping phones and snatching up demonstrators. This time, al-Watan acknowledged the sit-in, but claimed that those “with no relation to political prisoners” appeared and agitated, compelling security forces to intervene. Currently, the total number of reported arrests from both days is 34, with some activists being released.

Since the two initial days of dissent in Damascus accounts, protests have spread to other cities, including Homs and Deraa, where the killing of several demonstrators and mourners has highlighted the extent to which Syrian security forces will use violence to clear the streets. See here for some videos of protestors stripping their cities of the ubiquitous Asad cult of personality.

Despite protests in other locations in Damascus, mostly in the “suburbs,” the first protests on March 15 and 16 took place in the heart of Damascus in Marjeh Square. As the focal point of a sit-in and demonstration, Marjeh Square briefly gave a sense of place to any would-be uprising at the urban core of Damascus. In looking to Marjeh Square as a public space intimately intertwined with Syria’s modern history, we can perhaps glean the urban context of how a city’s spaces of revolt are formed and then transformed over time.**UPDATE: On March 25, a sizable demonstration took place in Marjeh Square. Video below.**

View of Marjeh Square looking southeast. Source: Flickr user Monisbu

Marjeh Square sits at a key location in Damascus. It is blocks away from the walls of the Old City and Souq Hamidiyeh, with the Interior Ministry adjacent – but not facing – the square. Businesses such as hotels, sandwich stands, and mobile phone dealers currently look onto the square, but not long ago Marjeh had a seedier reputation as a red-light district. To this day, the occasional sign or peddler advertises “relaxation” (istiraHa) to passers-by and restaurants tucked on the upper floors of buildings offer liquor by the bottle to mostly male patrons.

In its current incarnation, the square is a hodgepodge of structures from different eras. The incomplete, but functional, silver-domed Yalbugha mosque (officially named the Mosque of the Martyr Basil al-Asad) sits on the site of a former Mamluk mosque of the same name constructed in the 13th century. The original Yalbugha mosque was destroyed in 1975, two years after Hafez al-Asad came to power, with visions of a grander plan for Marjeh that has yet to be realized.

Over the course of four decades, two Gulf-based companies were contracted separately to complete construction on both the Yalbugha mosque and an accompanying business center in Marjeh. The companies were paid millions of lira at a yearly rate, but after decades they only had concrete shells to show for their progress. By 2010, the Syrian Ministry of Awqaf had dismissed both companies and started a hunt for investors anew. At this time, the mosque is near completion, but the mosque business center remains a symbol of corruption and waste to many Syrians, with several rumors and stories circulating about what it was intended to be.

The "new" Yalbugha mosque in 2007. The mosque remained a concrete shell for many years. Source: Yasmin al-Sham

The "new" Yalbugha mosque as it sits in 2011, with construction progressing slowly. Source: Benjamin Douglas

The Gulf companies drafted these plans for the Yalbugha mosque business center. Source: Syria News

The Yalbugha mosque business center in 2011 is still a concrete shell. Source: al-Thawra

The other structures surrounding Marjeh demonstrate an overlap between the much criticized Soviet-style high-rises of the 70s and 80s, which add height to the Damascus skyline, and the more ornate structures dating from the French colonial period. The layers of Marjeh’s architectural past are in part a result of its spatial placement and conception outside the walls of the Old City, where it was conceived and constructed as an Ottoman administration center between 1895 and 1914. Yet until 1878, the Barada River used to flow where Marjeh now sits, that is, until Midhat Pasha paved over a part of the river during his time as governor of Damascus under the reign of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. The new Marjeh developed into a telegraph and tramway hub, with the bronze column in the center of the square erected by Hamid as a commemoration of the Middle East’s first telegraphic link.

Marjeh Square during the French Mandate. Source: Discover Syria

The wide streets branching from Marjeh were first mapped out under the French Mandate from 1922 to 1944 when Marjeh transformed into a cultural center for the Syrian urban elite and French colonial officials. When cinemas came to Syria in the 1920s, Marjeh was home to several of them, including the Victory (Nasr) theater which was burned down in 1928 an hour before it was to screen a film for its first women’s matinee.[i] The cinemas of Marjeh have been defunct for some time, but along a side street where the Bureau of Immigration and Passports is situated, an older cinema sits abandoned except for a single vendor in its lobby who peddles the necessary stamps and papers for the neighboring bureau. While Marjeh is no longer viewed as an entertainment center by most, Damascus’s newest theater “Cinema City” has just opened blocks away near the Victoria Bridge.

Under French colonial rule, Marjeh represented the spatial confluence of some of the most prominent colonial landmarks of authority and leisure, making it the nucleus of Syrian revolt against various forms of French power. Whether it was Syrian religious figures protesting mix-gendered cinemas or future nationalist protests, the fabric of the square seemed engrained in politics, but also violent tragedy. Like in Ottoman times, the French also used Marjeh for public executions against Syrian revolutionaries. During the Syrian revolts of the 1920s, Marjeh was the site of numerous French executions, including the execution by gunfire of 16 Syrians whose bodies were publicly displayed in the square for the rest of the day.[ii] Public executions took place in Marjeh into the 20th century, with perhaps the most well-known execution being that of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen in 1965.

Marjeh Square in the 1970s. Source: Flickr user el-Shami

Marjeh Square as a public space gives rise to a complex Syrian history that embodies a legacy of both revolutionary heroism and crushing defeat. While the theatrics of vocal and public dissent are just now creeping back to Marjeh and other locations, the future of any Syrian uprising or revolt remains to be seen. Though some Syrians are calling for a revolution or drastic change, many are actively speaking out against it, saying that revolution is tantamount to “chaos.” This divisive spirit prompts one to wonder what, if any, effect the revolutionary ghosts of Marjeh will have on future generations of Syrians and if Marjeh’s tumultuous past was just a prologue to decades of what some call “stability.” Whether there is silence or revolt, Marjeh continues to be a space in waiting.

[i] Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 205.

[ii] Michael Provence, The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism (Austin: The University of Texas), 102.

Syrians begin to strike down symbols of the Asad regime

The ubiquitous visual representations of Asad’s cult of personality are becoming the targets of demonstrations in Syria. After 11 days of demonstrations in numerous Syrian cities, the statues and posters that are a familiar aspect of every Syrian’s life are now being stripped down from their prominent locations in some central squares. No footage has been reported of this happening in Syria’s two major cities Damascus and Aleppo, but Homs and Deraa are substantial cities in their own ways.

Whether it is a poster of Hafez al-Asad at the “Officer’s Club” in Homs . . .

Or a poster of Bashar al-Asad at the center of Dera . . .

Or an attempt to bring down a statue of Hafez in Dera . . .

These powerful images show how the Asad cult of personality that has become embedded in Syria’s cities and towns can be torn down in seconds.


(Note: I’ve re-posted this at The News in Arabic.)

Cherokee, North Carolina

The largest structure in Cherokee, North Carolina – an Indian reservation in the Great Smoky Mountains – is the newly-renovated Harrah’s Casino. In comparison with Cherokee’s other buildings, the casino is disproportionately massive and looks out of place, towering over the small thoroughfare that runs through the town. By day, the casino looks like a tan office building towering over the narrow central thoroughfare, but by night, the casino is all Vegas.

Inside the casino, there is little reminder of its “Cherokee” identity save for the signs in dual English and Cherokee, the nature-themed names of the hotel wings, and perhaps some of the stylistic elements of the casino, such as the woodsy lodge feel of the hotel’s entrances. The Paula Deen restaurant inside is a departure from the loosely adhered to Cherokee “theme,” but in this town, the Cherokee identity that is laid out for consumption by tourists sticks to the well-known clichés of Indian life.

The town surrounding the casino is “stuck in a 1950s time warp” due to a lack of outside investment, as described by a local travel book. One-story shops featuring text-heavy signs and post-war motels geared toward automobiles are ubiquitous in Cherokee, as are iconographic Indian representations – what Venturi and Brown would call “ducks.”

The main street also gives examples of “chiefing” by locals, meaning performing and posing for tourists in full “Cherokee” regalia. The most famous chiefer is Carl Standing Deer, but on this visit, I only saw a large man sitting topless and painted in front of a store that sold moccasins. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is a refuge from the superficial main street – and it’s also where I learned the term chiefing.

Cherokee feels isolated geographically, socially, and economically. When you arrive after driving for miles and miles on curvy mountain roads, Cherokee is like an alternate universe fueled by the demands of tourists, like me, who come to see a Reservation. Amidst those actually living their lives in Cherokee, there is a miniature circus world that fuels tourism by putting on display the most easily-commodified articles of a Cherokee past.

Cinema in Western North Carolina

The Language of Game Rooms and Spas

In Bacliff, Texas, a small town situated near the refineries of the Gulf coast, the signs along the main thoroughfare “Grand Avenue” communicate a world that is not what it seems.

A “game room” is code for casino, a “spa” is code for prostitution, but the lingo is the only covert thing about these businesses. The game rooms and spas — of which there are at least a dozen in town — set up shop in relatively cheap, pre-fabricated structures on the most highly-trafficked road alongside legit businesses and residential areas. They’re frequented by locals day and night, but with an awareness that these structures are temporary — they will inevitably be shut down by the authorities, but perhaps only to move a few blocks down to another warehouse with another name. Let me be clear, this is no miniature Las Vegas, but this is just one example of a  landscape that appears when a mixture of illicit gambling and prostitution occupy a very public space.

The Lucky Star on Grand Avenue, seen above, is either a game room or a spa, but it is unclear. Most game rooms and spas lack windows and are in pre-fab buildings, but the large size of the building points to game room, as does the “lucky” in the title. Or is the Chinese script in the window code to passersby that this is an “Asian” spa?

At night, this equally ambiguous display lights up in front of Lucky Star. Frenzy of passion? Frenzy of greed? We look to signs to guide us, but they are often misleading. Yet perhaps if simple Frenzy is what you are looking for, you’ve found your place.

Nevada Jacks, on the other hand, is clearly a game room. The large tan warehouse, professional sign, and impressive landscaping indicate that this is a more legitimate or more family-friendly game room, if you will. It seems Nevada Jacks’ cleaner appearance could help distract from the illegal activities inside, but even if Nevada Jacks were shut down, a new game room would quickly pop up in its place, either re-using the same structure with new signage or with a trailer on-site.

The VIP Plus game room is more typical of game rooms in Bacliff. The DIY signage and clear casino imagery like hearts and spades does not hide the gambling inside, but also lends it a “mom and pop” feel. The pre-fab structure is also key. Before this was VIP Plus, this was another business, probably a game room, but the structure is only secondary to the success of the game room, with the draw being the lure of big bucks inside.

Lucky U is in a building pretty similar to Nevada Jacks, but featuring a homemade sign more common to lower-budget game rooms. As with the other game rooms, style is less important than functionality and visibility. The yellow spot light attached to the orange extension cord ensure that the Lucky U sign is not overlooked in the midst of other game rooms.

As for the spas in Bacliff along Grand Ave., many try to maintain their secrecy and stay off this main road. Recently, a spa on Grande Ave. with a large banner sign reading “BACLIFF SPA” was shut down after being open for only two months. Perhaps to the spa’s proprietors, the seemingly free-spirited Grand Ave. seemed a place where coded signage was tacitly accepted by residents and overlooked by the police.

The DC Metro’s permanent landscape of breakdown and repair

In the 1960s and 70s, the DC Metro was designed with the middle class in mind. The carpeted train cars, cushioned seats, and modernist design sought to create a system that would be up to the standards of the middle class commuter. While the carpet now seems quaint and a bit worn, the vaulted, concrete ceilings of the Washington DC Metro system still hover effortlessly above the passing trains. The brutalist design of the Metro is credited to Harry Weese, but in truth, the iconic column-free vaults were a structural and aesthetic feat achieved over decades by architectural and engineering teams.

Source: Mike Leakey, Flickr

The plan to create an incredibly modern, underground transport system could not rely solely on design, but would also require the support of innumerable technical and communication mechanisms. Forty years later, unlike the seemingly timeless vaults of the Metro (which have seen their share of aging), the technical infrastructure of the grand Metro design is a reminder that the stresses of constant usage and improper upkeep can drastically change the feel of public transport.

When one descends the musical escalators into the Metro in 2011, the ideal of a mechanically seamless and modern transport system seems a distant past or, perhaps, a distant future. While the day-to-day encounters with mechanical failure in the Metro are pretty mundane – walking up or down a broken escalator, blocked-off turnstiles, inaccurate train arrival times, and a muffled PA system – the occasional shocking mechanical failure in the Metro is enough to ignite the public imagination and sense of outrage. In just the past few months, several people dropped into an escalator shaft at the Foggy Bottom stop when the steps collapsed beneath their feet, and in a separate event dozens were trampled when the escalator at L’Enfant Plaza suddenly accelerated, sending people cascading to the bottom. The latter event was captured on video.

Meanwhile, this perceived mechanical dystopia provides the backdrop for what is interpreted as widespread social breakdown in the Metro. On one level, people perceive the Metro as a space where social norms and mutual respect are abandoned. Young men refuse to give up their seats to the elderly, drunkards urinate on the quays, men masturbate shamelessly, and the inconsiderate crowd near doors. On another level, the Metro is a space of rampant violence and crime. In August 2010, a 70-person brawl on trains at the Gallery-Place Chinatown stop spilled onto platforms at L’Enfant Plaza. Just last week, the headline “Teen Mob Attacks Man at Suitland Metro Station” made the rounds. Passengers are also frequently warned to conceal their smart phones due to an up-tick of thefts. The WMATA response to “youth violence” even resulted in a now defunct test program of emitting a low-frequency buzz only audible to teens at the Gallery Place stop, in hopes of discouraging loitering.

The black boxes in the Metro that attempt to conceal repairs.

In considering Metro’s perpetual state of mechanical breakdown, we arrive at a present-day Metro experience that its innovators and planners could not have possibly predicted, an experience dominated by a Metro environment that, while operable, represents a physical cycle of breakdown, repair, and renovation. The DC Metro is hardly unique in its undergoing of maintenance and repairs, but as a widely-used form of transport and public space, its infrastructure is subject to a wider discourse of public safety and responsibility. The system’s deteriorating infrastructure is so apparent that even the Metro General Manager Richard Sarles has had to acknowledge this reality. Paraphrased in a Washington Post article, he expressed that it is “unrealistic for Metro to meet some of its performance standards, given the backlog of maintenance work.”

A short list of the primary communications and technical mechanisms that keep the Metro running is as follows:

  • 589 escalators
  • 271 elevators
  • Digital train arrival signs, with GPS
  • Two-way radios between train operator and control panel
  • PA system
  • Passenger to passenger intercoms
  • Video monitoring for security

On a typical day, these technologies are unreliable or mere simulacra. For example, the security cameras record unusable images or do not record at all, the escalators sit stationary, the voices from speakers are inaudible.

Machinery as the new permanent landscape of repair in the DC Metro.

The daily navigation of the Metro’s unending landscape of repair and degradation has become routine and inescapable. Thanks to the widespread physical presence of machinery, yellow barricades, and mysterious wooden panels concealing repair sites, the physical environment of repair and breakdown has become indistinguishable from the “normal” environment of the Metro. In other words, situations that we have previously assumed are temporary, such as repair and breakdown, have now become a part of the built environment of public transport in DC.