Tag Archives: Built environment

Book podcast: The Radicals’ City

On 26/03/2013 I posted about the new book “The Radicals’ City: Built Environment Polarisation, Cohesion” that I co-authored with Ralf Brand. Ashgate is about to publish it this Summer, but you can preview the table of contents and the introduction on their website.

While waiting for the book release, I have recorded a podcast about with The University of Birmingham’s Ideas Lab. It lasts about 10 minutes and contains some empirical cases encountered during the fieldwork at the basis of the volume.



Sara Fregonese


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“Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop

Back in March I participated in the “Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop organized by Melanie Lombard of the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester.  It was a good occasion to reflect on urban conflict in the frame of urban informality and I am now preparing an article on the new informal boundaries in Beirut  post-2008 clashes.

Melanie wrote a brief thematic summary outlining avenues for future research. You can read it here:


Sara Fregonese

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Forthcoming book: The radicals’ city

After submission in Autumn 2012 (see post on 11/10/2012), the proofs are complete and the new book co-authored with Ralf Brand on radicalisation, social cohesion and the urban built environment is now in print and forthcoming in July (28 July for Amazon.co.uk).

Ashgate has a page with the book description and contents:  http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409451600 and endorsements by Caroline Moser and Stuart Croft.

The regular price of the hardback is £ 55, but it’s £49 through the publisher’s website. It is also available in e-book and pdf. The price is quite good for both academics and practitioners, especially considering that the book contains 115 (yes, 115) colour images.

The activities of the ESRC-funded research project that inspired the book can be viewed at www.urbanpolarisation.org.


Sara Fregonese

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We need to talk about fieldwork. And hotels.

During my latest fieldwork trip in Beirut last September, I was interviewed by The National, an UAE-based newspaper in English. This article on the significance of Beirut’s war-torn buildings appeared yesterday.

Parallel to my British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship on sovereignty and urban infrastructure in Beirut which has kept me busy in the last 3 years, I have been working on another, smaller British Academy-sponsored research on the role of international hotels in pre-war Beirut as sites of geopolitical experiences and significance in the everyday life of cities. The theme is inspired by a session that Klaus Dodds and I organised at the 2010 RGS-IBG on hotels and geopolitics.

The overarching question here is: Why and how do cities go from coexistence to communitarian violence in such a little time as it happened in Beirut?

I worked on this during the last couple of trips to Beirut (June 2011 in archives and September 2012 with interviews). The case of Beirut’s former hotels area, and especially the Holiday Inn hotel, can provide answers.

Roughly 1 square km near the north-western waterfront of Beirut’s reconstructed city centre, included between the neighborhoods of Ayn el Mreisset, Minet el Hosn and Kantari, nowadays lies in ruins. In 1976, this area went from being a diverse international mobility hub – comprising hotels, embassies, bars, banks, and located besides a highway connected to the airport – to one of the roughest battleground of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991). But Between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, as I got to know the urban history in detail, this area was full of life. According to a 1974 tourist guide, the area used to host 18 international hotels 10 restaurants (Lebanese and international), at least 5 night clubs (plus dozens more less reputable ones), 6 cabarets and 1 theatre. But in the early 1970s, the quality of the place started to decline when the price of the land soared and independent owners started to struggle to keep up with rents and maintain the quality of the local entertainment. Part of the area became a low-end night entertainment hub, as magazines of the time show, and the area was defined as a place where one could go if “they wanted women”, as an interviewee put it.

Advertisement for Beirut’s Holiday Inn, ca 1974.

“Around the world and now in Lebanon”: advertisement for Beirut’s Holiday Inn, Al Hawadess magazine, 31 August 1973

While the first fieldwork was mainly digging into local archives, this September I focused on interviews. Apart from a series of more formal conversations with architects, political analysts, and academics, there was all a part of the fieldwork which involved casual conversations with locals of the neighbourhood. Every early morning my RA and I went to the former hotel area, recorded our conversations with people still residing in the neighborhood – among whom some of the older ones who could remember the events. Some conversations were short: 2 or 3 minutes. Others were much longer, and one ended with a shopkeeper making us coffee and telling us about his global connections in the 1960s with the local diplomatic personnel – including a vatican embassy employee who used to bring him classic trousers from Italy. We also used 1960s urban planning maps to understand the changes that happened the area, in a process of urban archaeology that gave way to some interesting discoveries.I had the luck of being assisted by two bright researchers: Imad Aoun of RHUL who translated meticulously the archive material in Arabic and pilot interviews that I collected during the first trip; and Simona Loi from Lebanese International University, who walked with me wherever the research took us, from dead-end alleyways, churches, former cemeteries, primary schools, or abandoned hotel lobbies.

This shopkeeper told me that his shop used to be on the fire line of snipers hidden in the Holiday Inn hotel. The hotel, actually, towers over from the end of the street. Photo: Sara Fregonese.

The Holiday Inn hotel nowadays. Photo: Sara Fregonese

Now it’s data analysis time and I am about to hire an artist to design an artefact that is unique to the history of this site. For me, one important issue is to understand whether and how the presence of a certain ‘temporary’ built environment constructed around mobility and flows – hotels, embassies, and temporarily inhabited architectures for open, mobile social groups like tourists, diplomats, and business people – influenced the demise and takeover of the area by militias.

Sara Fregonese

Related publications:

Fregonese, S. (2012) Between a refuge and a battleground. Beirut’s discrepant cosmopolitanisms. In: Geographical Review, Vol. 102, 2012, p. 316–336.

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New book

Less than a month ago I had the pleasure to complete yet another collaboration with Ralf Brand from the University of Manchester. We submitted the manuscript for our joint-authored volume The radicals’ city: urban environment, polarisation, cohesion. It will be published by Ashgate in 2013. It also contains an epilogue written by Jon Coaffee from the University of Birmingham.

The book derives from the ESRC project “The built environment: mirror and mediator of radicalisation?” which ran at the Manchester Architecture Research Centre from 2007 to 2010.

The argument at the basis of the book is that social processes like stereotyping, polarisation, and even radicalisation or open conflict do not happen in a spatial void. Instead, they are part of complex socio-technical processes. In our cities, the built environment functions as symbolic, affective, everyday agent that influences social tension or cohesion.

Over the course of several months, we explored these dynamics with interviews and participatory photography projects in four cities: Amsterdam, Beirut, Belfast, and Berlin. There was also a mobile exhibition to present the project to the public.

The ultimate objective of this visually and empirically rich book is to assist policy makers, planners, architects, urban designers and ordinary citizens in creating urban spaces that are conducive to the friendly encounter of different social groups, thus helping to tackle the ground conditions of societal polarisation and gear it instead towards cohesion.

You can read more about the book in this leaflet, which you will also find at Ashgate’s bookstands at conferences:

Sara Fregonese

See also: Fregonese, S. and Brand, R. (2009) “Polarisation as socio-technical phenomenon. A bibliographical review”, Journal of Urban Technology 16(2-3): 9-34. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10630730903278546

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