STIRring Together: Lina Ghotmeh on architecture as a tool of resilience

A voided edifice turned urban legend post the Beirut explosion, the Stone Garden Housing is Lina Ghotmeh’s response to How will we live together? at the Venice Architecture Biennale.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : Jun 05, 2021

Titled Stone Garden: Resilient Living, An Archaeology of the Future, Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture brings their infallible architectural beacon from home-ground to the Arsenale in Venice, as a 1:30 scale physical model of the building, comprising curated photographic prints in miniature form visible through the model’s orifices, material samples, and video montage of the building coexisting with its context in the Lebanese capital city of Beirut. Through the curation, the exhibit itself and the structure in all its being, a story of a cityscape with an immense history is woven through the combed striations on its surface, almost as if bearing a scripture on its façade, an ancient text waiting to be deciphered, and bearing witness.

  • The Stone Garden House in its context in Beirut, Lebanon, a mile away from the city port and the epicentre of the explosion that rocked the city | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    The Stone Garden House in its context in Beirut, Lebanon, a mile away from the city port and the epicentre of the explosion that rocked the city Image: © Iwan Baan
  • The structure’s otherwise unyielding façade is punctuated with voids that house vegetation as a measure of incorporating biodiversity within the structure | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    The structure’s otherwise unyielding façade is punctuated with voids that house vegetation as a measure of incorporating biodiversity within the structure Image: © Iwan Baan

Apart from the remarkable architecture of the recently completed structure that draws strongly from the notions of a re-emergent “ground” itself, the Stone Garden Housing became almost an urban legend after it survived the unfortunate explosion on August 4 generating from the city’s port, located within a mile of the structure. Thus, while looking to the future as a proposed new form of cohabitation with all forms of life, it draws its roots from the city’s war-torn past, while bearing immense significance in the present, a testament perhaps to an architectural act of resilience.

  • The Stone Garden’s interior lobby | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    The Stone Garden’s interior lobby Image: © Iwan Baan
  • The voids in the Stone Garden’s edifice, visible here from the home’s interiors, are all individually sized and dimensioned based on the vegetation they house and the views to the seaside they frame | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    The voids in the Stone Garden’s edifice, visible here from the home’s interiors, are all individually sized and dimensioned based on the vegetation they house and the views to the seaside they frame Image: © Iwan Baan

Developed almost as a sculptural response to a dynamic yet lingering cityscape, the structure has voids carved within it to house lush gardens for its residents: Ghotmeh’s interpretation of which emerges from a fancy wherein Beirut’s ruins are invaded by nature, vegetation slipping through the cracks, signifying the very emergence of life through these voids. The same voids transform into the many “windows of life” and into them at the practice’s exhibit at the la Biennale di Venezia, under the “As new households” category of the international exhibits. Offering a glimpse of staged life inside the building, the voids of the model also prove to be a voyeuristic proposition peeking into a history of Beirut and through the building itself, emerging from the ruins, quite literally.

STIR indulges in an exclusive, earnest conversation with Lina Ghotmeh on her architecture, the manifestation of “togetherness” in Stone Housing, her ties with Beirut, and the project’s journey to Venice.

  • Concept sketches for Stone Garden Housing | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    Concept sketches for Stone Garden Housing Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture
  • Lina Ghotmeh’s inspiration for the structure captured in three powerful photographs clicked by the architect, dictating the voids, form, and finish of the building | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    Lina Ghotmeh’s inspiration for the structure captured in three powerful photographs clicked by the architect, dictating the voids, form, and finish of the building Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture

Anmol Ahuja (AA): What is your literal interpretation of “Archaeology of the Future”, the name of your display at the Venice Biennale?

Lina Ghotmeh (LG): It is for me the projection of our knowledge of the past into our future doings. It also implies a cyclical relation to time rather than a linear one.

This is a concept I developed few years ago now and that inspires my atelier’s design process. The idea was born first from my fascination with the ground of Beirut, my birth town, as it is a constantly open archaeology. This made me ponder, on the one hand, on the attachment and relation we have as humans to the ground, to the earth on which live, and on the other, drove me to develop an archaeological approach to the process of making architecture. Every project becomes the occasion of a thorough research into the past, into history, and into its place in time. Architecture becomes, as a result, an “emergence” with a strong belonging to its ground. I am also quite fascinated by how the concept grew more largely, recently. It has been inspiring and has been taken on by both art and architecture in recent times.

The practice’s display at this year’s Biennale comprises a 1:30 model of the building punctuated with scaled human figures and vegetation to display its principles of co-habitation | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
The practice’s display at this year’s Biennale comprises a 1:30 model of the building punctuated with scaled human figures and vegetation to display its principles of co-habitation Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture

AA: Your notion of “togetherness” implies sharing rather than owning or consuming. While that is true for community/public spaces, how does that stand up to the very pertinent expectation of the current young population, who would prefer to be a home-owner instead?

LG: Well, I think we need a radical shift in our economic model. It is clearly more economical and ecological to share rather than to own. We are not owners of this earth but we share it with others, humans and other species. On a pragmatic note, buying a house will impose on one maintenance, management etc. and you are bound to much less flexibility; while sharing or renting would allow a better movement and flexibility in evolving as you grow. Same would apply on many things we own today. The issue is that our whole economy is based on consumption and ownership, so the definition of capital is also related to that construct. We need a whole shift in the understanding of capital, and in the thinking of a broader common. New models of living need to be made visible to allow for this shift to happen.

  • Through the model’s orifices, miniatures of photographs curated by Ghotmeh showcase the history and culture of Beirut | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    Through the model’s orifices, miniatures of photographs curated by Ghotmeh showcase the history and culture of Beirut Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture
  • The display also comprises material samples used in the construction of the building, along with a large LED screen showcasing the building standing tall amid its variable context | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    The display also comprises material samples used in the construction of the building, along with a large LED screen showcasing the building standing tall amid its variable context Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture

AA: As you state, the building is designed like an urban sculpture, and it has a monolithic, “carved” quality to it. What then inspires the placement of the voids in this monolith? Their different sizes, their locations?

LG: The monolithic and sculptural shape is a translation to some extent of the invisible urban regulation lines that shape the gabarit in which a building is inscribed in the city. When it came to openings, I wanted these to be carved, echoing hollowed buildings of Beirut. I wanted nonetheless to transform these carvings into havens of hope, inhabited by life and nature. I drew these different openings in proportional size to one another. They house different sizes of gardens according to the opening size: large trees for double height openings, planters for smaller windows, flower pots for others, and so on.

The location of the windows on the façade was driven, on the one hand, by my search of balance and harmony, some instinctive feeling of beauty; and on the other hand, by structural constraints as the building’s envelope constitutes the structure of the edifice. We calculated the repartition of charges on it which had an impact on some of the windows’ locations, and it necessitated some slight adjustments.

  • Human figurines are stated to be wandering about the staged interiors like ghosts in an “awaiting mode”, echoing the tribulations of the city | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    Human figurines are stated to be wandering about the staged interiors like ghosts in an “awaiting mode”, echoing the tribulations of the city Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture
  • The large openings housing lush gardens invite nature at the heart of the dwelling along with inviting cohabitation among all life forms | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
    The large openings housing lush gardens invite nature at the heart of the dwelling along with inviting cohabitation among all life forms Image: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture

AA: What is the inspiration behind the material choices? Do the texture of the façade, the lines, and striations on it tell a story?

LG: I wanted this building to express a strong belonging to its ground, to be an emergence, like a vertical laboured ground surface from which we see nature growing. It felt essential to invoke and include craft in the process. Like scriptures — and I love this parallel — the whole building was combed by hand with a large tool: “a building comb” I designed, and that served as a tool for the artisans to craft the building’s skin. On another note, the colour of the skin echoes the sandstone used extensively in the country, and also the iconic Raouche Rock growing in the blue Mediterranean Sea, in Beirut.

AA: Do you think the building attempts to stand out or to blend in with its current, vastly variable context? Does it still aim for timelessness?

LG: The building attempts to both blend in and stand out from its context. And that’s what I try to express through my atelier’s architecture! This is essentially the Archeology of the Future. The new déjà-la. In this sense, there is no search for style, for fashion but for a silent timelessness.

01 min watch A videographic walkthrough of Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture's exhibit at the Biennale | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
A videographic walkthrough of Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture's exhibit at the Biennale Video: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture

AA: You state that the building is built over existing ruins, and stands in a city that has been witness to immeasurable tragedy and war. This building’s shell survived the Beirut blast in 2020. Do you think that adds an additional layer of history, a sense of mythology to the building?

LG: When I designed this building, I surely had in me all the scenes of the city of Beirut after the war. Scenes I grew up with and that had marked my childhood. This building is somehow a concentration of memories; personal ones, but also those of the city and of many who live in it. Besides that, Stone Garden echoes vernacular buildings I would see in the countryside during my upbringing. It is drawn with measured windows, with no mechanical fixing on its envelope, and it measures its relation to the environment and climate.

Somehow this gave it resilience during the explosion. It was as if both its conceptual narrative and the physical relation it establishes to its environment had met and became palpable at the time of the explosion where the building acted almost like a bunker and looked immutable. The future had literally met the past at this moment. This felt mythical.

It was as if both its conceptual narrative and the physical relation it establishes to its environment had met and became palpable at the time of the explosion where the building acted almost like a bunker and looked immutable. The future had literally met the past at this moment. This felt mythical.

AA: “The building dialogues with this strange melancholic euphoria that persists within both the built and natural landscape of this town”. Did you at any point in designing consider Stone Housing to be a monument to Beirut, to Lebanon, or to its immense history?

LG: Not really, I didn’t have this intention during my design process. For a long time, this project was very intimate, and served me as an introspective venture. It was the pretext to maintain my emotional relationship with Beirut while I had my studio in Paris. It is only when it was revealed in the city that I felt it was actually able to magically speak and reflect on a lot of stories. These were able to be felt intuitively and shared with others instantaneously through the building persona.

04 mins watch The Stone Garden Housing in Beirut, co-existing with its variable yet lingering urban context | Stone Garden Housing | Lina Ghotmeh - Architecture | STIRworld
The Stone Garden Housing in Beirut, co-existing with its variable yet lingering urban context Video: Courtesy of Lina Ghotmeh – Architecture

AA: One of the visualisations for the towers shows giraffes peeping downwards through one of the voids. While that aptly portrays your intention of beings apart from humans “living together”, is there something that deeply or intrinsically demonstrates in the “real” world?

LG: Gardens are integrated in the building’s structure. Each view towards the city is framed with lush greenery, integrating biodiversity as part of the building’s structure. The planters are thought of as an integral part of the architecture of the building. Views are framed towards the "outside" by nature inviting biodiversity and hence "other" species to be part of another scale of living in the city. In that sense, architecture relates more closely to the cyclical time embedded in nature and in its transformation. The building transforms as such during seasons and reminds us of the interconnection we have with climate and with its impact on the living world. It is also worth noting how vegetation beautifully resisted the blast power of the 4th of August. While glass was completely shattered, plants where still rooted in their ground, proving the resilience of nature itself above all.

STIRring Together:
Curated as a series of thoughtful engagements that enhance the contemporary debate and discussion on architecture, the STIRring Together series introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. Tracing the various adaptations and following the multitude of perspectives, the series carefully showcases some incredible projects and exhibits, highlighting the diversity and many discourses of the show.

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