A prototype for restoration: Annabel Karim Kassar's 'The Lebanese House' at the V&A

The exhibition is a reaction to the damage caused by the 2020 Beirut explosion, with architects and artists seeking to preserve the cultural and social identity of the historic city.

by Dhwani ShanghviPublished on : Sep 25, 2022

The Lebanese House: Saving a Home; Saving a City at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is a reaction to the damage caused by the 2020 explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, that wiped out huge parts of the ancient port city. In the aftermath of the explosion, architects and artists are seeking to preserve the cultural and social identity of the multi-cultural historic city.

  • Bayt K, main room reverse view | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Bayt K, main room reverse view Image: Colombe Clier
  • Bayt K, open doors in a quiet room | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Bayt K, open doors in a quiet room Image: Colombe Clier
  • Bayt K, second floor corridor | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Bayt K, second floor corridor Image: Colombe Clier

French-born Lebanese architect, Annabel Karim Kassar, illustrates this path of deterioration, and subsequent reconstruction through a partial life-sized installation of Bayt K, a project she believes can serve as a model to inspire a contemporary interpretation of Beirut’s architectural past through the process of restoration. Located in the historic quarter of Gemmayzeh, the bohemian art capital of Beirut, Bayt K is a 19th century-traditional Lebanese home, which was restored by the architect in 2017 as part of the Beirut Design Week. The exhibition, titled Handle with Care, stressed the importance of the conservation of this Ottoman-Venetian quarter that fell prey to an unrestrained commercial boom following the Lebanese Civil War. The 2022 exhibition at the V&A is an implicit extension of the former, with an added agenda to mobilise local and international communities for direct action in order to protect a shared urban heritage.

  • Bayt K, blue scaffolding from inside | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Bayt K, blue scaffolding from inside Image: Colombe Clier
  • Bayt K, staircase detail | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Bayt K, staircase detail Image: Colombe Clier

The reconstructed façade of Bayt K is the focal point of the installation, designed with a modernist vocabulary, in cohesion with the details and craftsmanship of traditional Ottoman and Venetian cultures. Alongside the installation is Kassar’s interpretation of the traditional Liwan - an intimate salon space that occupies the typically substantial area of the entrance hall in a Lebanese home. Simultaneously, a digital archive delineates archetypal elements of the Lebanese house, which includes painted ceilings, cornices, balconies, timber trusses etc. Three documentary films affiliated with the aftermath of the explosion are commissioned to be screened in association with the installation, which highlights the emotional implications of the accident through a series of interviews. The directors, Wissam Charaf and Florence Strauss analyse a cross-section of communities and throw light on the damage caused to private and public spaces, both old and new.

  • The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    The Lebanese House: Saving a Home; Saving a City at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar Image: Ed Reeve
  • The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar Image: Ed Reeve

Central to the exhibit is the 'triple arcade', a replica of the façade at Bayt K that is composed of three pointed arches, fronting an arcade. The original arcade is a manifestation of the influence of a Venetian aesthetic (a result of the wide-spanning Venetian trading empire) on an Ottoman vernacular. A combination of pointed arches, traceries, rich colours and painted ceilings in stone, metal, and decorated ceramic respectively reflects the cohesive amalgamation of two cultural identities. The installation replicates this idea through a re-interpreted use of materials - like stone metal, glass, and timber. Detailed by Beiruti craftsmen, it serves as a model to understand the significance of traditional craft overlaid on a contemporary interpretation of historic elements, albeit a literal one.

The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar Image: Ed Reeve

Kassar believes, "that restoration is not about recreating a synthetic history but about finding a new, living purpose for traditional buildings”. The installation, however, in its attempt to express historic significance through duplication of the original façade, fails to draw light on questions of nostalgic and literal replicas, that lie outside the process of restoration and are mindlessly re-appropriated for new constructions as well. The Lebanese House: Saving a Home; Saving a City is a campaign to understand the significance of urban heritage, through the analysis of a single unit within a whole. Kassar believes that the deterioration of singular units can cause a collective loss, the corollary to which is - that saving a single unit can save a whole.

The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
View of The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar Image: Ed Reeve

She explains, “Following the devastating 2020 explosion, Beirut’s architectural heritage – Phoenician, Classical, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian – is in grave peril. We are honoured to be invited by the V&A to draw attention to the potential loss of our collective cultural and design heritage should Beirut’s glorious architecture be allowed to deteriorate any further. We believe that by saving a building, you can save a city." The installation, therefore, serves as a prototype to understand the process of restoration, by finding new meanings and purposes for traditional buildings.

  • Photo Caption | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Installation view of The Lebanese House at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar Image: Ed Reeve
  • Photo Caption | The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar | Victoria and Albert Museum | London Design Festival 2022 | STIRworld
    Detail view of the The Lebanese House installation at the V&A by Annabel Karim Kassar Image: Ed Reeve

The Lebanese House: Saving a Home; Saving a City has been on display at the V&A since June. The exhibition was extended to be on display till September 25, 2022, and was presented as part of the London Design Festival 2022.
Click here to know everything about London Design Festival 2022. Celebrating its 20th year, the festival takes over the city of London with installations, exhibitions, and talks from major design districts such as Brompton, Shoreditch Design Triangle, Greenwich Peninsula, Design London, Clerkenwell Design Trail, Park Royal, Mayfair, Bankside, King's Cross, William Morris Line, and Islington.

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