A winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for his role in the ongoing restoration of the Azem Palace in Damascus, Michel Ecochard (1905-1985) donated his archive to the Award. The collection represents his work as an architect, urban planner and archaeologist, and demonstrates his keen interest in photography and aviation.
After his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he was first based in Damascus and then in Beirut from 1931 to 1944, in Rabat from 1946 to 1952 and in Paris from 1953 to 1983. He worked in the Near East under the French Mandate on excavations at Baalbek and numerous restorations, notably on the site of Palmyra. Named architectural adviser to the Syrian government in 1934, he undertook many restoration works in Syria in the 1930s, including the Azem Palace in Damascus, home of the French Institute, on whose grounds he constructed a modern director’s house. He carried out research on the documentation of hammams in Damascus with the architect Claude Le Coeur , then on the construction of the Museum there, having done that of Antioch (Antakya) in 1931.
After having worked on an urban plan for Damascus, he served as director of the Service d’urbanisme in Syria from 1940 to 1944, establishing a new and ambitious urban plan for Beirut (1943-1944). In 1945 he began to look at the principles of functional urban planning while traveling with Le Corbusier on a tour of the United States. He implemented these ideas in various cities of Morocco when he became director of urban planning. His ambitious plan for Casablanca was approved in 1952 but he refused to submit to pressure from developers for modifications and resigned his post.
After presenting his experience in Morocco at the ninth CIAM conference in 1953, he worked in Pakistan, designing the University of Karachi, in Africa, with the urban plan of Conakry (1959), universities at Abidjan (1962-1978) and Yaoundé (1963) and the urban planning of Dakar (1963), as well as on projects in Iran. In 1955, he designed, with another French architect Claude Lecoeur, the Collège Protéstant in Beirut along with a series of other high schools and hospitals.
The most ambitious architectural project of his later career was the Museum of Kuwait from 1960 and a new urban plan that he developed a new plan for Beirut, concentrating on infrastructure (1961). He then outlined a new urban plan for Damascus, with a focus on the circulation of traffic.
He was put in charge of of urbanism at the Ecole des beaux arts in Paris (1967) and continued to pursue projects in both France and the developing world until the 1980s.
Lebanon was under French mandate when Michel Écochard
was detached from his duties as director of urban planning in Syria, at the
request of General Catroux, with the objective of establishing a master plan
for the city of Beirut. The mandate of France in the Levant was reaching its
end during the plan’s elaboration, 1941-1943, and it was a plan conceived completely
in the context of the Second World War.
The urban plan of Beirut, completed in 1943, proposed
a project based on major thoroughfares, the creation of a new town and a
project to reorganize the congested districts in the center of town. The
founding principles of this type of planning were very much inspired by those
of the Modern Movement. Functionalism and rationalism define this urban zoning
in which the separation of functions remains the watchword.Problems related to traffic were amongst the most
urgent to resolve. Écochard proposed a "system of circulation"
classified into three broad categories. The first, called "bypasses",
was to establish a north/south link joining the town of Sidon with that of Tripoli
through two stretches of road and a direct connection between the road to
Damascus and those to Tripoli and Sidon. The second category, "crossroads",
was designed to stop at the outskirts of the stretches of the bypass routes,
and create radiating roads within. In order to decongest the city center,
drilling new paths to "cut to the heart", as Écochard said, was planned,
from the ring road to the city center.
Housing is treated separately as it involves “special
needs”, notably in regard to light and climate. The description of the proposed
new town on the southern outskirts of the city shows unambiguously the acceptance
by Ecochard of the ideas of the Modern Movement,"refusing in the most absolute way to adopt the old principle of
construction of streets as corridors lined with adjoining houses".The areas allocated to each owner must
allow room to avoid street frontage and allow for the location of buildings in
the middle of gardens. The creation of the new city offers a new way of living
for "workers", which should provide, in addition to
"modernity", more "fairness".
development of an administrative district offered an image of the city centre that
was more modern for its time. Public buildings are grouped together to create
an administrative center, along one of the axes of the Place de l’Etoile. Car
parking is prohibited in the surrounding streets as a parking space has been
foreseen. Traffic congestion is tackled through the removal of the city blocks
of Bab-Idriss and the creation of a second roundabout. The separation of
pedestrian and automobile traffic is expressed though two separate treatments
of space. While the road system appears as the framework of the urban planning
proposals, with its hierarchisation and separate roads, priority is given to
In the course of his time in the Levant, Écochard
introduced a new way, and, by introducing the premises of urbanism of the
Modern Movement, he began a new form of intervention in urban space under
French administration, which did not become widespread until after independence.