Rethinking Libyan Placelessness

Sarri Elfaitouri
9 min readJun 7, 2021



After the spark of the Libyan revolution in February 2011, a set of existential questions emerged in the Libyan cultural and political scene. It was an inquiry about “Libyanness” and how Libyans should represent their being in a new manner. However, there has been no coherent answer since then and, under the constant instabilities and civil conflicts that followed, it became relatively contradictory to form a collective unifying identity amidst the social and political chaos at play. This also manifested in the cultural realm and in the built environment. The very traditional concept of place ceased to be valid in the face of the contemporary challenges and disruptions that Libya has been going through. And akin to history teaching us that cities develop their own survival mechanisms as a reaction to the crises, the Libyan cities have also been generating their own in a series of critical situations. A state of being called placelessness. This article is an attempt to conceptualize and question the phenomenon of placelessness in the Libyan city of Benghazi, and investigate it beyond its supposed flat formal appearance to an urban socio-ideological level.

The project of identity throughout Libyan history

Libyan cities have undergone an intense flux of traumatic experiences since the 16th century: the Ottoman and Italian colonization, World War II bombing, Gadhafi’s totalitarianism and the civil wars. Such unrest has consequently produced persistent instabilities that are still affecting the social, cultural, and political fabrics of the country. Before the revolution of 2011, the project of forming a collective identity was an imposing socio-political ideology. Generally, the awareness of identity on a social level as a whole did not exist independent from class or political view but it was merely used as socio-political constructs of Nationalisms or Tribalism emphasized by power — be it in the Ottoman period, the Kingdom era of the Senussi, in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, or even in the present, as the ongoing process to unify the image of Libyanness. All that could be partly interpreted as a consequence of the country’s long history of hegemonic and totalitarian regimes and its recent dependency on the rentier economy of oil revenues distribution and consumption, which has led the majority of Libyan citizens to be dependent on the state’s consumerist economy. This means that there has been no socio-economic independence and no chance to maintain a concept of local identity and independent uniqueness, neither on a social level nor on an economic level.

That leads to two crucial scenarios: one of radical openness to a global culture that diminished the importance of traditional identity and aesthetics; and the other of a nostalgia for a historical identity that was left behind from the Italian colonial modernist era onwards. The first is a transformative cultural force which falls into Deleuze’s concept of Deterritorialisation[1], an act of defamiliarisation and a cultural displacement of the human subject (in this case the Libyans) from their preconceived traditional environment (the country’s territory). It means the prioritization of economic progress and the liberation from the bounds of traditional identity that was also manifested in Libya’s rapid urbanization and enormous expansion of cities. The second lies on the subjective and ideological realm, that is represented by a minority of Libyans — namely conservative intellectuals and organizations — who condemns globalization for the erasure of Libya’s local identity and tradition. This group rebukes the domination of flatscapes and calls for the conservation of historical value and aesthetics through the reconstruction of Libyan cities with historical references. The evolving tension imbued into those two scenarios reverberates spatially and culturally, constituting a state of being called placelessness.

Benghazi: The placelessness of a city

The city of Benghazi represents a strong example of placelessness. Benghazi’s city center has been a long standing symbol of local identity, holding a historical juxtaposition of cultures, mixing Libyan, Ottoman, Italian and Socialist architectural styles and narratives within its diverse urban fabric. During the civil war in 2014, the city was brutally bombed, affecting not only its central area but also several other residential neighborhoods. The destruction of the built environment was not only physical, but it also represented a metaphorical damage in Libya’s historical identity, engendering a state of collective grief in the whole country. Historical identity was turned into ashes and what remained was only a memory of it, a mental image suspended in a historical understanding of that. To cope with the bereavement, some people insisted on rebuilding the town exactly as it was, to revive its original character, to live in a state of nostalgia; while for the majority it meant an opportunity to start from scratch and build new identities, hopes and, possibly, a new value system.

The city’s ability to represent an authentic identity did not seem to be of any utility to Libyans, and the cultural project to rebuild historical identity became too expensive. The idea of reviving an identity that is prone to be destroyed again due to a conjuncture of uncertainties, seems like a psychological and economic burden that Libyans do not afford bearing. Thus, the convenient strategy was the production of new faceless identities, where and whenever possible, it is cheap and quick, and it does not require consensus, nor a historical base, its main strength is its unreadable mask of multiple references, sometimes it’s modern, some other times postmodern, classical, Islamic, romantic, etc.. Building everywhere and not following the state’s outdated city plans or planning policies, means constantly transgressing the definitions of homeland, becoming a mode of building that resists any conception of place as a whole.

As a place of non-identity, Benghazi can also be read as a place of resistance to identity and, consequently, rejecting any absolute definition. On being so, it paradoxically holds within its very placelessness a deconstruction of the traditional idea of place; and people start calling it a place only as a way of communicating a certain geographic or urban location defined by imaginary boundaries, though devoid of any traditional intrinsic values of being a place. Hence placelessness becomes a logical derivative out of the deterioration or absence of any coherent traditional meaning of place. This deconstruction has been viewed by the general cultural scene in Libya as a mischief and an unfortunate result of neglecting identity and traditional motifs. However, is this an intentional conscious decision that Libyans take? Or is it just an adaptive reaction to a constantly globalizing culture?

The instability of the Libyan political and economic conditions generated devastating chaos and trauma. It has shredded the country’s historical identity whilst producing a liberation from the need to maintain a certain identity. Such procedure worked as a survival mechanism of urban contingency, that is manifested both in the urban and geographic scenes, as the phenomenon of placelessness, and in the unremitting spatial discontinuity present in different regions of Libya. In Benghazi, for example, this is noticeable in the contrast between the urban morphology of its traditional downtown, as aforementioned, and the emergent morphology of its peripheries.

This is a provocation to go beyond the pessimistic perception of placelessness, seeing it as an opportunity to rethink urban growth as an indeterminate procedure of survival by spatial means, a process that continues to function and to expand even in a severely dysfunctional system. It is a critical reflection proposing freedom through a detachment of the traditional concept of place that is tied to belonging, stability and connectedness.

The phenomenon of placelessness has been intensified in Benghazi with its growth and expansion during the social-politico-economic turbulences of the last decade. A good example is the residential district called Ganfotha, located on the western periphery of the city. It isone of the four districts that are considered as transgressing the official city plan which grants the status of informal to almost 80% of Benghazi’s built environment. Ganfotha is a self-generated and organised urban area, and a rootless piece of urban land dressed in what I call Grey Matter-s, a concrete mask that doesn’t seem to carry any symbolism or cultural meaning, this seemingly generic appearance draws two crucial questions: is it a mask of anonymity evoking a camouflage to something that needs to be hidden within, an ideology, a character, or some values that could not be directly defined, accepted or understood?. Or is this mask just a meaningless layer, which represents no features and no qualities, a free floating signifier?

The anonymity of placelessness

On one hand, if we read the anonymity of placelessness in Libya’s contemporary culture and aesthetics as a socio-ideological phenomenon that may indicate hidden meanings, we could conceive it as a sort of an urban Freudian slip[2]. Through this framework it is possible to make sense of the spatial and aesthetic informalities, or emergent non-traditional identities by considering the city as kind of a cultural patient or a subjectivity that is not always consciously responsible for its manifestations (slips) or its own masks. That means treating the act of building the city as a subconscious social behavior based on the correlations between these seemingly meaningless slips/masks and past events, trauma, or ideological discourses. On the other hand, if we assume that placelessness instrumentalises the anonymous mask as a free floating signifier with no specific references or meaning, it would be to allow for all possibilities of references and meaning. As an example from outside the world of architecture and urbanism: in the 2008 film The Dark Knight[3], the Joker character says “Give a man a mask and he will become his true self”, Anonymity here is understood as an instrument to break away from specificity and cultural implications. It reflects an open field of possibilities of what libyanness could mean and, for being so open, it could also mean that Libyan cities have never been able to reflect their authentic culture or ideologies through the aesthetics and values of a coherent traditional identity, but rather through this very cultural mask of placelessness, informality, and spatial transgression.

Learning from placelessness

As Libyan or international architects and urbanists who are interested in studying the city of Benghazi, it is crucial to create awareness on the necessity to act as autonomous researchers who are not tied to any presumptions or ideological agenda. The city’s complex realities are manifested on its contingently grown environments, buildings, and people’s behavior. Placelessness is the inevitable present program of the city that is dominantly divergent from our old interpretation of what the city was in its traditional definitions. This present collective resistance to identity (be it unconscious or intentional), once meditated and deeply reinterpreted, could potentially influence future design decisions, allowing to reprogram the phenomenon of placelessness into a systematic urban and architectural knowledge. That could help in the project of post-war Benghazi reconstruction, as well as other Libyan cities, replacing the atavistic notions of reconstructing replicas of a shredded past, and non-valid historical identities.

While we have been spending too much dreamy efforts to actualize a better place deeply rooted in virtues and value, we neglected the critical importance to reinterpret and better understand the supposed nightmare that we already living in.. Placelessness…. Although this might indicate a cynical attitude towards conceptualizing the Libyan built environment and its historical value, the general idea of this article is to propose new insights on the prioritisation of different values and perspectives that we could also sympathise with.

This article was first published in the inaugural issue of projektado magazine: anonymity in design.

It is also part of the author’s research on the Libyan territory at Tajarrod Architecture and Art Foundation


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[1] Deleuze, G., Guattari, F., Foucault, M., Hurley, R., Seem, M. and Lane, H., 2012. Anti-Oedipus. London: Continuum.

[2] Freud, S., 1995. The psychopathology of everyday life. London: Hogarth Press.

[3] The Dark Knight. 2008. [film] Directed by C. Nolan. USA: Warner Bros., Legendary Entertainment, Syncopy, DC Comics.



Sarri Elfaitouri

Sarri is an architect, conceptual artist, and curator based in Benghazi Libya. He is the founder and CEO of TAJARROD Architecture and Art Foundation