• "I love the dialogue in this picture. It reminds me of the call and response sequence in jazz between two instruments," said Saleh about this image.

    Photo / Joseph Saleh

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  • Image from

    Image from "The (Fading) Poetry of Old Lebanese Homes," a photography exhibition by Joseph Saleh at MIT's Rotch Library.

    Photo / Joseph Saleh

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Photos preserve Lebanon's architectural heritage

"I love the dialogue in this picture. It reminds me of the call and response sequence in jazz between two instruments," said Saleh about this image.

In pursuit of his dream to build his own home, Joseph Homer Saleh discovered a true respect for architectural preservation in his native Lebanon. The photographic results can be seen in an exhibition at the Rotch Library titled "The (Fading) Poetry of Old Lebanese Houses."

Seeking to give himself an architectural education, Saleh, who is executive director of the Ford-MIT Alliance at the Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development, roamed Lebanon between December 2003 and July 2004 in search of old houses to photograph. He was interested in finding ideas for his own home and in understanding and documenting the elements and diversity of Lebanese architecture, which he says are "mainly 18th and 19th century houses, not palaces or big mansions."

"I became interested in the mapping between a set of impressions and the design elements," said Saleh. "What is it in architecture that conveys warmth, expresses openness and suggests hospitality? Can one design for such attributes, or are they 'accidents' of a design one stumbles upon after the house has been built?" he asked.

As Saleh learned about architecture and building techniques--the effects of stone, color, texture, arches, proportions, volumes and other design elements that lead to an emotional response--he also learned about photography and architectural preservation.

Saleh's mission expanded as he saw the architectural heritage of Lebanon "fading into a sea of ugliness, an expanding jungle of concrete gulping the few remaining fragments of aesthetics in Lebanese architecture." What had started as architectural research became something else--a desire to document the rich heritage and educate others about it. By photographically preserving them and "weeding out the context," Saleh says he is attempting to give the old houses an "ephemeral revenge over the concrete reality that was engulfing them."

Saleh's research also became a social experience, as he sought admittance to people's houses. "I'd ask if I could photograph the old house next door from their balcony or rooftop," said Saleh, noting that he always was received cordially, and sometimes was offered coffee or breakfast. "Intrigued at first, my hosts would sometimes recount the story of the old house," he said, recalling one house that belonged to "Francis, one of the seven families in a small village that was Amchit..."

Saleh hopes to engage architecture students in Lebanon to take on the cause of the old abandoned houses and to create a non-governmental organization to "advocate the cause of this wonderful architectural heritage," he said. Meanwhile, his plans for his own house are still a work in progress. "It's coming along nicely," he said.

The exhibition is on view through Oct. 31.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 2004 (download PDF).

Topics: Architecture, Arts

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