by Anmol AhujaJun 05, 2021
There are things that make you mull and theorise and then there are things that pop out and pierce all your insides, without notice, making you feel so deeply you forget to think. Consider a poem that comes hammering down at your being – with real nails beyond visceral word-work. The pages turn, they are hollowed as are hearts, screaming of invisible blood and tears oozing out of every pore and crater. A film rolls by, silent and strong, and in a blink you are back to the Beirut port blasts, drowning in Disintegration.
The installation is part of Beirut Shifting Grounds, a two-year research project featured in the Co-Habitats section at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021. The project presents public life in a country reeling under constant war and political unrest, a downhill economy, the pandemic and then the Lebanon blasts last year. Interestingly, this time has seen a strong uprise in the streets, with unprecedented protests and collective grassroot mobilisation.
In this scenario, the research sets out on Biennale curator Hashim Sarkis' quest – “How will we live together?” by soaking the streets and documenting these through four parallel narratives. Of these, one of the most significant is The Human Lens, made of four short films that tell stories of pain, outrage and revolution through powerful poetry and experimental engagement. The team comprises select researchers – Rana Haddad, Sandra Frem, Boulos Douaihy, Carla Aramouny and Nicolas Fayad – in collaboration with academic institutions from around the world.
As I watch these, I am reminded in an instant of some important creative dedications to Beirut in the past, such as the poem Palimpsest City by Zeina Hashim Beck, as well as artist Nada Sehnaoui’s installation of 600 toilet seats in downtown Beirut in memory of 15 years of the Lebanese War (1975-1990). The bath was the biggest place of hiding, shelter, refuge. In 2009, Rayyane Tabet created a board-game, How to play Beirut, which superimposed the layout of beer ping-pong over the original map used by Marines. Holes were cut in the table to hold beer glasses, introducing crater-like scars into the city map.
In STIRring Together, an original series bringing the best from the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, here’s wondering what it took Haddad, who is an Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut and Co-Founder of studio 200 Grs, to nail an important message from her city’s blast-torn streets.
Soumya Mukerji (SM): At what point does grief become poetry?
Rana Haddad (RH): When pain and grief feel like fiction, when it gets to be so unbearable to a point that your brain refuses to assimilate what is going on. We are still unable to grieve, we need justice!
SM: Lebanon is a country shaped by resilience since its very birth, with no end to wars and upheavals. What feeling does that word evoke?
RH: Being resilient does not serve us well anymore. It became a curse… by being resilient and helping each other in rebuilding the city, cooking for the less fortunate, reconstructing houses, fixing walls, finding clothing and furniture etc., we are, in fact, accepting our fate. This act in itself will allow for the people in power to stay in power, since we are doing all the work that any respected government should assure and provide to any citizen! Somehow our actions are making us get used to what is happening and accepting it, which in itself is an outrage!
SM: The silent streets hold more power than an explosion. Your views.
RH: Beirut is still not able to grasp what happened, even though it's already a year that the blast took place!
You can see it, you can feel it at every little corner…this loud silence that fills your ears with a tinnitus-like sound of the 38 seconds.
As a down-to-earth example: One of the things that made Beirut and that this blast – on top of all – erased, is a simple mundane gesture: a smile! Lebanese by nature are very cordial and generous people. While walking down the streets, they will always greet you and smile to you. A smile from a stranger used to remind you that kindness is everything and could keep you well all day long. Not anymore!
SM: You have not used a single image from the blast to allude to the event yet creating a powerful impression through the installations. Is literal imagery overrated?
RH: Literal images are more than overrated to a point that we don't see it anymore, yet the scar in each and every Lebanese will never leave us. The whole point of such work is to try and share the depth of such an impact on each and every one of us.
It was a very hard challenge that I have set to myself, I hope it works.
SM: Two things are said to change one forever – adversity and tragedy. How can these be put to the best use in a practice such as design?
RH: I often said that Beirut made me. It ripped me from my childhood, not the other way round, and now again it took everything left of me…still I believe that the way I resist is through design. Design in this case, is my everyday weapon in fighting corruption, sectarianism, oppression, ignorance, etc., propelling a positive image of Beirut against all odds.
One can transform constraints into creativity and challenge oneself. It is a defence mechanism. Beirut has been at war since I was born and never stopped. The only change is that now it is a different kind of war. From material destruction to a full economic destruction that is way more harmful.
SM: What do we see on the streets every day and yet fail to see?
RH: We tend to take for granted what makes a city, any city for that matter. The streets replicate the practice of our daily lives, our social and urban dynamics. Everyday practices that people take for granted become part of our landscape. Most of the people don’t observe while they walk the streets, they just look for landmarks to get from one point to another. The specificity of Beirut is in its informalities. They shape it and make us.
What makes you a city dweller is the moment when you start building a relationship with your city. Defining your own landmarks, creating your own routines, getting your own spots, building up towards common memories…
SM: How did these nuances come to be a focal point for you?
RH: When I came back to Lebanon after finishing my studies at the AA (Architectural Association, London), I realised that students joining the school of architecture were always referring to Paris, London, Berlin, NYC…but never once to Beirut. That made me very curious. It turned out to be that they simply never got to practice Beirut. That drove me to come up with a trans-disciplinary public installations’ workshop that picks up on what makes Beirut and makes the news on that day or month. Where firstly and most importantly one starts observing to distinguish everything and get to have enough curiosity to want to know more about each and every practice. Beirut’s beauty is in its ugliness.
I also felt the need to share the public installations that I have been using as a trigger for citizens to claim their rights. These interventions track the perpetual modification of the city's face, they map out the city’s evolution in their own way, such as imposing total amnesia, putting an end to social practices, shutting down cultural centers, and demolishing historical landmark buildings, etc.
Beirut’s beauty is in its ugliness. – Rana Haddad
SM: Weaving a design with words vis-à-vis creating from tangible material. Your thoughts on form, fluidity and function in this regard.
RH: It is like any design project. Its complexity leads to its simplicity. The fluidity paves the way, bringing everything together effortlessly, despite the hardness and crazy hours of hammering the nails, stitching the book together, getting the ink and leave an imprint on each and every page, in each and every citizen, in each and every street… it is the combination that allows the message to go across.
SM: Iron, paper, pixel is a rare combination of mediums. How did these come to you as the apt manifestation for the project, especially with respect to Disintegration ?
RH: I don’t think, I do, then I think. In making, I express myself.
The medium shifts according to each context, to each topic that needs to be addressed. Shifting medium allows one to explore and go out of one’s comfort zone. Shifting medium is liberating.
SM: Out of the four installations – Pause, Interruption, Grassroots and Disintegration – which one was the toughest to create, and why?
RH: Disintegration, it goes without saying. How to attempt to share such an overwhelming event through certain aesthetics…I would like to share here a comment that we got on the Instagram group:
SM: One of the most intriguing installations in the Pause series is Piiiiissssst, that packs the struggle for survival and escape into a moving suitcase with protruding human limbs. One secret behind the piece that no one knows is…
RH:That despite the fact that we were deliberately locked down, that we could only move backwards, and that anyone could drag us and hurt us, (if one wishes to), we were in power, controlling the audience by simply being there with our limbs outside. The absurdity of having a human being in a piece of luggage was too much to grasp by the audience. To an extent that someone actually pinched my colleague to check if he is real!
SM: What is design’s role in shaping dignity for public life?
RH: By being informative, interrogative, provocative, respectful, pedagogical…but mostly by being about the other and not the self!
Beirut Shifting Grounds, research project led by Sandra Frem and Boulos Douaihy in collaboration with ArD/ AUB faculty Rana Haddad, Carla Aramouny, Nicolas Fayad and Joanne Hayek may be currently viewed in Venice as well as online in the Co-Habitats Section of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia curated by Hashim Sarkis.
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.