The architect-turned-scholar Maha Yahya has always been “people oriented.”
“What’s interesting about architecture is that it is not just about building, but very much about impacting people’s lives,” said Yahya, who has directed the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut for the past six years.
“When designing a space, be it private, urban or public, you do influence how people engage with the environment and with each other,” she said. “A space can bring people together or separate them.”
Yahya discovered her passion for research and policy making early in her career as an architect focusing on people in urban environments, and later in political and socio-economic contexts.
“I was fascinated by the transformative power of architecture and the politics of it,” she said. “When you design a space, you make a political statement. One can influence what kind of space is available for engagement and public discourse.”
Focus on Urban Environments
As she moved on with her studies—she holds two Ph.D.’s in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and from the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London—Yahya grew more interested in the social aspect of architecture, focusing on housing in urban environments. (See a related article, “Arab Universities Often Silent in Debates on Public Space.”)
Her doctoral dissertations centered in Beirut. The first focused on the informal settlements in Beirut’s suburb that today is a stronghold of Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah party. It is almost exclusively inhabited by members of the Shia community who were displaced from southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation (1982-2000).